Coffee and Chocolate Making

Coffee coffee coffee, to quote one of my favourite tv shows (you should say it really fast to replicate it well). While I can live without my coffee (not chocolate, that I need or I turn into a wailing she-b***h), the ritual of drinking it is well ingrained in me, and finding out how it’s grown, roasted and ground is fascinating (to me).

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A farm along the drive

While at the typical house on our Monkey Land excursion out of Punta Cana, we got a quick tour of a small, local coffee plantation, and also got to learn about chocolate.  So basically, if they had grown strawberries as well, it would have been my ultimate place to be.

We arrived around 10 a.m. at the ‘typical house’ as it’s styled on the excursion site. We were given a brief tour of the house, before heading onto the farm to get a crash course in coffee and chocolate.

I’d been on a coffee tour years ago in Costa Rica, so I was familiar with the process. Coffee ‘cherries’ are picked and then spread out in the sun to dry for 2 to 3 weeks. After that, they’re milled – in Dominican Republic, they’re put into a large vessel and pounded with  a club – sort of like a giant mortar and pestle. After that, they’re roasted, ground….and you get to brew it for delicious, delicious coffee.

I had had a similar indoctrination to harvesting chocolate while in Cuba (Baracoa- great chocolate if you happen to get down that way). Chocolate is harvested much the same. Cocoa pods grow on trees, in a variety of colours (green, brown, red), but once the pods turn yellow – they’re ripe. They’re picked, and opened to reveal…..weird alien looking, gooey insides that no one in their right mind should ever have tasted.

But you can – the white seeds inside taste faintly sweet when you suck on them (bitter, if you bite on them). But, that’s not chocolate. The white seeds are fermented, dried, and then roasted.

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Ready to eat the powdered chocolate

At that point – you can eat it. It’s the purest form of dark chocolate. So, pretty much bitter, but…..oh my god, still good.

At the typical house we were at, they put the roasted cocoa beans into a grinder (much like coffee), mix in a little cinnamon and brown sugar (both organic) and voila! Tasty, sweet chocolate. (Before they could afford grinders, they used to rub the roasted bean on a grater to create the chocolate powder.)

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What caused all the problems at security

We ended up buying a package of both the coffee (in bean form, since we have a grinder at home), and the powdered chocolate. And of course, we got pulled over at security in the airport because the bags sent of the xray machine. And then of course, no one spoke English and we don’t speak much Spanish (beyond ordering drinks and asking where the bathroom is), so the security guy had to poke a hole in the bag to get a good smell….thankfully it was the coffee bean bag, so I didn’t end up with chocolate covered everything by the time I got home.

 

 

Monkeying Around at Monkey Land

One thing I’ll give resorts is that they’re a lot like hostels, in that people talk to one another more than they do at hotels. You sit down in the lobby to check wifi, you start chatting. You sit down at lunch, you start staring at the crowing peacocks, look over at the person at the next table, and start talking. You go to the beach bar for a nightcap, and you…well if you’re me, you try to read a book, but people start talking to you.

Which is how we ended up chatting with people at a bar one night (they flagged us down to ask if we were from Holland. Which we’re not, for the record.)

They had booked a tour to Monkey Land before leaving home, and told us a bit about it. You hold a small bowl of food, and the monkeys come over and climb over you, jump on you, and just generally have a lot of fun playing around. This was about all the information we got – they weren’t even sure at that point what the name was – they thought it was on an island, in fact. So the next day we googled ‘monkey excursion punta cana’ and…voila. Monkey Land.

We booked online, and had no way to print the paypal receipt, but I screenshot the email, and that’s what we used when we were picked up. We had no problem with not having a paper receipt.

Runners Adventures picks you up in a new, well taken care of vehicle, and drives you to a meeting point (which happened to be just across from the dune buggies). From there, people climb into the correct vehicle (I guess occasionally, they have different vehicles pick up people from resorts in other locations) and off you go. The road at first is smooth, but eventually we pulled off onto a very bumpy back road.

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Through the mountain pass to Monkey Land we go

From there, we wound our way through the mountains, before stopping at another typical house. Unlike our tour with the dune buggies, this one was more informative, with information on growing, harvesting, and roasting both coffee and cacao. Then it was another sales pitch and sample of the coffee and hot chocolate, before we were on our way again to Monkey Land.

