31 Dec 2023

Here's to a bright and beautiful 2024!

Good morning Cubita bella! This is one of numerous lovely sunrises I saw from my room on the 4th floor of the Farallón del Caribe Hotel (part of the Marea del Portillo resort complex) when I was there Dec. 6-20, 2023. It was great to finally be back at my "second home," along with my 28-person group! 
I've been working on my trip report – sorting photos and thoughts – but I won't likely be able to send it out until next year! In other words, I hope to finish it tomorrow. Before posting it here, I will send it out to my JennicaCuba email list. If you want to have it delivered to your inbox when it's hot off the presses, so to speak, you can sign up under the "Contact" tab.
Cheery cheers!

28 Dec 2023

Please stand by for my trip report

FULL CUBA TRIP REPORT COMING SOON! Meanwhile, here's a teaser...

To everyone who signed my petition to reopen Club Amigo Marea del Portillo and booked trips beginning on Dec. 6: WE DID IT!!! The resort opened with great fanfare and made the national news in Cuba. The legacy of Celia Sánchez continues; she's the one who advised Fidel Castro that a hotel should be located on the uniquely beautiful Marea del Portillo bay, where she loved to fish when she lived in Pilón. The resort quickly became a key employer in the region and, now, it is once again. Returning staff and new people are happy to be able to work, and that makes me happy too.
In my observation during my Dec. 6-20 stay, everyone at the resort worked very hard to provide a wonderful holiday experience for their guests. The Farallón hotel was absolutely gorgeous and the Marea section is coming along nicely. During the first week, Marea hotel rooms were being used as soon as they were ready for occupancy. Renovation and construction continues on some things but, most importantly, the resort is finally operating, for the first season since early 2020.
Yes, they had plenty of food but, also yes, they temporarily ran out of some things on occasion. There are supply chain issues all over Cuba. During my December visit, a few items came and went but I never left the table hungry. The baker and pastry chef at the Farallón must be particularly commended for all the excellent, tempting creations!
I will provide a more comprehensive trip report soon. This report will include information about what plans are afoot at the resort for the remainder of the season and beyond. First, as always, my JennicaCuba updates will go to only those on my email list. If you want to sign up for that, please visit my website's "Contact" page. http://www.jennicacuba.com/p/activities.html
While you wait, please enjoy the sunrise from my bedroom window on the 4th floor of the Farallón hotel. 
~ Jenny

May be an image of twilight and horizon

21 Sept 2023

NEW prices for Dec. 13 Marea group!

I now have new & improved prices!!! (see UPDATE below)

It has been a bit of a challenge to get prices for my proposed Dec. 13 group trip to Marea del Portillo. Let's just say technology is not my friend these days – neither my own nor Sunwing's. They "upgraded" their website and there have been a few bumps in the road. Anyway, the prices are good, so let's go!

NEW DEADLINE: 10 people need to sign up by Oct. 10 for this group to fly. 

If you've received an email from me about this trip, please respond a.s.a.p. to let me know if you want to go or not. If you haven't received my email but want to go, contact me immediately! [jennicacuba@gmail.com]

To book, I need a photo of your passport and your contact information (phone number, email and mailing address) and, of course, your credit card data for the payment. Since we are so close to the deadline, FULL payment is required. 

Please note that, if you have to cancel, you will receive a voucher for the full payment, as long as you have Sunwing's Worry Free cancellation insurance. For $50, you can cancel up to three days before the trip leaves.

I will already be at Marea del Portillo, so this group will meet me there!

~ Jenny 


UPDATED PRICES: This poster shows some of the revised prices, which are slightly better in most categories than the rates I had been quoted originally. 
Scroll down for a list of more options, flying out of both Toronto and Montreal, for one week or two. If you want to stay longer, just ask & I'll get a rate!


10 Sept 2023

Hey there! 
I'm working on getting good prices for a trip going to Marea del Portillo, Cuba, on Dec. 13. I'll be there already with another group! 
I will need 10 people to make this group fly. Send me an email (jennicacuba@gmail.com), if you're interested. 

8 Jul 2023

I'm ready to book a Dec. 6 group trip!

