Beautiful! Marea del Portillo has me hooked
Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, in the Granma region of Cuba, has tenderly hooked my heart. I ended up there by fluke, not knowing that others from my home community of Muskoka had already discovered this small gem and had been visiting annually for several years. I certainly understand why people return again and again, as I have begun doing.
The affordability of this modest Sunwing-operated resort was the initial attraction for me, as I’m sure it is for many budget-conscious travelers. Before going to Club Amigo Marea del Portillo (MdP) for the first time in 2009, I’d never been to Cuba, or to an all-inclusive resort, and I was a bit apprehensive. But, the price was right and the reviews I read reassured me that this was a safe place and not a big party zone – I didn’t want to spend my vacation dodging drunks. I wanted to indulge in a variety of outdoor activities, and to soak up some saltwater and sun. MdP fulfilled my requirements and exceeded my expectations. I am most decidedly hooked.
Last year (2009), I visited in April with one amiga, then in October with four, for only a week each time. I’ve just returned from my third visit, this time on my own for two glorious weeks, April 22-May 6, but it was not enough. I am in no danger of tiring of this laid-back resort and the surrounding community. I’m already planning my next two-week cultural immersion and, this time, I want to take a posse of pals and show them why this humble little place is so special to me.
I think it’s sometimes easier to show people than to tell them why a place is special but I’ll try to explain. Perhaps I should start with the negatives, as in what MdP is NOT. It’s not a party-down dude, drink ‘til you drop kind of resort but, if you want, you can do that. It’s not a place for pull-out-all-the-stops pampering but you can get your nails done and have a nice, relaxing massage. It’s not perfect but, to me, it’s perfectly wonderful.
Why is it so wonderful? Let’s start with the setting. The scenic beauty of the area is second to none. The historic and majestic Sierra Maestra mountains tower above the eastern lip of the horseshoe bay, stalling the sun’s rise. One of my favorite morning activities was to stroll the few meters from my cabana to the beach – out the back door, essentially – and to float in the gently undulating ocean as I watched the sun come up. The beach in front of the hotel complex is well tended, cleaned each and every morning, and monitored most of the day by a core of fit-looking lifeguards. The bay itself is generally quite safe for swimming and the shoreline is interesting to hike along and explore.
More adventurous pursuits than hiking are also possible, such as kayaking in the mangrove at the far end of the bay. Elier, my favorite sail master (he and several others provide very fun rides on the resort’s catamarans), said I should look for manatees, or sea cows, grazing in the mangrove...maybe I’ll see one on my next visit. I would highly recommend going out on a catamaran on a windy day, if you want a rippin’ ride and don’t mind getting splashed. When it’s not so windy, you can have still have a nice time sailing, or you may want to take a kayak out and tour about.
I should also mention there are numerous other activities available, from horseback riding to poolside bingo, should you choose to participate. And, every evening, there’s an enjoyable variety show, featuring a cadre of engaging entertainers and skilled local dancers and singers, such as Robertico, a perennial crowd pleaser. Entertainment manager Ricardo Buzzy consistently puts together a well-rounded professional show, although that can be a challenge due to equipment limitations. Most nights, the resort’s top-notch house band, Integracion Sonora, delights music aficionados and encourages dancing. (For a sample of their performances, a Google search of the band’s name, or that of their phenomenal lead guitarist, Gerardo Caldosa, will lead you to some YouTube clips.)
Everything I’ve written so far, however, is really just about the physical reasons why this resort a winner in my books. All those reasons would not be enough to hook my heart. The vital ingredient that makes Marea del Portillo a truly exceptional place, in my opinion, is the people. The resort staff works extremely hard to make sure all guests are well served and happy. If you address a complaint to Elena de Moya, Sunwing’s on-site representative, she will do what she can to rectify the perceived problem and will follow up with the complainant later.
Last fall, for instance, the buffet was suffering – many people say “don’t go to Cuba for the food,” which is unfair but, truly, the food quality was slipping badly at that time. Numerous people voiced concern to Elena and, in short order, there was noticeable improvement. This year, I’m pleased to report, the food was the best ever in my trio of visits. There was something for every palate, plenty of options at each meal, and visible attention paid to presentation. And, I want to point out, it’s not easy to meet North American culinary expectations in an isolated, impoverished rural region where food is not always readily accessible. Compared to what is available for the people living in the area, we tourists are fed like kings.
Regarding the food, my only suggestion to the resort management would be that more traditional Cuban food be offered on a daily basis, such as dishes made with goat meat. That’s what the locals eat, so why can’t it be a staple on the buffet? There is no shortage of goats!
Getting to know the local people has been the most rewarding and important part of my whole Marea del Portillo experience; they have touched my soul. The resort team is reliably helpful and friendly but, beyond the resort’s fenceless boundaries, the people are typically the same – warm, welcoming and wonderful. Even though you are an alien on their home turf, they make you feel comfortable and accepted with a simple smile and nod or by offering you some fresh fruit or a beverage. If you make an effort to have a conversation and take the time to get acquainted, you will likely see sincere curiosity sparkling in your new friend’s eyes.
Social interactions of all types sparkle in Cuba and, certainly, there’s no lack of flirtatious behavior. However, in my experience, Cuban men are rarely pushy or overbearing. They are generally much more respectful than many North American men. You will know you’re being admired but you don’t need to worry about being harmed, unless you’re allergic to the flower someone hands you as you walk by. For me, that’s just added entertainment.
One evening in October, when my friend Maykel (one of the entertainers) was gregariously flirting with a circle of amigas clustered around a pod of pushed-together tables by the pool, he commented, “Cuban men think all women are beautiful.” Of course, we all smiled, which I assumed was the goal. Now, after my third visit, I see more truth in the line than I originally did. During my recent, longer sojourn, I was able to wade more deeply into the culture and do more people watching. I observed that women of all ages, sizes and nationalities are warmly greeted and flirted with in a polite, sweet style that inspires smiles. It’s harmless fun. It’s good for the ego.
When one is gently encouraged to feel beautiful, it’s easy to comply. It’s easy to smile. That’s not the primary reason I will keep returning to this warm land, and to the special place known as Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, but it’s a nice perk. The resort staff encourages guests to view it as their “second home,” and most returnees seem to do just that – women, men and children. I feel very much at home there, completely relaxed and happy, and it’s obvious that many other individuals and families feel the same; the return rate is phenomenal. Some Canadians I met have been going there for decades, often several times a year.
When I’m there, I can’t stop smiling. When I’m there, I feel beautiful. I think you will too. When you go, say hello to everyone for me – including the goats!