At Monkey Land we were given a short “do’s and don’ts” list – don’t panic, don’t pet the monkeys, do allow them to use you as a climbing post, and then we headed into the monkeys’ enclosure.

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The enclosure walls

The enclosure is pretty huge – the monkeys have more than ample room to play, run around, and live. There are sides, but no ceiling/roof, and there is plenty of vegetation. The monkeys are squirrel monkeys – they’re pretty small, about 2lbs full grown, so when they jump on you, you’re aware of it, but it doesn’t knock you over. They were even-tempered, playful, and very interested in our food bowls.

Once inside, we were handed a small metal bowl filled with peanuts, cucumber, bananas, melons, apples…lots of different fruit. We were lined up again a railing, underneath a tree, and the monkeys ran over to pick through our bowls for whatever treat they wanted. They climbed over us, stood on us, jumped on us…and it was the cutest thing ever.

After  a few minutes, we walked down to a scenic lookout for photos, and more monkey mugging, and then around to a massive tree that the monkeys sleep in.  Again, we were lined up for the monkeys to climb over, and after that it was back out of the enclosure.

All in all, we spent about a half hour in the enclosure, asking our guide a few questions, taking pictures, and getting lots of monkey loving.

Punta Cana: Caribe Club Princess Review

This is our third attempt at an all-inclusive vacation, although I’m not sure if the first one counts. Our first foray into the world of resorts was in Cuba – we spent 2 weeks backpacking around on our own, before ending at a resort for a week. We took a taxi across the causeway to Cayo Coco, arrived at the hotel, and then spent a week trying to relax on the beach, while wishing that we were still out on the main island.

And after that, we went to Jamaica, where we were a little spoiled. We travelled with Westjet, who had a representative meet us at the gate, and show us to the lounge sponsered by our resort (Couples). The 5-star resort itself was lovely – small, quiet, adult-only, and they had a no tipping policy.

This year, after a hectic ride through Botswana and Zimbabwe, we decided to do a week in Dominican Republic at a resort. We went middle of the road – not the cheapest package we found, but not the most expensive either. It fit our criteria – on the beach, food available nearly 24/7, and relatively good reviews. We booked the resort, and an excursion, through our travel agent, thinking to have everything paid up front so that we didn’t have to worry about cost after the fact (and those costs skyrocketing as they are wont to when I get to researching destinations).

So here’s the thing. The all-inclusive resort thing doesn’t work for us. I know lots of people who it does work for – and everytime they talk about their trips I get this vision of relaxing on a beach, no worries in sight, everything taken care of…..and then I go on an all inclusive vacation and things just fall apart like paper towels in the bath tub.

So here’s how it went down.

We arrived to a quiet terminal in Punta Cana with only our fellow plane mates milling around at the carousels. We found ourselves with a porter (which turned out to be very helpful) who grabbed our “it’s a very small green bag” bag, and then led us quickly through the airport to our bus. (Instead of us wandering around trying to determine which bus out of the many there was the one we needed to be on.) A bit of waiting later (not everyone was lucky enough to have a porter like ours), we were off for the resorts.

So far so good, right? And it was. We checked in super quick, jumped on the shuttle, waited a beat to see if anyone else was joining us, then took a mad dash through the resort to our room.

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Shuttle on the resort

Where the toilet didn’t work. Where the safe didn’t work. Where the balcony didn’t lock, even though we were on the first floor. We called reception, who had someone there within 5 minutes (good) but who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the safe, so we had to wait for reception to reset the code (bad). This means that we missed dinner at the buffet, which ended at 10:30, and couldn’t eat until the snack grill opened at 11 pm.

The rest of the stay was in a similar mode – we’d have some good, and then we’d have some bad. Because our room was incredibly loud (on the first floor, right by a shuttle stop) we asked at front desk if we could change rooms. The first person we talked to was a little rude, the second  (in the afternoon) was much happier. A few days later, we got great service when asking about a comfort room to use on the last day (our flight wasn’t until the evening, and check out was at noon), but then when I asked to  make a local phone call from the front desk (after our excursion company didn’t pick us up) I got a “I’m just scratching my face” middle finger. Or we would get great service at the Lobby Bar, but at the swim up bar we’d put in an order, and never get our drinks.

