Varadero, with almost 25km of beach, most of it lined with hotels, is Cuba’s largest tourist resort. It occupies the Península de Hicacos, a slender finger of land pointing into the warm currents of the western Atlantic from the northern coastline of the province of Matanzas. That stunning esplanade of fine white sand certainly makes Varadero a world-class beach but the resort itself is not, however, the complete package. Increasing numbers of luxury hotels provide optimum accommodation, but the nightlife and entertainment is pretty poor. That said, this is the best major beach resort in Cuba for independent or budget travellers as it’s one of the few with a wide spread of low-priced accommodation, options and a decent, ever-improving choice of restaurants outside the hotels.
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. What’s more, 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. The valley nudges into the neighbouring province of Mayabeque , bypassed by most tourists on the journey between Havana and Varadero but whose pretty stretch of uncrowded coastlineat the resort of Playa Jibacoa is easier to get to from Matanzas than any other town or city. The hills of the Escaleras de Jaruco, also in Mayabeque, offer somewhere interesting and attractive to head for if you want to get well off the beaten track. Back in Matanzas province, another little-visited but charming spot is 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.