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. All three of these perceptions are considerably wide of the mark, though there are reasons why such ideas about Varadero have developed. This is the package holiday resort in Cuba, and large chunks of land have been taken over by sprawling four- and five-star hotel complexes. Shooting out from the mainland, virtually the entire northern coastline of this slender, ruler-straight peninsula is a brilliant white-sand beach, generally regarded as Cuba's best. The blues and greens of the calm waters washing up on the beach fade in and out of one another, creating a stunning turquoise barrier between the land and the Florida Straits. To cap it off, because the peninsula rarely exceeds half a kilometre in width, the beach is never more than a ten-minute walk away.
Most people come to Varadero for the beach, a seemingly endless runway of uninterrupted blinding white sand. This is also the best place in Cuba for watersports, with three marinas on the peninsula, and several diving clubs. Each marina runs its own programme of fishing trips and boat trips. There are over thirty rewarding dive sites around Varadero – including a 40-metre-long boat sunk during World War II that now provides shelter for a variety of different fish – mostly amongst the islets scattered to the northwest about an hour's boat ride away. About 5km in the opposite direction from Varadero, heading southwest along the Matanzas coastline, is a two-kilometre stretch of coral reef inhabited by a busy population of parrotfish, trumpetfish and basslets amongst many others.
Varadero is a favorite tourist destination not only for foreign visitors, but for Cubans themselves. This gives the town a distinctive character that sets it apart from other resorts in the country.
Varadero's hotel complexes are well equipped in terms of the accommodation, recreational facilities, aquatic sports, and nightlife they offer. Tourists do not generally venture beyond these complexes to explore their surroundings, but when they do go out, they are rarely disappointed.
There are many entertainment options on the the Varadero peninsula and throughout the province of Matanzas. The heavenly beaches, whose waters shimmer in every shade of blue from navy to bright turquoise, beckon you to swim, play water-sports or simply to relax and soak up the sun on the beach. If you are feeling energetic you can choose between diving, crossing the Bahía in a catamaran, fishing, and many other activities. You can visit some of the area's many important archeological sites, including the Cueva de San Ambrosio, a cave with ancient paintings on the wall, or the Cuevas de Musulmanes, another cave famous for its ceremonial use by the Siboney people. Another tourist attraction is Las Salinas, a salt mine which formed the basis of the region's economy during the colonial era.
This part of the island is equally well known for its natural beauty and as a natural habitat for rare birds, some of which are now extinct in the rest of the world. Many birdwatchers come here on vacation every year with dreams of catching a rare sighting.
The city of Matanzas, birthplace of the century-old danzón musical style that continues to enjoy great popularity, also merits a visit. There are archaeological sites here, including the Cueva de Bellamar, and good camping areas such as the Yumurí and Canasí Valleys, both of which have a rich variety of flora and fauna, rivers and natural viewpoints. If you prefer to tour the city itself, there is much to see, including parks, squares, museums, and galleries. The architecture is extremely beautiful and rich in Spanish influence, and the city has a great view of the Bahía de San Juan.
When people visit Varadero, they frequently take advantage of the all-inclusive tourist packages offered by the hotel complexes. Here, food is served buffet-style, with an eye-popping variety of dishes and exotic cocktails. Many of these hotels offer their competitively-priced buffets to non-guests as well: a marvelous opportunity for any vacationer with a big appetite.
The buffet menus are designed for tourists, so much of what they offer can be found anywhere in the world. To enjoy traditional Cuban food you will have to visit the restaurants in Varadero and Matanzas, but if you can drag yourself away from the hotel compound, you will find the trip worth it.
Paladares, restaurants in private houses so popular in the rest of Cuba, are not permitted in Varadero. However, in Matanzas you will find legal paladares (literally "palates") with traditional mouth-watering creole fare that will have you forgetting the buffet table in no time. El Guajiro, on San Isidro Street, facing the Hospital Provincial, has an attentive owner and a menu that includes lechón asado (roast suckling pig), and masas de cerdo con vianda y mojo (deep-fried pork in batter, with root vegetables and a tomato, onion and garlic sauce). They also prepare traditional Cuban desserts such as the dulce de fruta bomba con queso (papaya in syrup with a slice of fresh white cheese). Prices are very reasonable, and service is superb. For lighter meals, you could try the Cafe Atenas, on the Plaza de la Vigía, which has a selection of pizzas, sandwiches and fried chicken at good prices. Hotel Louvre, on Milanes street, has an excellent restaurant with a wide ranging menu. In Cueva de Saturno, on the road to the airport, there is a good quality restaurant and bar.
