Hire car and driver
Prior to our stay in Guardalavaca in November 2011, we had read that hiring a car with a driver for the day was a cost effective way of seeing the local region.
We wanted to visit the local city of Holguin (65km away) and the seaside town of Gibara (30km+ away) and this was impossible by means of public transportation. Our Tour Operator (Thomson/First Choice) offered trips to both towns separately (but not combined in a one day trip), but were charging 50 and 59 CUC per person for the two trips. Doing both trips would have cost us 218 CUC (around 130 GBP).
We knew that we could hire a car and driver for the day for just 100 CUC (60 GBP) and would have ample time to see both places at our own pace, as well as stopping off en route at any scenic spots recommended by the driver.
We spoke to the receptionist at our hotel, the Sirenis Playa Turquesa, and after a few phone calls he had arranged for an English-speaking, Holguin-based taxi driver named Ernesto to pick us up at 9am the following day.
We hoped that he would show up in one of the classic 1950s American cars that we had seen operating as taxis. Had we been better prepared, we would have ensured that we hired such a car. In fact, such cars could be found lined up outside any hotel in the area, but I don't know how the cost compared. As it happened, he showed up in a modern yellow Peugeot with a Cubataxi logo emblazoned on the side. Oh well, it wasn't a classic, but it would get us where we wanted to go.
We were unsure whether we should dictate the pace to the driver or whether we should rely upon his superior knowledge of the area to ensure we had ample time in both places. The reality was that it was a mixture of both; the driver recommended that we see Holguin in the morning and then visited Gibara in the afternoon. We were happy with this. In return, we insisted that we had free time in Holguin city centre, that he drove us to the viewing point at La Loma de la Cruz and that we had a couple of free hours in Gibara for lunch and exploring.
Our driver was friendly and talkative, but he was clearly also looking out for his commission. He took us to a cigar factory in Holguin and insisted that if we wanted to purchase cigars we should do so through him as he could get us a better deal. He mentioned this several times as we walked around the factory to the point where it got a little uncomfortable. Even if I had wanted to purchase cigars, I would have been reluctant to buy through him after his persistent offers. He continued to be friendly even after I had made it clear that we wouldn't be purchasing any cigars. He also offered to phone ahead and book us a private restaurant for lunch in Gibara, but we again declined his offer, preferring instead to explore the options for ourselves.
Ernesto stopped off at picturesque sights during the day, including a viewing point near Guardalavaca that offered spectacular views over the palm tree filled valley below and a quiet spot just along the coast from Gibara.
He was also happy to explain various sights that we passed and to answer our questions.
We returned to the hotel around 4:30pm after a full day of sightseeing and felt that we had received excellent value for money. We were happy to tip Ernesto as we parted company and would be happy to recommend him as a driver (although we don't have any contact details for him).
If you're staying in Guardalavaca and want to leave your hotel to see the surrounding region, hiring a car and driver is the most cost effective way of doing so. Speak to the staff at your hotel and they will happily arrange a driver for you!
Horse and carriage ride
My girlfriend and I enjoyed a horse and carriage ride from the town of Guardalavaca to our hotel, the Sirenis Playa Turquesa, during our visit to Cuba in November 2011.
We had arrived in Guardalavaca, some 15km from our hotel, on an open top double decker bus, but the last bus back to the hotel had left at 2pm, so we were left with two options:
The first option was a taxi. This was the cheapest and quickest option. We had been told to expect to pay around 12 CUC (7.20 GBP) for the journey and it would have taken around 15 minutes. Given that rain looked likely (and it soon arrived in a torrential downpour!), it would also have been the most sensible option.
The second option was to travel back like a local would do; in a horse drawn carriage. We should have tried to pay the local price, we should have haggled with the carriage's owner/driver, but we instead jumped at his offer to take us back for 30 CUC (18 GBP) and climbed aboard the small blue carriage.
We soon realised that it was going to be a slow and leisurely journey as our horse trotted slowly out of the town. The 15km journey was eventually completed some 90 minutes later, so we had ample time to enjoy the surrounding scenery (lush green countryside, various farms and plantations, lakes, mountains and passing motorists in classic American cars).
Our driver spoke English perfectly and was happy to point out various sights on the way (banana plantations, local schools, the water filtering plant for the nearby hotels and the special community where the hotel workers live) and to stop to allow us to take photographs.
A brief, but heavy, storm failed to put a dampener on our ride. The horse carried on stoically as the rain lashed down and we were sheltered beneath the carriage's canopy.
There were a few hairy moments as overtaking trucks headed towards us, but traffic was generally light (consisting of almost as many horses and carriages as motor vehicles) and the journey was a relaxing, if somewhat bumpy, one.
Sure, a taxi would have been cheaper, quicker and more comfortable than our horse and carriage ride...but it wouldn't have been half as much fun!!
(I must admit, I'd have been less inclined to take a horse and carriage ride after dark, since many of them don't have lights on and the roads are poorly lit. I realised on an after dark coach journey just how late the coach driver saw horses and carriages on the road up ahead!)
Guardalavaca open top bus
The Guardalavaca open top bus is a modern red double decker bus that connects the various all-inclusive resorts that are located along the coastline with the small town of Guardalavaca. It is for the sole purpose of delivering tourists from their hotels to the souvenir market and beach at Guardalavaca.
5 CUC (3 GBP) buys you an all day ticket (purchased from the driver) - although the bus only travels in each direction a couple of times a day, so you may find yourself getting a taxi or a horse and carriage on the return journey to your hotel. The second (and final) bus heads back to the hotels around 2pm. Even if you only intend to take the bus one way, the 5 CUC all day ticket may still prove to be better value than the 12 CUC taxi fare into town, depending on how many are in your party.
The bus starts at Sirenis Playa Turquesa hotel (daily at 9am and 11am), before visiting the various hotels in the Playa Pesquero area (Hotel Playa Pesquero, Hotel Playa Costa Verde and Hotel Blau Costa Verde), then the Playa Esmeralda area (Paradisus Rio de Oro), before arriving at the souvenir market in Guardalavaca.
The 15km journey from Sirenis Playa Turquesa took a little over 45 minutes due to the various hotel pick ups en route.
You will get to see some interesting scenery en route; lush green countryside, banana plantations, small farmhouses, picturesque lakes, mountain backdrops and some interesting local transport on the roads (classic American 1950s cars, old Soviet cars, horses and carriages, bicycles and many locals; some walking, some on horseback).
As the bus commences its journey at the Sirenis Playa Turquesa hotel where we were staying, we were fortunate enough to obtain the front seats on the top deck. After two or three stops, the much coveted top deck was full and all further passengers had to sit downstairs where the views would have been less spectacular.