The beach resort of Varadero is Cuban tourism at its most developed. Occupying the Península de Hicacos, reaching out from the northern coastline of the province of Matanzas into the warm currents of the Atlantic, almost the entire 25km length of this finger of land is fringed by sand white and fine enough to fulfil even the most jaded beach addict’s expectations. Varadero is not, however, the complete package. Though the beach is stunning and the luxury hotels provide optimum accommodation, the poor nightlife, entertainment and restaurant options outside the hotels keep Varadero from being a truly world-class resort.
Roughly 30km west along the coastline from the peninsula is the provincial capital, also named Matanzas, while to the east, and somewhat closer, is the bayside town of Cárdenas. These once grand colonial towns now live largely in Varadero’s shadow, relegated to day-trip destinations for holidaymakers. Many of their historic buildings are in considerable disrepair but they do still make a refreshing contrast to their more cultureless and one-dimensional neighbour. Equally, the Matanzas city surrounds hold three of the most captivating natural phenomena in the province: the subterranean cave network of the Cuevas de Bellamar; the broad, slinking Río Canímar, host to some great boat trips; and the enchanting tropical landscapes of the Yumurí Valley. Matanzas is also an important hub of agriculture: the traditional heart of the country’s sugar industry, the centre of the province is covered in endless sugar-cane fields, while huge citrus orchards also shape the landscape. The Carretera Central cuts a scenic through-route, bisecting provincial towns like Colón and Jovellanos and passing within a few kilometres of the once wealthy village of San Miguel de los Baños, now a slightly surreal but intriguing testament to a bygone era.
On the southern side of the province, the Península de Zapata’s sweeping tracts of coastal marshlands and wooded interior can be explored with guides, who help protect this encouragingly unspoiled national park and Biosphere Reserve. There are a couple of very modest beaches here but the area is better suited to hiking, birdwatching and scuba diving than sunbathing. It is also the site of one of the most infamous acts in Cuban–US history – the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Most tourists bypass Mayabeque on the journey between Havana and Varadero. However, this predominantly rural province to the west of Matanzas, dotted with small uneventful towns, does feature some pretty coastline at the resort of Playa Jibacoa and a hilly retreat for the adventurous in the Escaleras de Jaruco.