Guardalavaca souvenir market dominates the small town of Guardalavaca in eastern Cuba.
It is here that the open top buses disgorge hundreds of hotel guests a couple of times a day and where lines of taxis and horse-drawn carriages queue up to transport visitors back to their hotels. It is the focal point of the town and, I suspect, is the only place that many of the all-inclusive tourists see beyond the cocoon of their lavish resorts.
Dozens of stalls sell all manner of souvenirs, from wooden ornaments to Che Guevara t-shirts, from paintings, postcards and photobooks (made from banana paper) to jewellery, guitars and masks. You'll find the usual assortment of keyrings, ceramic plates, leather bags and belts as well as Cuban music CDs, baseball bats and a kiosk selling Cuban cigars.
Prices are not fixed and you'll be expected to haggle. Compared to other places that I have visited, the pressure to purchase wasn't so intense, although some stallholders were more persistent than others. The vast majority of sellers were friendly and were happy to allow us to browse unhindered or to assist us in a non-pressurised way. The odd one or two were more intense in their efforts to offload their wares on us and, as expected in an area of high tourist activity, the occasional beggar hassled us for "just one peso so that I can eat".
As well as the stalls, there are a few shops with fixed prices but selling similar goods. There is a shop selling cigars and alcohol and another selling toys, postcards and guidebooks.
There are a few restaurants and snack bars around the market and the end of the market leads onto the excellent Playa Guardalavaca beach.
Playa Guardalavaca is the main public beach in the small town of Guardalavaca in eastern Cuba.
It is a long stretch of soft white sand, with warm turquoise sea and even the occasional palm tree to give Playa Guardalavaca that quintessential Caribbean appearance. There are a few thatched parasols under which to seek shade from the strong sun.
There are a handful of beach bars serving light snacks, cold beers, potent rum and famous Cuban cocktails such as Mojitos and Cuba Libres. We stopped briefly at one for a refreshingly minty Mojito.
At the western end of the beach is a rocky promontory upon which the El Ancla seafood restaurant serves up delicious shrimps and lobster with wonderful sea views.
Behind the beach is a large souvenir market selling wooden crafts, paintings, t-shirts, Cuban music, cigars, postcards and all manner of other souvenirs.
Playa Yuraguanal is a sandy beach located around 15km west of Guardalavaca in eastern Cuba.
It is the beach upon which the hotel we stayed at, Sirenis Playa Turquesa, is located. Although the beach is not exclusively for hotel guests, its relative remoteness means that the vast majority of people on the beach are guests at the hotel. It is likely that locals make use of the superior, larger public beach at Playa Guardalavaca, while guests at the other nearby hotels would likely make use of Playa Peqsuero beach rather than catch a taxi simply to use this small beach.
The sand is soft and white, the water is warm and shallow and there are plenty of trees to seek shade beneath. There is a beach bar for hotel guests, free sun loungers and a variety of watersports that guests can book. We went out to sea on a Hobie Cat sail boat one day and hired a pedalo for an hour.
For the majority of our stay the green flag (safe bathing conditions) flew, at least in the mornings, and the yellow flag (swim with caution) frequently flew in the afternoons when the wind picked up. We only saw the red flag (stay out of the water!) on one occasion just before a storm arrived.
Although the beach is generally very nice, and is cleaned by staff each morning, there is a fair amount of seaweed along certain parts of the beach. This didn't bother us - there are plenty of clear areas in which to swim - but I did see it mentioned in several reviews before our visit.
We saw a few small fish and a few crabs scuttling along the beach. There is apparently much more to be seen further out to sea and we saw quite a few people with snorkelling equipment.
Across the street from the lobby at the west end of the resort (the one closest to Brisas resort) there are a few shops. The cafe at La Flamboyan is a good place to get a cold Cristal or an ice cream or cigarettes. The shops next door to La Flamboyan are the place to find rum and other liquers, coffee, cigarettes, ice cream, clothing and beach toys. Unfortunately all of these shops close at 5:00 pm so do your shopping early in the day to avoid disappointment!
Right next to Club Amigo is the local Guardalavaca market where you can find souvenirs to take home with you. It is adjacent to the main lobby, where the swim-up bar is located. You will find a variety of items available for purchase - jewelery, paintings, wooden sculptures, clothing, post cards, hats and more. One tip about the markets in Guardalavaca - if you see something you like, buy it right then. The vendors here usually only come out for a day or two at a time. There is a very good chance that the item you are looking for won't be there when you return a day or two later.
To the west of Guardalavaca, is the small, but busy, town of Rafael Freyre, now known as Santa Lucia. Your hotel will offer a tour here on a steam engine into the countryside, followed by a trip to the Columbus monument, including a horse and buggy ride, a theatrical production and lunch. This is a nice relaxing tour and worth the $49.00 (2006).
If you are renting a car, you can visit the steam engine, but it is my understanding that only tour groups can now ride the train. However, if you are looking for a little trip in the car, a drive to Playa Blanca and Don Lino will lead you to a smaller monument commemorating the arrival of Columbus on that bay. It is hard to find, down a one way street the wrong way, but makes an interesting challenge.
Mt visit to Guardalavaca was terrific due to wonderful Cuban people who made our stay very pleasant. Anyone traveling from the United States will see a great cultuaral difference and want to take some of it home as I did.
one word - WOW.
I swam with dolphins twice during my stay in Guardalavaca and both were as amazing as each other. This is a must. DO IT DO IT DO IT
The dolphins are well trained and seem pretty content in their enviroment. There is a 'pro' photographer around who will take 2 photos for you while you are in the water at your request and at a very reasonable price! I also got a video recording of my time in the water :o)
Treat yourself and have a go at some of the many watersports on offer! Guardalavaca cost is a stunning postcard location so what better way to get an outsiders view than on a jet ski or in a pedalo from the sea.
Most of the hotels include watersports in their inclusive facilities so make sure you check it out and take advantage of the great offers.
Snorkelling is a must, something i did quite a few times to view the stunning coral reef and marine activity.
6 km west of Guardalavaca is the Acuario Cayo Naranjo, often offered as a tour from the hotels. This is a dolphin, seal and walrus show, set out in the shallows of the bay. The price ranges in accordance to what you buy - shows, swimming with the dolphins, boat rides, or just a walk around the aquariums.
Swimming with the dolphins is extrraordinarily exciting, and while I was concerned about possible abuse of the animals, you will see that, since they are able to jump 40 feet in the air, and since their fence is only 8 feet, they are free to leave. They stay, of course, because they are well fed, and in fact are loyal, like your own dog.
Tours from the hotels, which are more expensive, will include a meal at the very good restuarant there.