And it didn’t stop there. The food was mediocre at best – either over-cooked, or under-cooked, rarely done right (the exception being the roast chicken).  Or very few veggie dishes available or very few meat dishes available. Some mornings servers were on the ball, and we had coffee refills really quickly, other mornings it was like no one was working and even that first cup of coffee was like a pipe dream.

Our room would be cleaned well, with the towels refreshed, but the shower not cleaned. The sheets on the bed were crisp and white….but the bottom sheet didn’t reach the end of the bed; there was a good two inches were our feet were touching the mattress cover (removable and washable, so maybe it was clean).

Resort rules weren’t enforced, so people would reserve loungers on the beach, or around the pools, either the night before or early in the morning. If you didn’t get up by 8 am, and reserve a lounger before breakfast, you’d be out of luck until close to 4 pm when the sun worshippers headed back to their rooms. The dress code for the buffet was theoretically no beachwear, but you’d see guests in fishnet bikini covers. Now I realize that the resort can’t control all the behaviour of the guests, but having someone go around the remove towels from reserved loungers when they’re putting them back in place at night would a start to making a more enjoyable stay for others.

And all of that is why I don’t think I’m a resort person. I want a bit more variety – in food, in drinks, in things to see and do; I want to be able to take a stance on bad service by not giving them more money, and finding another hotel/restaurant/bar.

Least I leave you thinking I’m a whiny, elitist traveller, let me focus on the good. The beach was fantastic. A long crescent of white sand, it stretched in either direction (we were in the middle of the crescent). The waves were fantastic – I don’t know if it’s an always thing with Punta Cana, or a result of the wind while we were there (it was fairly windy the entire week), but we had crashing white-water waves to play in the entire time. We had bright, sunny weather the entire week, with a few rain showers at opportune times – at 4:30 for an hour or so, or overnight.

The resort is populated by birds – from the peafowl (2 peacocks and at least 6 peahens), to herons, ducks and geese, it’s a birdwatchers paradise. The staff fill feed bowls for the birds, ensuring that there are plenty around to entertain the guests. As a bonus, we were there shortly after hatching, so we saw so.many.babies!

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the resort (or its sister resort, Tropical Princess) simply for the staff’s cavalier attitude towards guests.

No Problem! Jamaica Resort Styling.


Our Guatemala trip was great, but didn’t include a lot of beach time, and was a little stressful, trying to find bus stations, buying tickets, waiting for buses, etc etc etc.  Plus the Ottawa winter was brutal, so we decided that we’d take a few days off around Easter and go somewhere warm and relaxing.


Which is how we ended up at a resort in Jamaica.


We did a resort after backpacking around Cuba last year, so this wasn’t our first resort stay, but it was the first trip where the resort was the entire trip.  We had 6 days – which means we really only had 4 days at the resort, as the first and last days were transit.


At the couples lounge

We booked in at Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, with WestJet Vacations.  Upon exiting customs in Jamaica (no passport stamp alas), we immediately saw a WestJet Representative, who showed us to the Couples Lounge, where we waited for other travellers who would be sharing our shuttle.  The lounge featured real washrooms, as well as a bar where cold beer, and cold water were served, with a smile and some chit-chat with the bartender. 


The ride to the resort was about 2 hours – which we had been advised about earlier by our travel agent, so we weren’t surprised or upset.  Since it was just after 7, it was too dark to get an idea of what the island looked like.  (No matter, we figured we would see it on our way back to the airport in a few days) 


View from the room

We arrived at the resort, were quickly checked-in, and told that all the restaurants closed in a half-hour, so if we wanted food we’d have to be quick (only they phrased it much nicer than that.)  Luckily, the buffet was still open, so we were led there, and we filled plates with food and had a nice (if somewhat quick) dinner.  After that it was off to our room (with a king-size bed), where we unloaded our bags and washed our faces, before heading to the piano bar, to have a drink or two, read our books, and unwind after our flights.


The next morning we finally got our first view of the resort – while Tower Isle does have a small beach (if you’re someone who likes long walks on the beach, this is most definitely not the resort for you), it was well-kept, with plenty of shady spots, and enough lounges that we never had much trouble finding two that were free.  Additionally, the beach never felt crowded, although small it was adequate for the size of the resort.  The water was a lovely turquoise colour, and we nearly immediately jumped in…after our breakfast of course.  (I need me some coffee in the a.m.)


