Varadero

Cuba's chief beach resort, Varadero, is built on the Península de Hicacos, a 23-km-long thin peninsula, along the length of which run two roads lined with dozens of large all-inclusive hotels, some smaller ones, and several chalets and villas, many of which date from before 1959. Sadly, some of the hotel architecture is hideous.

Varadero is still undergoing large-scale development and joint ventures with foreign investors are still being encouraged. The latest area for development is Laguna Mangon at the far end of the peninsula. Despite the building in progress it is not over-exploited and is a good place for a family beach holiday. The beaches are quite empty, if a bit exposed, and you can walk for miles along the sand, totally isolated from the rest of Cuba, if not other tourists.

Ins and outs

Getting there


Varadero's international airport is 26 km from the beginning of the hotel strip. If you are booked into one of the new hotels at the end of the peninsula, you will have a journey of some 40 km. The Víazul bus pulls in here on its way to the central bus terminal. If you are travelling by car from Havana there is a good dual carriageway, the Vía Blanca, which runs to Varadero, 142 km from the capital. The easiest way to get to and from Havana is on a tour or transfer bus, booked through a hotel tour desk, which will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel. There are daily buses from Havana, and also from Trinidad via Sancti Spíritus and Santa Clara with Víazul.

Getting around

Distances are large. Avenida 1, which runs southwest-northeast the length of the peninsula, has a tourist bus service. It takes about an hour to cover the length, taking into account dropping-off times. Calle numbers begin with lowest numbers at the southwest end and work upwards to the northeast. Car rental is available at the airport and at numerous hotel and office locations along the peninsula. Most hotels rent bicycles, or mopeds, which will allow you to get further, faster. Taxis wait outside hotels, or you can phone for one. There are also horse-drawn carriages for a leisurely tour and a handful of cocotaxis.

Tourist information

Infotur, infovar@ enet.cu. There are also offices in the airport. Your hotel tourist desk should also be able to answer all your questions. If not, all tour operators can help. Some places in Varadero accept euro.

History

Salt was the first economic catalyst in the area, followed by cattle, timber and sugar. A plan was drawn up in 1887 for the foundation of a city, but development of the peninsula did not really begin until 1923, when it was discovered as a potential holiday resort for the seriously rich. There are some old wooden houses left, with rocking chairs on the verandas and balconies, but the village area was not built until the 1950s. The Dupont family bought land in the 1920s, sold it for profit, then bought more, constructed roads and built a large house, now the Mansión Xanadú

Sights

The relatively recent development of Varadero means there is little of historical or architectural interest; visitors spend their time on the beach, engaging in watersports or taking organized excursions. The southern end of the resort is more low key, with hustlers on the beaches by day and jineteros in the bars at night. The village area does feel like a real place, not just a hotel city, and, in contrast to some other tourist enclaves (such as the northern cays), Cubans do actually live here. The far northeastern end is where international hotels are; you can pay to use their facilities even if you are not staying there. Apart from their own hotel shops, they are very remote from the shopping area and independent restaurants. As a result, most of the hotels at the far end are all-inclusives.

The
Museo de Varadero
, is worth a visit if you want something to do away from the beach. The house itself is interesting as an example of one of the first beach houses. Originally known as
Casa Villa Abreu
, it was built in 1921 by architect Leopoldo Abreu as a summer house in blue and white with a lovely timber veranda and wooden balconies all round, designed to catch the breeze. Restored in 1980-81 as a museum, it has the usual collection of unlabelled furniture and glass from the early 20th century, stuffed animals in a natural history room (a revolutionary guard dog, Ima, appears to be suffering from mange), and an Amerindian skeleton (male, aged 20-30, with signs of syphilis and anaemia). However, the most interesting exhibit is a two-headed baby shark washed up on these shores. There are several old photos of the first hotels in Varadero, including Dos Mares (1940), Internacional (1950) and Pullman (1950), as well as items of local sporting history, a shirt of Javier Sotomayor and a rowing boat from the Club Náutico de Varadero. The
Parque Josone
, Avenida 1 y 57, is a large park with pool and several restaurants.

