For cash-strapped travelers intent on splitting their time between the beach and Havana, this dingy, 188-room budget all-inclusive hotel from the '70s might fit the bill. It's right across the street from Santa Maria del Mar's beautiful beach, and offers free shuttle service to Havana (a 25-minute drive away). The rooms are tiny and dated (though some have great ocean views), the food is mediocre, the ugly concrete building doesn't look like it's been renovated since the Soviets built it, and prostitutes are frequent overnight guests. If you can overlook those flaws, it's OK for the price.
A worn, 1970s Soviet-style hotel drawing an eclectic mix of guests, including single men seeking prostitutes
Hotel Tropicoco feels like the budget hotel that it is. This five-story concrete building was opened as a hotel in 1976 to accommodate vacationing Russian officials, and has all the charm one would expect from a Soviet-built value resort -- which is to say, not a lot. The blue and white paint on the exterior is covered in dirt and mold. Inside, the look could politely be described as retro. Expect terrazzo floors in part of the two-story open-air lobby, lots of potted plants, and rock planters with fake ceramic flamingos -- though the wicker furniture is surprisingly nice. It is, at the very least, a fascinating step back in time, as it doesn't appear much renovation has happened since the hotel first opened.
The mix of guests here could best be described as eclectic. There aren't many resorts in the world where single old Canadian men seeking prostitutes, missionaries, and gay couples (there's a gay beach nearby) can be found under the same roof, but Hotel Tropicoco is one of them. This hotel welcomes guests of all stripes, and all have their low budget in common, if nothing else. Over the winter, guests are primarily older Canadian couples and single men, and over the summer the hotel sees many Cuban and Italian families. The hotel seems complicit in its role as a base for sex tourism, as it offers overnight and day pass rates for "temporary guests," so it's probably not well-suited to families (and the low railing on the mezzanine overlooking the lobby is a safety hazard for little ones). Luckily, we didn't see any kids during our visit -- but we did see a number of older men dining alone in the buffet, and encounter a couple that strongly objected to us taking any photographs.
During the day, most guests are at the beach or sightseeing in Havana, and the hotel feels pretty empty.
Across the street from the beach in Santa Maria del Mar, a 25-minute drive from Havana
For travelers hoping to enjoy both the beach and Havana sights on their trip, Hotel Tropicoco's location is perhaps its best asset. It's right across the street from the beach in Santa Maria del Mar; guests need to cross a road and walk down a dirt path (occasionally littered with trash) past the beach bar, and over a low wooden bridge with wooden slats missing. There's a free shuttle bus to Havana leaving in the morning and the afternoon, though the return bus comes back in the early evening so guests hoping to enjoy the city's nightlife will need to take a taxi back (around 20 CUC). The town of Guanabo, which has a nightclub, is a 10-minute drive. Mi Cayito, a gay beach, is to the right of the hotel beach -- about a 15-minute walk. It's a 40-minute drive to José Martí International Airport.
The rooms at Hotel Tropicoco probably look almost exactly like they did when the hotel opened in 1976. They have terrazzo floors, bamboo headboards, and green comforters. Bathrooms have showers (no tubs) and basic toiletries. There's a lip in the floor indicating where the balcony used to be, but they were enclosed to give the rooms a bit more space -- though they're still snug. The hotel is considering adding the balconies back, which will make the rooms tinier still. Windows slide open for fresh air, and 129 rooms have ocean views (those from the fifth floor are great); the rest face the green countryside. Most have two twin beds, which are side by side for couples in select rooms, and some rooms have three twin beds. There are few amenities to speak of -- no minibars, no coffeemakers, no irons -- but there is free use of the safe. Tube TVs are mounted on the wall. There are eight suites with balconies.
A section of lovely white-sand beach with free loungers
The best part of Hotel Tropicoco is its private section of beach, where guests will find free white plastic loungers, umbrellas, kayaks, and paddle boats. The beach bar is on the path on the way to the beach (a bit inconvenient for guests who don't want to go far). Morning beach activities typically include stretching and volleyball. Guests should be careful not to confuse the public area of the beach with paid loungers for the Tropicoco's smaller section.
A rectangular outdoor pool, daily activities, and mediocre food
The rectangular outdoor pool is in an open-air courtyard and partly shaded by the building above, and there's a sundeck area in front of it with blue mesh and white plastic loungers (but no umbrellas). For shade, guests can head to the adjacent snack bar. Music typically plays (the type varies -- we heard both Buddhist meditation music and hits from the '90s) and occasional poolside activities are held.
There's an entertainment area near the pool for evening activities such as disco night and games night. There are also occasional live Cuban music performances. Sometimes guests can partake in Spanish lessons or bingo. There's a hut here where towels are exchanged. Guests get towel cards at check-in, as well as wristbands. The small gym is not air-conditioned and mostly has weights -- no cardio machines. There are also a sauna and massage room.
Breakfast at the main buffet includes three kinds of fruit, three kinds of sweets, and three entrees. We saw bread, pancakes, cereal, muffins, hardboiled eggs, beans, meat, cheese, and an egg station (the cooked-to-order eggs are probably the best bet). There are coffee and juice machines. Dinner includes options such as pasta, chicken, and pork. Many guests find the food quality adequate for the price, and others rate it poorly; in general, Cuban resort food tends to be no better than mediocre. The lobby bar is 24-hour but typically serves only drinks, though sandwiches are available after 11 p.m. Guests can order lunch at the pool bar, and there is one a la carte restaurant that needs to be reserved in advance (by the pool and activity area).
There is no Wi-Fi, but there is a cyber cafe with two computers.