Relaxing in the water

We lounged for the most part of our trip, enjoying the sun and warmth, as well as the waves (the isle acts as a break, so the waves don’t get very big).  The resort offers a variety of activities – catamaran tours, hobie cat rides, snorkeling, scuba diving, as well as beach activities like volleyball.  There are also two rings floating out in the water for guests to relax in.  

The beach itself has plenty of shade – either from the palms, or from triangles of fabric rigged up between the trees above the lounges.  We found we had the perfect blend of shade to sun.  That isn’t to say that we didn’t end up with sunburns – after an Ottawa winter, anyone would.

At Dunn’s River Falls

Our second day, though, we headed out on the Dunn’s River Falls tour.  The resort has shuttles to take you to the park, and they also handle the entrance fee.  All you need is money for any souvenirs you want to buy, as well as to tip your guide. 


It was nicely shaded along the waterfall, so we didn’t need to worry about sunglasses.  You do need to worry about watershoes, though – you are anywhere from ankle deep to thigh deep in water, and in places you’re walking along a river bed, with sharp rocks.  Other places the rocks are smooth and could be slippery.  They urge you to hold hands as you walk up, which just made me feel like I was going to fall, so I let go and climbed as I normally would.  You walk along, pausing in places for photos (which they later try to sell you a DVD of).  In one spot, they let you slide down a small portion, in another they push you backwards into a deep pool.  At times it looked incredibly steep, and I though “Oh, I don’t think I can do this”, but honestly it was more bark than bite – it wasn’t nearly as difficult as it appeared.


Sunset over the resort

Back on the resort, we had decided to have dinner at the non-reservation restaurant – Verandah, which served Jamaican fare.  We thought the food was incredible, and the atmosphere was very nice.  The next night we had a reservation at Eight Rivers, which we had read a lot of reviews for.  However, we found the food not quite as good as it had been the night before at Verandah.  It was still good, it just didn’t live up to expectations.  Our final night we had dinner at the Asian-themed restaurant, Bayside, which is located in several pavilions overlooking the bay.  It was a little dim, and with the waves crashing underneath it was a little difficult to have conversation.  Nonetheless, the atmosphere was romantic, and the food good.


The one notable about the food at the buffet was that they had clearly labelled gluten-free desserts and bread available.  I didn’t enquire into the other food, but based on that labelling, I would assume that the staff could identify which foods were GF and which weren’t.  There were also lots of vegetarian options (including a veggie bar that was open during the day, serving veggie sandwiches, smoothies and salads.)  it really seemed like they were trying to cater to multiple diets and allergies.

Since we were there over Easter, the resort had a treat in store for us on Easter Sunday.  For lunch, along with the usual buffet, we had a Jamaican BBQ on the beach, complete with jerk chicken and coconut drinks (with rum to taste.)  Then they had a kids’ marching band play – down across the beach, up the dock and back.  These kids were amazing – besides being incredibly talented at their instruments, there was also a brief dance portion, where they encouraged the guests to come out and dance as well – without forcing anyone who felt uncomfortable to get up and boogie.  

Overall our stay at the resort was great.  The staff were very friendly, the food plentiful and filling, and the beach great for relaxing.  I’d go back in a heartbeat….if there weren’t a million places to visit first.

Cuba Trip Report

So the BF and I decided to once again hit the skies and vacation in the south (Cuba) over Christmas and New Years.  The way the holidays fell, and the flight pricing went, we left on December 21 and returned on January 11So we planned to spend two weeks visiting Cuban cities, before we ended our trip with a week at an all-inclusive resort.
Let me just say – I had never (up until this trip) been to an all-inclusive resort.  I never thought it was really my “thing”.  How would I entertain myself for a week in one spot?  Lounging on the beach is great for a day or two, but….7 whole days of it?  Yikes.  
The timeline:
December 21 – 25 – Havana
December 26 – 29 – Baracoa
December 30 – 31 – Santiago
January 1 – 2 – Camaguey
January 2 – 3 – Trinidad
January 4 – 11 – Cayo Guillermo
Transport