I finally have the prices for a group trip to Marea del Portillo, departing from Toronto on Dec. 6 – let's go! They're a bit better than what is now showing on the Sunwing website. Here's a summary of my rates:

Dec. 6-13 (7 nights)
Single = $988 (not shared)
Double = $938/person
Triple = $918/person
Single = $1038 (not shared)
Double = $978/person
Triple = $948/person

Dec. 6-20 (14 nights) - Please call for current prices!

Single = $1328 (not shared)
Double = $1218/person
Triple = $1168/person
Single = $1418 (not shared)
Double = $1288/person
Triple = $1248/person

These prices include all taxes/fees, one free checked bag (23 kg/50 lbs.) per person, one personal item aboard the plane and transfers (transportation to/from the resort and the Manzanillo de Cuba airport). I also have prices for children and Jr. Suites in the Marea Hotel but, keep in mind, there are only a few suites! The Farallón Hotel is not yet open.

I can add Sunwing insurance for the first 10 people requesting it; if you want this, let me know when you book. Please note that Sunwing's "Worry Free" insurance allows you to cancel up to 3 days prior to the flight but the current policy is this: if YOU cancel, you will receive a voucher; if THEY cancel, you will receive a refund in the same form as your original payment (i.e., the refund would be applied to your credit card, if that's what you paid with).

I am eager to stay at "our second home" once again! I visited in March, when it was open for day use, and I was very impressed with the renovations. I'm sure you'll agree that it looks incredible! It will be wonderful to see many of the same smiling faces at Marea del Portillo – both staff and guests. I think it's safe to say that hugs will abound.

If/when you're ready to book or have any questions, the best way to contact me is by email: jennicacuba@gmail.com.


July 16 UPDATE:

Sunwing says I've sold all the seats I was allocated for 2 weeks at the originally advertised prices. Now, I have to contact them and request additional seats for anyone wishing to stay longer than 1 week. So far, my 1-week prices remain the same as what I was quoted! 


2 Jul 2023

We need to be committed on Dec. 6

Now that we've entered July, the heat of summer seems to be upon us. Happy Canada Day or Independence Day, depending on which celebratory date you may feel an affinity for, if either. Perhaps I should just say Happy July!

Does the heat of July remind you of anything? If you said "Cuba," we're on the same wavelength! My mind has been full of Cuba more than usual of late because I've been talking to some Sunwing executives about Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, which is serviced solely by Sunwing via the Manzanillo de Cuba airport (MZO). As you may know, both the resort and airport have not been opened since early 2020, at the onset of the COVID pandemic. 

A few months ago, a long-time repeat guest of Marea del Portillo spurred me to launch a petition pushing Sunwing (and others) to open this resort. We received a reasonable number of signatures but I didn't feel that was enough. So, when I had the opportunity, I tracked down a few people in person.

As a travel agent, I was the recipient of a mass invitation to an event in late May called "Sunwing Loves Cuba." I jumped on it. And, it was worth the drive to Toronto. I wantonly introduced myself to a woman I'd had an email chat with a couple of years ago about my novel Cuban Kisses, which is set in a fictionalized version of Marea del Portillo. She'd been intrigued and was quite pleased to receive a signed copy of the book, as well as a copy of my petition. 

Okay, she may not have been pleased about receiving the petition but I think it's safe to say she wasn't displeased because, later in the evening, she introduced me to an executive from the Cuban Tourist Board. This woman also received a copy of the petition and my "elevator pitch" about the importance of opening the resort. That led to an unexpected turn of events!

I'm somewhere in that illustrious crowd! (Two points for anyone who can find me.)
The Cuban woman apparently passed my petition on to her boss and he, in turn, gave it to a Sunwing executive who was higher on the ladder than the one I'd given my book to. And, to my everlasting surprise, that dude called me a few days later. We had a nice chat.

We subsequently exchanged a small volley of emails and he called me a second time but, in the end, I was graciously redirected to a couple of other Sunwingers. The upshot is this: Sunwing is committed to flying to MZO this winter BUT there must be enough bookings to make it viable. In other words, if people don't take the requisite leap of faith and book trips to Marea del Portillo, it won't open. 

The first Sunwing guy quite candidly told me that, when this destination was made available after travel to Cuba was re-opened, only about six people booked. Yikes! That's plenty for some Cessnas but nowhere near what you'd need to make it feasible for a Boeing 737 to land at MZO. I get it. People are apprehensive, so they don't want to book until the resort is open but, if there aren't enough bookings, the resort will NOT open. It's sort of a Catch-22 situation. 

