My husband and I stayed at Barcelo Marina Palace in the Cayo Libertad section in April 2010. This was my 4th trip to Cuba and certainly won’t be my last. However, we thought the resort was just okay but we would be unlikely to return.
The transfer from the airport was in a standard Havanatur bus – no issues. Barcelo Marina Palace is the very last resort on the peninsula so naturally we were the last ones to get off. Even so, the transfer only took about 55 minutes. We were dropped off at the main entrance and a porter on a golf cart came and delivered us to the Cayo Libertad lobby where we had a private check in. Our room #3204 was not ready at 1:30 p.m. when we arrived so we had to wait a couple of hours by the pool (since the towels are exchanged in the room by the maid, we had no beach towels…however, I liked not having to deal with the towel exchange routine every day so in my mind, the slight inconvenience was not a large issue). Eventually the very friendly porter came back and showed us to our room at around 4:30 pm.
Our room was excellent, and I doubt there are any bad rooms in the Cayo Libertad section. However, I noted while walking through the main part of the resort that I wouldn’t want a room on the bottom floor of some of those buildings because the footpaths go right through the building past your door and I’m a light sleeper. The balcony in our room was huge, with padded wooden loungers and a drying rack for towels and swimsuits. The room itself has an entry area with a little table, and there was a bottle of rum and some Cuban chocolates waiting for us on arrival. There is a bar fridge (including a tiny freezer) that is stocked with water, soft drinks, individual rum bottles and beer. The TV is basic, with satellite service carrying about 20 channels, a few of which are English. There is a DVD / CD player. The bed was not great – rather lumpy, and instead of a king-size bed, it was 2 twins pushed together and made up separately, not exactly the most romantic configuration. The pillows were almost completely flat – you would have to use 3 of them to get one regular pillow. The bathroom was spacious, with double sinks and a large tub with shower. The toilet is in a separate room, and there is also a walk-in closet including a safe and bathroom scales. There are no drawers in the room but there are a few shelves and a suitcase rack. There is a 115V outlet in the bathroom and 220V outlets elsewhere with the type of opening that allows either the European or North American style of plug to go in (nice feature that I haven’t seen in other resorts). We also had a look at the Grand Palace Villa, which was close to our room and was absolutely gorgeous, with private pool etc. It was unoccupied for most of the time we were there. I saw a sign saying it’s $300 per night to upgrade but I’m not sure if that’s per person or if that’s on top of the extra you pay for a Cayo Libertad room.
Restaurants and Bars: The food was a disappointment and normally we enjoy the food in Cuba. However, what seemed to be missing were the traditional Cuban foods – i.e. rice and beans, ropa vieja and other stewed meat, pork of all kinds including ham, good bread… The El Penon restaurant on the island tried so hard to be complicated and stylish but usually some ingredient was unavailable and the menu descriptions were quite deceptive. The best things were the simplest – grilled meat and seafood. And the bread products throughout the resort were really not that good and tended to be undercooked and doughy, which shocked me because usually the bread products in Cuba are excellent. There was no toast at El Penon the entire time we were there – apparently the toaster had broken. Most of the fish and meats were overcooked although we did have a lovely lamb dinner one night. However, the coffee at El Penon was probably the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life. One of the waiters there deserves special mention – Michael. He is one of those instantly likeable people who has a special ability in the service industry and he would be able to hold his own in any good restaurant in a big city around the world. We also ate at the main buffet restaurant a few times and it was fine, and that has the advantage that you can see what you’re getting without having to rely on a menu description. The supply issues were also present there, though. Hamburgers with no buns or ketchup, salad with no lettuce, etc. The pasta bar was good, and the cook who ran it was entertaining. More seriously, there were issues with food temperature control and I experienced a bad bout of food poisoning on the last day (more on this later). We loved the cigar bar! It was a lovely, uncrowded place to have a drink in the evening and relax while listening to a very talented pianist. The restaurant bar at El Penon was also very good, as was the pool bar by the Cayo Libertad pool. We didn’t care for the main lobby bar – very noisy and crowded, and hard to get served. Those were the only ones we tried.
Beach/Pools/Grounds: The resort is sprawling, not compact. The Cayo Libertad section is more efficiently laid out. The landscaping is still quite young, and many areas need to be “finished” (i.e., there are areas with construction debris and areas with no grass). The buildings are quite attractive in all areas of the resort. The beach is not as nice as the main beach in Varadero (few beaches can rival that) but has the advantage of being private, in fact almost deserted. However, sand fleas were a huge problem and even though I only went to the beach for a total of about 2 hours, I ended up with huge itchy welts all over my legs (I’m very allergic to their bites). We saw a few mosquitoes but they were a minor issue next to the sand fleas. They fog the property from time to time with a chemical smudge on the back of a truck – if you see it coming, go the other way. One surprising thing was that in order to get to the beach from El Penon, you have to basically pick your way through a field of sharp twigs and rocks and even some construction debris. It is unbelievable that they wouldn’t build a walkway down there since it is a very common place for people to walk barefoot.
The Cayo Libertad pool was a good size for the number of rooms it served, and it wasn’t a problem to get a lounger. The water was too cold for much swimming when we were there but it was refreshing to take a dip from time to time. We didn’t spend any time at the other resort pools. Beach towels were provided in our room and changed each night by the maid – no need to deal with towel huts or cards.
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel:
I’ve taken the Havana day trip twice before so I didn’t do it again this trip. It’s great, though. This time I decided to do the Matanzas – Camaguey tour, which is only 28 CUC (7:45 a.m. to around 2 p.m.) It included a stop at a pharmacy museum in downtown Matanzas, a visit to one of the markets where locals buy their groceries (a real eye-opener), a drive through the countryside past lots of farms and a stop in Camaguey to get a drink before heading back to the hotel. It was a really good value and gave an opportunity to see interesting things. We also took the beach bus all around Varadero – it was packed in the morning but the crowd thinned out in the afternoon. They were also offering a free transfer to Havana and an overnight stay at another Barcelo hotel one night while we were there – I would have liked to do that but it happened to fall on my husband’s birthday and he wasn’t keen on it.
The service had some highs and lows. Usually in Cuba, it’s not very hard to find someone who speaks fluent English. At this resort, not so much. We were surprised that the staff at the Cayo Libertad check-in area spoke very little English or French, since that is where most people will naturally go for assistance and a large proportion of them will probably know little Spanish. We had a problem with our door lock and it was really difficult to communicate about it. The guys who drive the long golf-cart type luggage buggies are really friendly – you can flag them down and get a drive with them if they happen to be passing by while you are walking. One of those guys, whose name I forget now, had much better language skills than the desk staff. Another time, we were offered cigars by a staff member and when we declined, we were hit up for money or gifts (first time this has happened to us in Cuba). The currency exchange always seems to have a very long queue. However, when I got very sick on the same day I had to fly home, I had to get the resort doctor to come to our room and she and the nurse accompanying her were wonderful. They didn’t have any injectable Gravol or antibiotics on hand so they personally went out to the pharmacy to get them for me and brought them back within an hour. I was not in great shape on the return flight but thanks to their efforts I managed to keep it together enough to get back home. Our maid was also quite good and kept everything in order. We tipped her a couple of pesos per day and left behind our unwanted toiletries, etc.