One of the closest and easiest day-trip destinations from Varadero is MATANZAS, the biggest and most interesting city in the province of the same name and just 25km west along the coast from the beach resort. Clustered on the hillsides around a large bay and endowed with several of its own beaches, albeit small and scrappy ones, the city’s setting is perhaps its greatest asset, though as with much else about the place, this remains largely unexploited. This is slowly changing, however, as investment in the previously neglected city centre, where many of the most prominent buildings are undergoing or have undergone renovations, is finally dragging Matanzas out of the doldrums. Still, its greatest appeal remains as a convenient base for the caves on its outskirts and the nearby Yumurí valley and Río Canímar, and one or two nights here usually suffices.
The best place to get your bearings – but also where you’re most likely to be pestered by jineteros – is the more central of Matanzas’ two main plazas, the Parque de la Libertad, home to the fantastically well-preserved Museo Farmacéutico Matanzas. Though the other main square, the Plaza de la Vigía, is less inviting, it's worth visiting for the Museo Provincial and the stately, still functioning Teatro Sauto. Beyond the plazas and the main street, Calle 85 (known to locals as Medio), the slightly claustrophobic city centre quickly becomes a series of similar-looking streets plagued by drainage problems, and tangible focal points are few and far between until you reach Monserrate on the edge of town, and the lovely views of the bay and city it provides.
The sights around Matanzas are more appealing than the city itself, and are the best justification for spending a few days in the area. The highlights are the Cuevas de Bellamar, also a popular day-trip from Varadero, while the Yumurí Valley offers a fantastic showcase of Cuban plant life in a sublime and peaceful landscape. The Río Canímar offers some excellent boat trips and organized excursions, while the hotel here is home to the prodigious Tropicana cabaret.
Local buses and the Matanzas Bus Tour will get you to all these places except the Yumurí Valley, which you can visit by catching the Hershey train or by taking a taxi or rental car.