Taxis in Havana
We flew Westjet into Varadero – flights from Canada (we flew out of Montreal) are a lot cheaper to fly into a resort destination.  We met a young couple from Belgium/France (heading to Trinidad) and shared a taxi (10CUC each) into Varadero City.  We didn’t see (or couldn’t find) a shuttle bus going to Havana that we could buy a ride off.  In Varadero, my boyfriend and I got a taxi to Havana for 80CUC.
From Havana we flew to Baracoa.  We booked our tickets via Cubajet.com – we never did get our e-tickets, or a confirmation email, but we called them once we were in Havana (have patience, it can take a while to get through) and confirmed we were on the flight.  The flight itself was quick and easy – it was a twin propeller plane (for Canadians, think Porter), and took about 1.5 – 2 hours.
Baracoa – Santiago, we used Viazul.  We booked tickets through the Transgaviota office in Baracoa (no commission fee) the day before.  The bus was half empty, so we had lots of room to spread out.  It took about 5 hours, and departed/arrived on schedule.

Santiago – Camaguey, we used Viazul again.  This time we booked tickets through the Havanatur office in Cespedes Square, and paid a 2CUC (total) commission fee.  The ride was longer, taking about 7.5 hours, and again it departed/arrived on schedule.
 

Street in Camaguey

Camaguey – Trinidad, we hired a taxi.  Initially we were quoted a price of 150CUC, but settled on 135CUC.  We probably could have gotten a lower price.  We ended up in a well-taken care of Lada (with good shocks) – it took us 3.5 hours, and the driver helped us find a casa in Trinidad.
Trinidad – Cayo Guillermo, we hired a taxi again (the husband of our casa owner) and paid 130CUC for the ride, taking about 4 hours.
From Cayo Guillermo, we took a airline shuttle bus (10CUC each) to the airport at Cayo Coco and flew to Toronto.
Lodging

The first night we were booked into a high-end hotel.  While it was ok, it felt a little remote from “the real Cuba” – it was basically the city equivalent of the beach resorts.  It didn’t help that it was 6km west of the city centre in Miramar.  However, it was just for the one night, and the next day we headed into Havana Vieja to the casa particular that we had booked.
After that we stayed in casas the entire way.  We pre-booked our Havana casa via havanacasaparticular.com, which we found recommended on LonelyPlanet’s ThornTree.  Our reservation wasn’t passed on to the owner, though, so she had no idea we were arriving (and had rented out the room.)  Lesson:  Always call in advance!  She helped us find another casa in the neighbourhood, only three blocks away. We paid 30CUC/night plus 5CUC for breakfast.  The casa was new, clean, and had an air conditioner, ensuite bathroom, sheets, towels and soap.
We also pre-booked our Baracoa casa through mycasaparticular.com.  We called and confirmed a few days in advance, and they had a taxi driver meet us at the airport.  We paid 25CUC/night plus 4CUC for breakfast.  The casa was incredible – there was a rooftop terrace, where we could sit back and relax, as well as another terrace on the second floor, this one offered a bit more shade and protection from the elements if it happened to be raining.  This is also where we were served breakfast.  Again, the room came equipped with an ensuite bathroom, sheets, towels (no soap), a/c and a fan.  There was also a maid, who did our laundry for us.
 

Looking out at Baracoa

Our Baracoa casa owner booked a Santiago casa for us, and again we were met at the Viazul station.  We paid 25CUC a night, and 3CUC for breakfast.  This casa was a little different – the bedroom and ensuite bathroom had at one point been one room, but it was partitioned, and a false ceiling installed in the bathroom.  The partitioning wall had a “window” cut out up top, which looked out over the false ceiling in the bathroom.  The original end wall (now the end wall of the bathroom) had a tiny window up top.  The window cut out in the partitioning wall allowed our room some bit of sunlight during the day.  Despite this, the room was very comfortable – it had been painted with an outdoors sea mural, making the room feel a bit more expansive.

Santiago near sunset
We tried, in our stumbling Spanish, to see if our Santiago casa owner had a recommendation for a casa in Camaguey, but a miscommunication occurred, and we arrived with no casa booked.  We relied on a bici-taxi driver to find us one – he tried two before he found one with a room available.  Again we paid 25CUC a night, and 4CUC for breakfast.  Like all the other casas, we had an ensuite bathroom, towels, sheets and a/c.  