During my conversations with the Sunwing executives, we discussed ways to encourage bookings and promote the resort more effectively, including the need to change some photos on their website. That should happen soon – perhaps by the time you're reading this! To check, click here – https://www.sunwing.ca/en/destinations/cuba/manzanillo-de-cuba/#hotels. (They have already removed the link to a video promoting Manzanillo de Mexico!)

Sunwing executives Eric, Deana and Dave at the May 24 event in Toronto.  
As well, I proposed offering "humanitarian groups" that would transport suitcases of medical supplies provided by an organization called "Not Just Tourists" (NJT). This concept didn't fly with Sunwing, so I will try to put together my own flock of "suitcase shepherds," much as I once did with suitcases full of clothing. This time, I will work with NJT to supply suitcases packed with vital medical items (bandages, antiseptics, scalpels, wound care kits, IV kits, needles, etc.). For more information about them, please visit their website – https://njt.net/

FYI – anyone can take an NJT suitcase! Although humanitarian suitcases are no longer free on Sunwing, when you book a flight/hotel package, you are entitled to a free checked bag. Therefore, I would suggest that, if you book "double accommodation," you and your roommate can pack together, sharing one free suitcase; then, the second free checked bag you two are entitled to could be the NJT suitcase. Keep that in mind as you think about booking!

I'm thinking about booking, so I've been working on getting a group quote. It should have happened by the end of the past week but it seems that my request got caught in the crush leading up to the July holiday weekend. I received some of the prices but not all of them. I'm waiting impatiently for the rest. When I have them all, I'll announce my rates for a group going to Marea del Portillo on Dec. 6 for one or two weeks, departing from Toronto. (It may also be possible to fly out of Montreal, or stay longer than two weeks.)

Meanwhile, if you prefer, you can put your own group together! You can do that by calling the Sunwing groups department or contacting your favorite travel agent. (Don't worry, I won't be upset if it's not me.) In reviewing my conversations with my new friends at Sunwing, it would seem that promoting group bookings may be part of the solution. To get a group rate, you need to have a minimum of 10 people booked. If we have 10 groups of 10, I think we'll be flying! Why not plan a family reunion or a getaway with your pals?

I'm targeting Dec. 6 because, once the resort opens, it will remain open in the new year – hopefully, into April. Sunwing is committed to flying there this winter; let's show them we're committed to going there!

Please note: I fully understand that some people are committed to Marea del Portillo but are simply not be able to book a trip at this time. Don't stress about it! Just do what you can to promote the resort and encourage others. There is power in positive thinking and optimism. The MZO runway is being resurfaced and the road to the resort is next. Let's go home!

~ Keep smiling, Jenny

4 May 2023

Summary of March 2023 Cuba trip

A CUBAN SYMBOL: Both the cars and the country require a lot of work.                

TRIP REPORT: Cuba in March 2023

WARNING: this is long and rambling! You may want to stop in the middle to make a snack, have something to drink or just rest a little while. Take your time; this report isn’t going anywhere! [You'll find more photos at the end, as a reward for reading that far.]
As I begin to write this, I’m still in Cuba, spending a quiet morning at the casa de renta where I’ve been staying in Pilón, awaiting the arrival of a friend for “one last visit” before I leave. I’m not sure if he’s coming by bicycle or hitching a ride from his home in a village about 15 km away. Public transportation is negligible these days, so it’s not a reliable option.
Presumably, he’ll call me when he gets to town, since he couldn’t provide an ETA. Sometimes, however, people just show up. Calls can be expensive when you’re on a tight budget. As well, both cellular and internet services can be erratic. I’ve often had messages fail to fly for no discernable reason. It can be maddening.
Cuba itself can be maddening. I used to say “Cuba is teaching me patience.” In the last few years, the lessons have gone far beyond patience. Every time I visit, I learn something new.
Sometimes I learn practical things. For example, I’ve known for a long time that it’s important to take T.P. with me wherever I go but, now, I perpetually carry water purification tablets and plastic bags too. Bottled water is no longer readily available, and it’s expensive, if you can find it. The tap water is safe for locals, who are used to it, but it can be problematic for us foreigners, especially when trying to drink enough to stay properly hydrated in the irrepressible heat! And the plastic bags? Well, one never knows when one will be given a piece of fruit, for example, that one doesn’t want to have smooshed inside one’s backpack or purse!
Other lessons are less tangible, and some are difficult to accept. “Cuba is sad,” one friend commented as we discussed the current situation in the country and in rural Granma, which is particularly hard hit. She has been out of work for three years, along with many other people in this area, if they worked at the region’s one and only resort, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo. It closed at the onset of COVID but, just this month (March 2023), finally began opening for day use on weekends (Friday/Saturday/Sunday). That’s an important start.

