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The plan had been quite simple. We'd hoped to drive to Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs, book into a casa particular and chill out in this historic spot for a few days while planning the rest of our jaunt round Cuba. Of course, things didn't quite turn out like that...
Casas particulares are Cuba's equivalent to the British bed and breakfast; they're rooms in private homes that are rented out to tourists, but this being Cuba, there are quite a few restrictions. Only those licensed to do so can put up foreigners in their houses and there are strict penalties for those who break the rules, and each house can only rent out up to two rooms. Playa Girón has quite a few casas particulares as the Bay of Pigs is a rather famous place, and we figured we'd work out how to find them when we got there.
Luckily casas particulares are pretty easy to spot. They all have a distinctive sign stuck on the outside that's not unlike the international sign for a Youth Hostel, and this year's sign is in green (the licence has to be renewed each year, so although there were other places with red and blue signs, it was only the green ones that still meant business). We simply screeched to a halt outside one of these signs and went inside to ask about accommodation.
'I'm afraid we're full,' said the owner of the first one, 'but let me ring around to see if anyone else has room.'
'Thanks very much,' we said as he dialled a number on his roaming telephone and started speaking super-fast Spanish down the receiver.
'I'm afraid everywhere is full,' he said after a while, and shrugged his shoulders sympathetically. 'We have many tourists at the moment. There is always the hotel.'
We thanked him and drove off to another casa particular, only to hear the same story there. Another casa owner kindly offered to take us down to a neighbour of his who might have vacancies, but we still had no luck; all the casas in Playa Girón were full.
'Maybe tomorrow?' said the casa owner, and we wobbled our heads and said, 'Maybe,' thanking him for his kind help. And so it was with slightly sunken hearts that we jumped back in the car and headed towards the beach and the Hotel Playa Girón.
The casa owners had been, to a tee, smiling, helpful and genuinely sorry that they couldn't find us somewhere to stay. The grumpy, fat trollop behind the reception desk at the hotel couldn't have been more of a contrast; when we asked her if she had any rooms, she looked us up and down with clear disdain, put on her most condescending voice and said, 'I need your passports and $70 in cash.' Seeing no option I pulled out 70 pesos convertibles, popped them on the desk with our passports, and tried to smile as politely as I could while the old dragon huffed and puffed and grudgingly filled out the forms for our arrival.
'It is all-inclusive,' she spat, and indicated that we should hold out our hands.
'I'm sorry?' I said, and she repeated the gesture for us to hold out our hands. And that's when I beheld the true depths of our despair, for she fished out two plastic tags, wrapped one round each of our wrists, and tagged us like chickens in a supermarket.
I swear she enjoyed doing that, the calloused old hag, and my heart slipped so far into my boots that my breath caught in my throat. 'What on earth have we got into here?' I thought as she handed over the keys for hut 106a and pointed where it was on the map of the hotel complex. How little I knew...
Our apartment was right on the edge of the complex, a fair walk from the pool and bar complex at the centre of the hotel. It was OK, I guess; it had noisy air conditioning that we avoided like the plague, a scalding shower that pumped out slightly salty water that left us feeling just as sticky as we'd been when we rolled into town, and it was home to a friendly collection of bright green lizards who looked as startled by our arrival as we were by them. We dumped our bags, jumped into our swimming gear and headed back to civilisation.
The first and only positive point of our entire stay was when we realised that 'all-inclusive' included the bar as well. Sure, the beer was served in tiny plastic cups with a huge head, and the cocktails – a choice of just four because there was no pineapple juice – tasted as if they'd been created with a SodaStream and a complete lack of imagination, but we'd already paid for them and we soaked up a few as fellow guests wandered around the pool, all of them looking slightly dazed. I sensed a slight air of panic and disappointment in the air, but I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason. And then Peta pointed to the beach, and it suddenly all made sense. This, after all, was the site of one of the most infamous cock-ups in American history, and what we saw on the beach fitted in perfectly.