Our taxi driver from Camaguey found us a casa in Trinidad by knocking on doors.  We ended up in a nice casa in the historical centre, for 25CUC a night and 5CUC for breakfast.  As all the rest, we had to walk into the family home, but unlike  most of them, rather than walk all the way through their house to our rooms at the back, we had a staircase right near the door that led up to area that had the private rooms for rent.  

Only in Havana and Baracoa did the casa owners speak some English, the rest of the time it was strictly Spanish.  All casas had towels, ensuite bathrooms and a/c, but only a couple had fans.  Most also had water for sale.
Money

Definitely bring cash.  We carried some with us, and hid some in our rooms.  We didn’t have a problem with pickpockets, but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t take precautions.   Most places (restaurants, paladars, casas, etc.) don’t take credit or debit cards.  (It wasn’t until we got to the resort that we actually used one.)  If you do find you need some extra money, we did find working ATMs in Santiago and Trinidad.  We saw one in Havana that wasn’t working, but I’m sure there are others.  

Street performs in a square in Havana
Food
Cuban food gets somewhat of a bad rap.  If you’ve travelled in Central America, you’ll be familiar with the “beans and rice” theme.  You’ll also be familiar with the “no seasoning” theme.  We did find most meat to be over-cooked, and over-salted, but otherwise the food is very straight-forward.  A little bland, but certainly not bad.
While we don’t have any food allergies, I don’t eat seafood or eggs, which wasn’t hard to deal with in Cuba, although breakfast was usually fruit, bread and eggs, with the occasional side of ham and cheese. 
We ate mostly at paladars in Havana – when we decided we were hungry and it was time for lunch/dinner, we’d head out to the streets and were usually approached by someone with a menu.  If the prices/options looked decent, we’d go to the restaurant and if that looked decent, we’d eat there.
In Baracoa and Trinidad we just wandered around until we found a paladar or restaurant that looked good.  We ate the old fort in Baracoa – the food was good, and we were out of the eye of most jinteros.  In Santiago we ate at the Gran Hotel – just for a change of pace.  In Camaguey, we went to a few recommendations from LP – they turned out ok.  We especially liked the Italian restaurant in Camaguey, but found the buffet served at the Gran Hotel a little over-priced.  (It was 20CUC)
We ended up with food poisoning our third day in Havana – having said that, it can happen anywhere, even at restaurants at home.  Bring some Imodium (or similar) from home, as well as some soft toilet paper!, and drink plenty of fluids if it happens to you. 
Patio in Trinidad
For people with gluten allergies – everything came with bread, however most meals were served without a sauce of any kind, making it easier to avoid gluten (i.e. meats were seasoned with onion and garlic, no sauce.)  Still, small lunch spots tend to serve some variation on ham-and-cheese sandwiches so a bit more planning may be required.
For egg allergies – I had an easy time (mostly) of avoiding eggs, until I ordered a “club sandwich” at Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, and it came with an egg.  Most breakfasts included eggs of some kind, but the phrase “no komo huevos” lets them know that you don’t eat eggs.  (However, they seemed to think I meant I didn’t want eggs (no quiero huevos) so each morning they’d ask if I wanted eggs).

Fish was mostly easy to avoid, barring a few soups and rice that used a fish stock, however for vegetarians it may be harder.  We didn’t get many vegetables on our trip (lots of fruit, fewer vegetables) and most rice had a faint pork flavour.  The vegetable soups we ate also used a meat stock.  Our resort had lots of vegetable options, however.
Jineteros (touts, hustlers, etc)