In Varadero, Parque Josone has a variety of fast food joints which sell pizzas, fried chicken, hot dogs, beer and soft drinks, all at cheap prices. Among these are Pizza Nova and El Rápido, part of a Cuban fast food chain. On the Bulevar, you can go to Doñaneli bakery, which has a wonderful selection of cakes and pastries. La Terraza cafe, on Plaza America, is another good option.
For drinking, an obvious choice are the hotel bars. The Bar Las Americas, in the Meliá Hotel, is open 24 hours a day. For a more intimate atmosphere, go to the piano bar at Las Palmas del Meliá Varadero , from 6pm onwards. El Mojito at the Sol Club Palmeras has a pool bar which is open from 10am to 6pm, and offers a good choice of cocktails and spirits. The same hotel also has two beach bars, Sol Cubano, and the Bar Ron Coco. In Meliá Varadero, you will find Baracoa bar. If you prefer to have a light meal with your drink, go to Snack Bar El Golfito, at the Club Tropical, or the Aquabar at Meliá Las Americas, which never closes.
If you want to take in a show while you drink, try the Bar Show Tropicuba, at the Sol Club Palmeras. In Meliá Las Americas you will find Bar la Cascada. Both of these are open until two in the morning. You can catch a cabaret in the Continental, at the Hotel Internacional, or Jardines del Mediterráneo, on Avenida Primera, and a special show in Cueva del Pirata, every night at 9pm.
The Casa de las Antigüedades , in Parque Josone , offers great service and excellent quality food. In the same park, La Campana restaurant features succulent Cuban cuisine. El Bodegón Criollo, in Playa, is another good choice for regional food. La Vicaria restaurant is a favorite with Cubans and foreigners alike, as are La Guantanamera, in the Centro Internacional de Convenciones, and Casa del Chef, on Calle 12 and Avenida Primera.
For Chinese food, you can go to Lai-Lai, on Calle 18,Mi Casita, on the Bulevar, and Oshin in the Hotel Sol Club Palmeras. For seafood, try El Arrecife on Caminos de Mar and Calle 13, which offers a large and selection of grilled fish and seafood dishes. You can also check out La Marisquería in Kawama, Albacora in Playa, and Fuerteventura, in Hotel Meliá Varadero.
If you like fondues, you will like the Swiss and French specialties of Casa del Queso. Kiki's is popular because of its creole menu, and its terrace, which freshens up the atmosphere in the restaurant. Las Americas has wide ranging menus, and a bar Mansión Du Pont, where you can enjoy a cocktail on the terrace before eating your meal. El Mesón del Quijote, on the Las Americas road, has an international menu.
For a good plate of Italian pasta, go straight to Dante , in Parque Josone. O´Sole Mio, in Hotel Sol Club Palmeras, open from 11am to 11pm, also serves good Italian cuisine. On Avenida Primera, you will find Castel Nuovo restaurant.
Magical History Tour
Varadero is located on the Hicacos Peninsula, once home to the Siboney people of the Cubanacán tribe, the first settlers of the island of Cuba. Their legacy can be found in the cave drawings around the peninsula, most of which were created some 3,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish. With the coming of the Spanish, the province of Matanzas became an important commercial port in the trade of, among other things, slaves. The African legacy is also very apparent in the day-to-day life of the region.
In its heyday, the city was dubbed the Athens of Cuba, because of its influence on the arts, namely in literature, music and poetry. Nowadays the city, which stretches towards the Bahía de San Juan, is a modern one, with a rich architectural and musical heritage, all of which contribute to make it a prime tourist destination.
A historical tour of the city will take you first to the San Ambrosio and Musulmanes 1 & 2 Caves, all of great anthropological and archeological importance, and which were discovered in 1961. Mansión Xanadú is a Spanish colonial mansion of great architectural beauty that nowadays functions as a restaurant. This home belonged to the magnate Du Pont, who bought up large tracts of land in the 20s and who had a great influence on the industrial development of the region.
