Expectations of VARADERO vary wildly: some people anticipate a picture-perfect seaside paradise; some hope for a hedonistic party resort; while others dismiss it altogether, assuming it to be a synthetic, characterless place devoid of Cubans. In reality it is none of these extremes, though it is the package holiday resort in Cuba. What most stands out about the place is the sheer length of its brilliant white-sand beach, a highway of sand running virtually the entire length of an almost ruler-straight 25km peninsula shooting out from the mainland. The blues and greens of the calm waters create a stunning turquoise barrier between the land and the Florida Straits and, to cap it all off, because the peninsula rarely exceeds half a kilometre in width, the beach is rarely more than a five-minute walk away.

Though Varadero is not the place to come for an authentic taste of Cuban culture, this is no faceless shrine to consumerism – the town area houses some 10,000 residents, most of them in faded homes surrounded by scraps of grassland and unlit streets, a reminder of which side of the Florida Straits you are on. None of this detracts from the beach, the town section of which attracts as many holidaying Cubans as foreigners in July and August. Numerous boat trips leave from the three marinas on the peninsula, while diving clubs provide access to over thirty rewarding dive sites.

Unline many of Cuba’s high profile beach resorts, Varadero offers some relatively cheap accommodation alongside the expensive all-inclusive mega-complexes. However, with shops and restaurants spread thinly across the peninsula, and nightlife and entertainment confined mostly to the big hotels, there is a distinct lack of buzz – visit in the low season and it can seem quite deserted. But the level of hassle from jineteros here is lower than you might expect, especially in comparison to Havana, and on the whole tourists blend into the local surroundings with greater ease than in most of the rest of Cuba.

The peninsula is divided into three distinct sections, though all are united by the same stretch of beach on the northern coastline. The bridge from the mainland joins Varadero at the western end of the town area (Maps A and B), where all the Cubans live, and the eastern end of the Reparto Kawama (Map A), the narrowest, least visited section of the peninsula and home to about half a dozen hotels. The eastern half of the resort (Map C) is relatively secluded and wandering about is not really an option, as the landscape is dominated by luxury hotels and there are no pavements or footpaths. It’s worth catching the tourist bus or a taxi out this way, however, as a number of the local highlights are here, including the magnificent Mansión Xanadú, the Varadero golf course, a dolphinarium, and the misleadingly named Varahicacos Ecological Reserve. The most dramatic changes currently taking place on the peninsula are on the hook of land at its eastern extreme, based around the enlargement of Marina Gaviota.

Brief history

Varadero began life as a town as late as 1887, founded by a group of wealthy families from nearby Cárdenas intent on establishing a permanent base for their summer holidays. The archetypal old Varadero residence, built in the early decades of the twentieth century, was one modelled on the kinds of houses then typical of the southern US: two- or three-floor wooden constructions surrounded by broad verandas, with sloping terracotta-tile roofs, as exemplified by the Museo Varadero building.

By the time of the Revolution at the end of the 1950s, Varadero had become one of the most renowned beach resorts in the Caribbean, attracting wealthy Americans and considered to be a thoroughly modern and hedonistic vacationland. Standards slipped, however, after power was seized by Fidel Castro and his rebels, who tended to frown on tourism. It wasn’t until the government’s attitude on this issue came full circle in the early 1990s that serious investment began to pour back into Varadero. Since then, over twenty new hotels have been built, most of them all-inclusive mega-resorts occupying the previously undeveloped land in the eastern section of the peninsula.