An Historical Location
The Bay of Pigs invasion is one of those stories that makes your heart sink at the stupidity of man. When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba on , after a long guerrilla campaign to oust the dictator Batista, the US decided it wasn't happy having a left-wing neighbour so close to the US mainland, so in 1961 Kennedy cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba, and on an invasion fleet set out from Nicaragua, consisting of 1400 Cuban émigrés, trained by the CIA in Guatemala and Miami, along with ships from the US Navy acting as escorts. On 15 April, while the invasion fleet was on its way, planes from the Nicaraguan air force bombed Cuba's airfields with the aim of disabling the Cuban air force before the fleet arrived. Seven men were killed in these raids, and at the airmen's funeral the next day Castro announced that Cuba was a socialist state, effectively putting up a solid middle finger to the incoming invasion.
The flotilla landed at Playa Girón and Playa Larga in the Bahía del Cochinos (the Bay of Pigs) on 17 April, but the Cuban air force attacked the flotilla and stranded the invading army, who were slowly picked off one by one until they surrendered three days later, with 200 dead. 11 invading planes were shot down and 1197 men from the invasion force were taken captive, to be repatriated to the USA in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine. It's said that President Kennedy was so horrified at this turn of events that he decided to avoid a massive political fallout by calling on the USA to land on the moon by the end of the decade; whether this is true is debatable, but there's no doubt that the whole Bay of Pigs escapade was an almighty cock-up, and ever since then the relationship between the USA and Cuba has been decidedly frosty.
Now, it's not unusual for hotel complexes in the developing world to be walled in; the idea is to keep out any unwanted elements, thus protecting the guests from touts, petty thieves and assorted conmen. Surrounding the Hotel Playa Girón in a huge arc, therefore, is a battered old concrete wall, cutting a bite-shaped semi-circle out of the coastline and preventing anyone from entering or leaving except through the guarded gate on the way into the complex. This isn't strange in itself, but the Hotel Playa Girón takes things a little further than having a simple perimeter wall. They really mean business.
For not only is there the semi-circular wall cutting the hotel off from Cuba, but there's another wall along the rocky coastline on either side of the beach. This, I presume, is to stop the resort from eroding into the sea, because this part of the world is prone to hurricanes, and indeed, the last hurricane to hit these parts, back in 2002, did considerable damage. Judging by the desolate hotel grounds, things still aren't quite back to normal.
But the designers of the Hotel Playa Girón were obviously not content with simply closing off the perimeter and the rocky coast, because some mad fool has built a concrete wall across the mouth of the pleasant crescent-shaped beach, only 50m or so off shore. This means that when you sit there on the beach, all you can see dead ahead is a wall of mouldering concrete grot, stained with green streaks and crumbling gently into the sea. I idly wondered if the locals were worried that someone else might try to invade the beach and these were their defences. If so, they've surely succeeded in deflecting future attacks; it's hard to see why anyone would want to reclaim this small part of holiday hell.
The sense of idiotic desperation that the wall personified managed to pervade the whole complex. The all-inclusive food was at best depressing and grey, and at worst inedible; the free bar continued to serve up plastic cups of watery beer and cocktails that came in different colours but which all tasted of cheap rum and sugary soda; and the evening's entertainment consisted of a nervous cabaret band playing ill-advised rock 'n' roll covers, a surprisingly large number of songs that all sounded exactly like 'La Bamba', and a set of schmaltzy western ballads that really didn't improve under a heavy Spanish accent. We were trapped in a holiday camp disaster zone, and I felt so depressed I couldn't even see the humour in the groups of tourists from Basingstoke doing their own unique interpretation of salsa dancing. We downed as much all-inclusive alcohol as we could stomach and went to bed, wondering if this was going to be just one typical night in a very, very long holiday from hell.
The next morning we got up, pushed the free breakfast around our plates until finally giving up on it, and decided to make a break for it. Thankfully the world outside the exclusion zone would turn out to be as wonderful as the Hotel Playa Girón was awful, and we didn't even need a wristband to get in.