“In all the beaches in Cuba the sand was made of grated silver,” says a character in Roberto Fernández’s Raining Backwards, “though in Varadero it was also mixed with diamond dust. Who can argue? The 12-mile-long swath of white radiance is ground zero in Cuban tourism. Almost two-thirds of the hotel rooms in the country are here.
Varadero has been Cuba’s trendiest beach town for more than a century. In 1926, U.S. industrialist Irenée Du Pont bought most of the peninsula beyond the town and built a large estate, complete with a golf course, called Xanadu. Having reputedly paid four cents a square meter for his land, he profited handsomely by selling off parcels at 120 pesos a meter. Al Capone and dictator Fulgencio Batista built vacation homes as Varadero metamorphosed into a Miami in miniature, peaking in the 1950s, when yanqui corporations put up ritzy hotels and casinos. Since the 1990s, the Cuban government has added dozens of new, even ritzier, all-inclusive hotels B most of them managed by foreign hotel corporations, such as Bleu, Barceló, Oasis, Sandals, Sol Meliá and Superclubs.
Varadero’s prize beach coats the north shore of the slender 20-mile-long Peninsula de Hicacos protruding east like a crooked finger into Bahía de Cárdenas. The town lies at the western end of the island-peninsula, which is separated from the mainland by a man-made lagoon. The main beach – Playa Mayor – is a virtually unbroken 7-mile strip. The most deluxe hotels line additional beaches further east.
The dining in town has historically been pretty desultory, (although has recently improved). You can easily fill a few days off the beach by dining at Las Américas (Du Pont’s Xanadu, which today operates as a hotel and restaurant); with a round of golf at the 18-hole Varadero Golf Club; hiking in Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos; and watching dolphins perform at the Delfinario (you can also swim with them for a hefty additional fee).
The sightseeing is otherwise limited, although hotel tour desks offer excursions to Matanzas, the Bay of Pigs, and Havana. And catamarans and other sail-craft offer daytime sightseeing and party excursions. For many, though, Varadero’s main draw is the excellent diving offshore, in the gin-clear waters of Parque Marine Cayo Piedras del Norte, where scuba aficionados give a new meaning to raptures of the deep – there’s even a Soviet AN-24 aircraft, and a gunboat, still laden with missiles!
Text by John Adams
This green oasis in the heart of Varadero town is surprisingly pretty and offers a pleasant alternative to the beach. The gardens themselves date back to 1940 and take their name from the former owners, Jose Fermim Iturrioz y Llaguano and his wife, Onelia, who owned the Arrechabala rum distillery in nearby Cardenas and built a neoclassical mansion here; the Retiro Josone. After the revolution the mansion was nationalized became a guesthouse for visiting foreign dignitaries.
The park is now a public space for the enjoyment of all and is one of the few places in Varadero where locals and tourists mix easily. Expect to see Cuban couples, Cuban girls celebrating their quincineras (15th-birthday celebrations) and plenty of casual picnic beer drinking.
Josone’s expansive and shady grounds have a nice lake where you can rent rowboats (CUC 0.50 per person per hour), plenty of geese, a mixture of tree species and even a minitrain. There’s a public swimming pool (admission CUC 2) in the south of the park. The Italian restaurant, El Retiro overlooks the lake and is a real find.
This makes a nice change of pace although don’t expect too much. The simple and attractive wooden beach house with elegant wrap around balconies has been turned into a museum displaying period furniture and a snap shot of the resort’s history. The guide when we visited was knowledgeable and really made the visit for us.
Open top bus tour An all day ticket costs CUC 5, 9.30am to 9pm.
Transport in Varadero historically was one of the largest headaches for tourists. It is a long peninsula and taxis are expensive and often notable by their absence. The introduction of an open top bus a few years ago was a run away success and now there is a whole fleet (well more than two) of red open-top double decker tourist buses doing the rounds. Hop on/hop off stops (45) line all the resorts and shopping malls along the entire length of the peninsula coming by every half-hour at well-marked stops with route and distance information. You can buys tickets on the bus itself.
In the peak busy season it may get a bit busy but generally this is undoubtedly the best way to get around Varadero. After a few days even the most steadfast snowbird can go stir crazy this can offer a welcome escape from the resort. There may also be more to see, especially following recent changes. Private restaurants are blooming, kite surfing towards the end of the peninsula makes a good spectator sport – the old town is getting (slowly) more interesting. There are a couple of nature reserves.
Dolfinarium in Varadero CUC 15 entrance
This is a personal favourite of mine. This is a little smaller than its cousin in Havana but feels somewhat less artificial since it is part of the lagoon. That means the water can look a little murky but it feels more part of the surroundings than an imposition on it.
There are a few shops here that are nothing spectacular although surprisingly it’s the best place to buy flip-flops in the whole of Cuba. I will often pop in here on the way past even if I am not going in!
The 30-minute show is a good Cuban production. There is simply something in the Cuban psyche that knows how to keep the crowd interested. While this may not be SeaWorld (San Diego) it is good quality with the dolphins obediently jumping through hoops, slam-dunking the basketball and offering speed cruises for the (fool) hardy!
This is also the place where you can swim with, be kissed by and generally frolic with the stars of the show. This is typically a real kids treat and although doesn’t come cheap (US$ 70) is well worth it in my view.