In December, full all-inclusive accommodation is scheduled to begin, if the stars align properly. Tourists who have been visiting this resort for decades are eager to return but are skeptical that it will really and truly open this winter because, for the last two years, Sunwing has sold flights and packages, only to cancel them later. Thus, people are distrustful. It’s hard to plan a trip, if you can’t be certain that your destination will actually be available. And, it’s hard to plan your life, if you think you’ll be able to return to work, then you can’t.
The realization that hope is fading from people’s eyes is hard to accept, but that’s what I’m seeing on this trip. Change is desperately needed on many levels but there is no viable way to reach the top of that cloud-shrouded mountain. So, people are leaving in droves – leaving the area and leaving the country.
They may not really want to go to abroad but many Cubans see it as the only way to provide a better future for their children. They want to be able to work and live without constantly looking over their shoulders for coming trouble while, at the same time, navigating around obstacles and roadblocks as they try to move forward with their lives. They want the chance to be as productive as they could be, if things were different. The grass looks greener in the land of greenbacks and perceived opportunity.
Opportunity is an important word here. Very few doors open easily in Cuba these days. Financial support from off-shore family or friends is key, if you want to create opportunity here. A new bar and paladar (private restaurant) is on the cusp of opening in Pilón, thanks to the determination of a young man who made his way to the U.S. five years ago. He told me that he wants to show his family they can make money here but, without his injection of cash, it wouldn’t be possible. Seed money is vital for starting up a business anywhere but, in Cuba, support won’t be coming from banks or government programs.
The government is struggling to provide basic services and supplies in many areas. Frozen meat (chicken, hamburger or hotdogs), dry goods and other necessities one would normally expect to be available in stores seem to come and go. Sometimes, there’s no toilet paper. Other times, there’s no cooking oil or vinegar. This week, in Pilón, boxes of chicken legs didn’t appear when expected, although they did arrive belatedly. For some communities, the legs were unavailable for several months in a row, even though they’re supposed to be part of a monthly allotment, supplemental to the “libreta” or ration book program that provides a limited assortment of necessities at reduced prices.
The erratic arrival of supplies makes it hard for individuals and families to cope. People have become experts at “inventing” solutions. For business owners, it’s an even bigger challenge, and it’s vital to have good connections, as well as to be creative. When there are no rolls of toilet paper, give your B&B clients paper napkins instead, assuming availability of course! Many households have stashes of paper in their baños ­– the ubiquitous Granma newspaper and old school notebooks are most common – or scraps of cloth. In one outhouse, I saw a paperback book being gradually consumed; that’s a harsh review. 

One writer and artist I talked with on this trip had just opened a tattoo studio. His path to this business endeavor is quite interesting. I first met Gilmar Naranjo close to a decade ago, when he was, essentially, a talented kid who was part of an art show/sale I arranged for one of my travel groups. Although he’s a gifted artist, he was not able to seek formal university-level training. So, he studied on his own and received some coaching from local art mentors.
He’s very skilled and he learned fast. However, materials were often in short supply. That led him to pick up wine and rum bottles as alternatives to canvas. He found a magnificent niche! He now paints incredibly vibrant and textured scenes on the entirety of these empty bottles. Gilmar’s unique art creations are available for sale in a gallery in Bayamo or in Pilón, directly from him (you can find him on Facebook). Eventually, he plans to have some on display at his tattoo studio, along with some of his paintings.
How did he make the jump from bottles to tattoos? Well, he saw an opportunity and seized it. He continues to work as a part-time art teacher, along with juggling the bottles and tattooing. Gilmar enjoys blending art with social interaction, since he’s a gregarious guy, and there’s decent money to be made in the tattoo business. He’s not the only Pilón artist to shift into tattooing. Yes, even though food is expensive, people seem to find the money for body art! That gives me hope.