Having been to East Africa and some other countries in Latin America, we didn’t find Cuba to be too bad in terms of street touts.  We used them to find paladars, but ultimately it was our decision to stay and eat or go.  We did find them to be a bit of a hassle around Hotel Inglaterra – we were sitting on the patio having a drink and it was (at first) a non-stop barrage of people asking for money or trying to sell you things. We used the same technique we have elsewhere – we ignored them, unless they came right up to our table, at which point we said ‘Non, gracias’ and then ignored them.  Havana was the worst; Trinidad, Baracoa and Camaguey we were hardly bothered.
If you’re doing a city tour from one of the resorts, you’re more likely to be targeted – we did, and that little plastic bracelet was like a magnet.  Again, we were polite by firm and ended up being left alone.
Excursions
For the most part, we spent our time wandering around the different cities – no plan, no goal, other than to see and find what we could.  This worked well in Havana (until we tried to do the LonelyPlanet walking tour, at which point we got thoroughly lost), Camaguey and Trinidad.  
Farmer’s hut in AvHNP
In Baracoa, we booked a hike in the Alexander van Humboldt National Park, through Cubatur.  We left around 9:00 a.m. and drove to the Park.  From there, it’s a 3 – 4 hour hike into the rain forest, passing a few small farms along the way.  The guide stopped often to give us information the flora and fauna of the region, pointing out different birds, lizards, frogs/toads, flowers and trees.  The going was slippery, especially once we hit the rain forest section, and most everyone ended up with some red mud caked to their pants, having slipped.  

Just after 1:00, we came to a small clearing, beside a little pond/river and waterfall.  We all changed into swimsuits, and took to the water.  After the hike, it was wonderfully refreshing.

Which brings me to shoes.  If you have a pair of Teva-like sandals (with straps over the foot, and around the ankle) they are by far the best type of footwear for this hike.  There are quite a few river crossings, and if you’re in boots/runners, you’ll be forever taking them off/putting them on.  Not to mention that at the waterfall, there were a lot of rocks to cross before getting to water deep enough to swim in.  Towards the end of the hike, the BF and I decided to just tramp through the water with our shoes on.  (This led to having to buy new shoes in Trinidad, because ours smelled so bad.  They’d be stuck in a plastic bag for nearly a week, since we didn’t have a balcony/terrace in Santiago or Camaguey to set them out in the sun.)

Souvenirs
Everything was a repeat.  If you saw wooden toys in one city, you’d see them in every city.  The only exception to this was artwork.  We saw a lot of beautiful artwork in Havana, and even considered buying a small picture, but ultimately decided against it, as we were in the beginning of our trip.  We never did find anything of remotely the same talent in the rest of Cuba.
The Resort
Ocean view from our room
We chose to stay at Sol Cayo Guillermo.  Cayo Guillermo, and Cayo Coco, are connected to the main island via a causeway.  There are no Cubans that live on there – it’s purely for tourists, and Cubans need to have a special permit to access the causeway.  It is very much not “Cuba.”
The resort was 4-star, but still very nice.  Clean, comfortable and the staff were great.  There were a lot of mosquitoes and other biting insects (I ended up with over 80 bites on my legs); the resort did fumigate nightly, but I’m not sure it helped.
 I found the feeding schedule really restrictive – the snack bar was open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., but it served greasy, fried food – hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled sandwiches, chips, etc.  And there was nothing available between when breakfast ended (10 a.m.) and when the snack bar opened.  Which of course, is when I would get hungry.  The buffet was wonderful – a huge array of food, and lots of options.  There was also a huge salad bar – with lettuce!  I was so excited to have a salad, after two weeks of no veggies.

White sand beach
The beach had beautiful white sand, ruined by a lot of seaweed.  I think it was just a bad time for seaweed, and they did try to keep it somewhat under control.  The water was wonderfully warm, and very shallow for quite a ways out.  
We did a few excursions from the resort – we took a trip to Moron and Ciego de Avila, which probably would have been better if we hadn’t done Cuba on our own first.  You’re only given 30 – 45 minutes of “free time” in each city, and the “tour” they give you doesn’t give you much of an idea of the cities themselves.  However, the speed boat trip across a lake, and into a mangrove forest was incredible, and the crocodile farm was interesting, and interactive.  For a fee, you can hold baby crocodiles and iguanas, and feed the adult crocs.
Ah, hugs!
Our second excursion was to the dolphinarium on Cayo Guillermo.  It was expensive, 110CUC each, but we got to swim with trained dolphins.  We interacted with them on the dock for a bit, then jumped into the water.  One by one, we got to go up and perform some tricks with the dolphins, before posing for pictures.  Afterwards, we headed to Playa Pilar for lunch, and some relaxing time on the beach.




TL;DR version

Pros                                                                               Cons
– Trinidad and Baracoa                                                   – Santiago and Havana (after 3 days)
– inexpensive destination                                                – repetitive food and souvenirs
– Viazul buses north to south                                          – Viazul buses south to north