At the far end of the peninsula the land has been designated the
Varadero Ecological Park
(Parque Ecológico Varahicacos)
. The reserve includes 700 m of beach with different plant species including scrub and cactus, with a lagoon where salt was once made, several kilometres of sandy beach and two caves. The
Cueva de Ambrosio
, 30 mins walk from the main road, is where dozens of Amerindian drawings were discovered in 1961.
Cueva de Musulmanes
contains aboriginal fossils. Nearly opposite Marina Chapelín is a Dolphinarium .

Beaches, watersports and the cays

Varadero's sandy beach stretches the length of the peninsula, broken only occasionally by rocky outcrops which can be traversed by walking through a hotel's grounds. Some parts are wider than others and as a general rule the older hotels have the best bits of beach. For instance, the Internacional, which was the Hilton before the Revolution, has a large swathe of curving beach, whereas the brand-new, upmarket Meliá Las Américas and its sister hotels, Meliá Varadero and Sol Palmeras, have a disappointingly shallow strip of sand and some rocks. However, the sand is all beautifully looked after and cleaned daily. The water is clean and nice for swimming but snorkelling is not worth the effort. For good snorkelling, take one of the many boat trips out to the cays. There are three marinas, all full service with sailing tours, restaurants, deep-sea fishing and diving. All services can be booked through the tour desks in hotels. You can indulge in almost any form of watersport, including windsurfing and kitesurfing and non-motorized pedalos but these are not practised in the open sea for environmental and safety reasons (you might get blown over to Miami). If you are not staying in any of the Varadero hotels you may organize activities yourselves, but it will be a bit more difficult.

There are many
sailing tours
to the offshore cays, which usually include lunch, an open bar and time for swimming and snorkelling.

Varadero is one of the most developed areas for diving. There are several sites around the offshore cays suitable for novice or advanced divers. Interesting sites include the wreck of the
Neptune
, a 60-m steel cargo ship thought to be German, lying in only 10 m. This is home to a number of fish including massive green moray eels and very large, friendly French angelfish. The wreck is very broken up, but the boilers are still intact and there are places where the superstructure (shaft and propeller) is in good condition and interesting to explore with good photo sites. Among the many reef dive sites in the area are Clara Boyas (Sun Roof), a massive 60-sq-m coral head in 20 m of water, with tunnels large enough for three to four divers to swim through. These connect with upward passages where the sunlight can be seen streaming through. Another site, Las Brujas (the Witches), is only 6 m deep. Large coral heads protrude from the sandy bottom, with coral holes and crevices, adorned with sea fans, home for large schools of snappers. Playa Coral is a site on a 2-km barrier reef west of Varadero, beginning at Matanzas Bay, with a large variety of fish and coral. This is usually a shore dive, although if you go over the wall, where you can find black coral and gorgonians in deep water, it can be a boat dive. If you are based in Varadero on a dive package, you may be offered a trip to Playa Girón for good shore diving, and to the Saturno Caves for an inland cave dive, as part of your package.

The
cays around the Hicacos Peninsula
were once the haunt of French pirates and it is supposed that the name 'Varadero' comes from the fact that ships ran aground here, becoming
varados
(stranded).
Cayo Mono
lies five nautical miles north northeast of Punta de Morlas. During the nesting season in mid-year it becomes a seagull sanctuary for the 'Gaviota Negra' (
Anous stolidus
) and the 'Gaviota Monja' (
Sterna fuscata
and
Annaethetus
), during which time you can only pass by and watch them through binoculars.
Cayo Piedra del Norte
is two miles southeast of Cayo Mono. On the cay is a lighthouse. Other cays visited by tour boats include Cayo Blanco, Cayo Romero and Cayo Diana.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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