A long walk along Avenida Playa will take you to the Establecimiento Tabaquero, which produces the cigars consumed by the tourists who stay in the hotels of this region. You can take an interesting tour of the factory. The Museo Municipal offers a brief history of the city and is housed in one of the most beautiful of the traditional houses to be found in Varadero. The dolphinarium is definitely a family favorite, with dolphins that are trained to perform the most entertaining tricks. If you prefer to commune with nature and to rest beneath a shady tree, you should visit Parque Josone , a pleasant place very close to the Museo Municipal, and surrounded by lakes, tropical plants and crafts markets.
In Matanzas, you must visit the Plaza de la Vigía a point of convergence in the city that is as exhilarating as it is noisy. If you prefer, you can go to the Plaza de la Libertad, or the smaller Parque Central which has a recreation area. Other places of interest are the Museo Provincial de Mantanzas, which presents a complete history of the region, and Teatro Sauto which was built at the end of the 19th Century and has now been declared a national monument. The Museo Farmaceútico in Calle Milanes is a chemist shop from 1882 that has been preserved in its original state. A stop at the Hotel Louvre will take you back to the splendor of the 19th Century.
Lovers of fresh air can enjoy the Yumurí and Mirador de Bacunayagua Valleys, both lined with palms and fertile slopes and traversed by the river of the same name. Explorers of the Bellamar caves will be amazed by their hour-long guided tour.
Shopping in Varadero
When it comes to shopping, Varadero is one of the best locations in the island. All the hotels have their own shops, but if you want to be adventurous and go into town, there is even more to find.
The main shopping center in Varadero is Caimán, which has many shops selling gifts, art and crafts, souvenirs, clothes, alcohol and tobacco. Other well-stocked shops can be found between Calle 54 and Calle 64. If you are interested in art, you should visit the Taller y Galería de Cerámica Artística, the city's most famous art gallery which not only exhibits works of art, but also sells works by the best Cuban sculptors and potters.
For cigar aficionados, there is the Casa del Habano which trades in the finest tobacco products. If literature is your passion, you should visit the Hanoi library in Calle 44, one of the most comprehensive in the island that has books in English and French, as well as an enormous stock of books in Spanish.
Lovers of Salsa and Son—two enduringly popular strains of Afro-Cuban music with roots that go back centuries—will really enjoy a visit to the shops ARTEX and Max Music which have the best in traditional Cuban music, cassettes, and CDs. Both also have book sections.
All your photo needs are catered for at Photo Service, which sells film and batteries, develops film and even has a camera repair service. For casual clothing, as well as various beach items, there is Benetton in Calle 42.
In addition to these recommended places, the crafts markets and shops of Matanzas offer a whole host of other options.
The beaches of Varadero are the most famous in Cuba. Incomparably beautiful, the rich blues of the sea, the whiteness of the sand, the temperature of the water, and the huge choice of hotel and tourist complexes make them a top destination for beach holidays and aquatic sports.
All the hotels of the area offer water-sports in their all-inclusive packages and many of them have sea-bicycles, jet skis and small boats to rent. For boat trips around the peninsula there are three points of departure: Marina Acua, at the western end of the peninsula, Marina Chapelín at kilometer 12 of the Las Morlas highway, and Marina Gaviota, on the eastern end of the peninsula. All of them have similar offers, which include a fishing trip in a four-seater boat and a "seafari," a visit to the nearby keys with the opportunity to dive on a coral reef and appreciate the beauty of this special type of marine life. The seafari includes lunch and an on-board bar service.
One of the most popular excursions is a trip in the Varasub, a glass-bottomed boat which makes a circuit of the peninsula. Another favorite is diving, either by day or by night in the open sea or even in the local caves. For more information about diving, you should contact Club Barracuda. Club Tropical also offers diving excursions in Playa Girón, which include a two-hour introductory course and all the necessary equipment. Club Aqua Diving in Avenida Kawama has the most competitive prices, and offers excursions to a shipwreck and the chance to watch the instructors feed giant manta rays from the boat. The price also includes oxygen tanks and a two-hour trip.
If you prefer, you can go para-gliding from the beach. Those who have lived this experience say it is an unforgettable one. For more details, you can contact Cubanaútica in Avenida Kawama.