Where do people get extra cash for things that are not necessities? It’s hard to say. I can only guess that they might have a generous friend or relative, but it’s also quite possible they have a business in the shade, shall we say. In my informal observation, capitalism seems to be thriving in the shadows in Cuba and, it would appear, the government just winks. But, it can be challenging and frustrating to navigate a system that is in flux. What new problem will arise in the morning?

There are many reasons for frustration in Cuba these days, and many unfulfilled needs. The country is in rough shape in most areas. Are things as bad as they were during the “Special Period” of the 1990s? Maybe not, or not yet. Tourism has been restarted in some places but not in Granma, although it’s desperately needed. There just aren’t many work options beyond tourism in the Pilón and Marea del Portillo region. Even if you’re able to start a business, it won’t do as well as it will once the local resort reopens and tourists roll into town once again. People are waiting for that to happen, hanging on by nails and teeth. 

During this trip, I often thought about the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot. The characters in that classic piece of absurdist fiction keep waiting and waiting, expecting the mysterious Godot to come and something to happen. Cuba is waiting and waiting, expecting change to come and good things to finally begin happening. I sincerely hope Cuba is not waiting for a Godot who never arrives.
I always strive to remain optimistic. Tattoos give me hope, as do the other new businesses that have popped up in Pilón in recent months. There are several new restaurants and bars. I ate at as many different places as I could, but I discovered that they sometimes run out of food. Nonetheless, they are making a go of it. Any food I ate at the local paladars was prepared well and, to a foreigner, the prices were reasonable.
I also had a very nice lunch at the Club Amigo Marea del Portillo resort when I was finally able to visit there near the end of my stay. They offered two entrée options for lunch: lobster or pork. I chose lobster and it was both substantial and delicious! As part of the day-use package, one also receives sandwiches before and after lunch, and a beer or other beverage at lunch. Although there weren’t many guests that day, there was a full complement of staff. It was nice to see some familiar faces back at work, finally.
Having the resort open again, even though it’s only in a limited way at this point, is the biggest reason for optimism. It will survive. The people will survive. The resort will be ready for tourists in December and our Cuban friends will be ready to give us huge hugs! I’m already mentally packing.

Thanks for reading my report!
~ Jenny

23 Jan 2023

Do you have a relationship with the place known as Marea del Portillo?

Human relationships are remarkable things. You never know where or when you'll encounter someone who will become a friend, and you may not even know why. Nor can you predict to what degree that friendship will develop. Connections can be incredibly random, yet strong as Gorilla Glue. 

I've sometimes noticed interactions between people on Facebook that are heartwarming because I know they connected with each other at Marea del Portillo, an obscure but beloved little resort in rural Cuba. Sometimes these friendships were formed because the individuals were part of a group I organized, which is particularly gratifying to me!

As a tour leader, I've always seen a key aspect of my role as being to help people make connections – with others in the group, with members of the community we're visiting and, ultimately, with the country itself. Over the years, with or without my involvement, many visitors to Marea del Portillo have become connected to the place and its people.

As you may know, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo was closed at the start of 2020, due to COVID-19, and has not yet been reopened. Many people in that area have now been out of work for three years! Since the resort is key to the economic survival of numerous families, if not the community itself, I accepted a challenge to create a petition, urging action by those with the power to reopen the resort. It will go to Sunwing executives and others.

You can read the petition by clicking HERE. I hope you will sign it.

Even if the resort doesn't open this season, I remain confident that it will open next winter. The people in that region need the opportunity to work that tourism affords, both directly and indirectly.

Meanwhile, I'm working on putting together a little group (just a van load) that would fly into Holguin, spend a night or two there and explore the city, then wend our way through the Granma province, visiting a few historic sites along the way to Marea. If the hotel is not open, we would stay at casas particulares (Cuban B&Bs) in the area. A few people have already expressed interest in this but I need a couple more to make it viable; please contact me right away, if you might want to go along in late March. 

We're bouncing into a "bunny" year...

Happy Year of the Water Rabbit!

According to what I found in a quick internet search: 
"The Chinese Year of the Rabbit represents peaceful and patient energy. 
The water element suggests tapping into inner wisdom and trusting instincts. 
Together, the Water Rabbit indicates focusing on relationships, diplomacy, 
and building bridges in professional and personal relationships."
What will this year hold for you?