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 most of Cuba’s high profile beach resorts, there are casas particulares in Varadero, providing plenty of 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 development in recent years has been on the hook of land at the eastern extreme of the peninsula, where the Marina Gaviota Varadero has become the largest marina in the Caribbean, centred around a commercial and leisure complex.
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-storey wooden constructions surrounded by broad verandas, with sloping terracotta-tiled 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.
There are beach resorts the length and breadth of the country but none is more complete than Varadero. This is the country’s long-time premier holiday destination, two hours’ drive east of Havana in Matanzas province. Based on a highway of dazzling white sand that stretches almost the entire length of the 25km Península de Hicacos, Varadero offers the classic package-holiday experience. For the tried-and-tested combination of watersports, sunbathing and relaxing in all-inclusive hotels, there is nowhere better in Cuba. On the opposite side of the province, the Península de Zapata, with its diversity of wildlife, organized excursions and scuba diving, offers a wealth of different possibilities. The grittier Cárdenas and provincial capital Matanzas contrast with Varadero’s made-to-measure appeal. But it’s the nearby natural attractions of the Bellamar caves and the verdant splendour of the Yumurí Valley that provide the focus for most day-trips.
The first tangible visitor attraction east of town, about 2km from central Varadero, is the Mansión Xanadú, a hotel, restaurant, bar and one of the few buildings on the peninsula you could call a historic landmark. Sometimes referred to as the Mansión Dupont, it was built between 1926 and 1929 by the American millionaire Irenée Dupont at a cost of over $600,000, a vast sum for that era. At the same time, Dupont bought up large tracts of land on the peninsula for hotel development and effectively kick-started Varadero as a major holiday destination. The mansion has hardly changed since the Dupont family fled the island in 1959, and stands testament to the wealth and decadence of the pre-revolutionary years in Varadero. These days, to appreciate the splendidly furnished four-storey interior, its large rooms full of marble and mahogany, you either have to be a hotel guest, eat at the Las Américas restaurant or sip a cocktail and admire the views of the coast and golf course from the dignified top-floor bar.
At the furthest extreme of Varadero, the Marina Gaviota, still expanding after years under construction, is not only the peninsula’s top nautical facility but also a commercial holiday village, centred around a small, outdoor, waterside mall, Plaza Las Morlas, which wouldn’t look out of place in a theme park. Said to be the largest marina in the Caribbean, with 1200 berths, its currently underused capacity has been established in anticipation of the flood of American yachts and travellers expected to visit Cuba’s north coast if and when Washington repeals its economic blockade. Regardless of any future changes, this huge project has already transformed the eastern end of the peninsula, adding a short waterfront promenade, a few shops and market stalls, a nightclub, tapas bar, Mexican, Argentinian and seafood restaurants, a bowling alley, apartment blocks and yet another all-inclusive hotel, as well as the boat trips, diving and fishing excursions you’d expect from a marina.
Every year, usually in the second week of July, Varadero hosts the International Festival of Salsa, also known as Varadero Baila, a week-long programme of concerts, dance shows and classes organized by the national “cultural tourism” agency Paradiso and Baila en Cuba. Dancers of all abilities, as well as complete beginners, can enrol on the festival’s five-day dance courses, while the programme of concerts and events are spread around a half-dozen or so venues including the Academia Baile en Cuba and a number of the nightclubs. To make enquiries in person go to the Paradiso office at Calle 26 e/ Ave. 1ra y Ave. 2da. In recent years the festival has been held jointly in Varadero and Havana.
With entertainment options a little thin on the ground in Varadero, it’s no surprise that boat trips to the islets and reefs around the peninsula are so numerous and popular. The family of cays beyond the eastern tip of the peninsula – cayos Blanco, Piedras and Romero, among others – make up most of the stopping-off points; they’re bordered by small coral reefs and offer the best opportunities for snorkelling.
Most of the trips can be booked through any one of the principal travel agents or at the marinas themselves; book at least a day in advance, or earlier during times of high demand. Most trips include the transfer from your hotel to the point of departure in the price; children under 12 are usually charged half-price rates.
There are far superior dive sites around Cuba than the ones off the Varadero coast, but with several diving clubs on the peninsula this is one of the best-served areas for diving. The clubs here can offer diving equipment and instruction, and can arrange excursions to elsewhere in the province, commonly to the Península de Zapata in southern Matanzas. Most of the local dive sites are on the coral reefs around the offshore cays to the east of Varadero, such as Cayo Blanco and Cayo Piedras, where there are various wrecks, and also at Playa Coral, with a coral reef just 30m from the shore along the coast towards Matanzas. As well as the standard coral reef visits, clubs usually offer night- and cave-dives, the latter often in the Cueva de Saturno to the west of Varadero, not far off the Vía Blanca.
Just by the road connecting Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport to the Vía Blanca, a few hundred metres south from the Vía Blanca itself, is the Cueva de Saturno, a flooded cave where you can snorkel and scuba dive. Modest in comparison to the Cuevas de Bellamar nearer Matanzas, the cave isn’t worth going out of your way for unless you intend to dive – in which case you’ll need to pre-book a visit with one of Varadero’s dive clubs – but it does make a good stopoff between Varadero and Matanzas. You can walk down through the impressive gaping mouth of the cave to the pool at the bottom and take a swim or have a snorkel. A snack bar has been built near the steps down into the cave, mostly to serve the organized visits that regularly come here from Matanzas and Varadero.
There are plenty of better locations around Cuba to go saltwater fishing than off the coast of Varadero, but this is one of the easiest places to charter a boat, and sailing out to the surrounding cays is a great way for the casual enthusiast to combine a spot of fishing with a relaxing day-trip. You have to get well away from the beach to have even a chance of a half-decent catch, which could be wahoo, barracuda, grouper, snapper or tuna among others, and some fishing trips actually take place on the other side of the province, off the Península de Zapata. Tailor-made excursions and fishing packages are available at the three marinas, which will supply any necessary fishing equipment; the buros de turismo in most hotel lobbies can also usually also help with arrangements.
Top image: Varadero Beach, Cuba © takehanx/Shutterstock