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.
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 Milanés 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.
Varadero has many comfortable well-equipped hotels. Most visitors come here on all-inclusive packages which are probably the straightest, most unencumbered line between you and the beach. Everything you need is a shout to hotel staff away and if you do decide to venture beyond the sun and surf, all you need do is put your name down for your preferred day-trip on the blackboard.
Private houses to rent, so common in the rest of the country, are not permitted in Varadero and your best bet, while here, is to stay at a hotel. There are some houses which rent out rooms, usually for no more than US$30 a night, but they are tricky to find if you are not familiar with the area. If you are gung-ho about staying in a private house, you should considering looking in Matanzas, which is still close to Varadero's beaches. This is certainly a cheaper option than a hotel, although not always as comfortable.
The hotels located in the eastern side of the peninsula have access to the best beaches. One of the most noteworthy is the Hotel Horizontes Caribe, on the Avenida Playa. This is surrounded by discos, restaurants, cafés and all sorts of nighttime entertainment.
The Hotel Meliá Las Américas, on the Autopista Sur, is very near the golf course. It offers a wide range of facilities, including access to a private beach for the exclusive use of guests. The Hotel Sol Palmeras, on Las Morlas Road, is part of the same Spanish chain, Sol Meliá. It is the largest hotel in Varadero, with room for 1100 guests. It too has a beautiful private beach, as well as a fine restaurant, swimming pool and apartments surrounded by palm groves.
The Hotel Pullman, on Avenida Primera, is a gorgeous 19th century building, where you will find accommodation at reasonable prices. The Hotel Club Varadero, on Las Américas road, has all the facilities of a great hotel: swimming pool, sports activities, restaurants, and shops, among others.
Not to be outdone, Hotel Club Med, another favorite, has a private beach and offers salsa lessons. Hotel Barlovento on Avenida Primera, is comfortable and well-equipped, and in the very center of Varadero, you will find Hotel Club Tropical, with reasonable-priced rooms and, as if that were not enough, the Disco Azúcar (Sugar Disco) club. While in the center, you can also check out the Hotel Internacional, built in the 1950s and offering comfortable rooms and spacious apartments. Hotel Tuxpan, located to one side of Club Varadero, has a nice swimming pool, and La Bamba disco.
The Villa del Caribe caters to Cubans and foreigners, and is located very near the beach. Its rooms are comfortable, service is good, and prices are very reasonable. Villa Kawama offers comfortable accommodation and the advantages of a large pool, although its beach is not one of the best. Villa Punta Blanca is recommended for its pleasant staff and the Aparahotel Varazul, on Avenida Primera, for balconies that look out onto the sea, as well as for excellent service. Hotel Oasis on Vía Blanca is a reasonably priced all-inclusive hotel, which has access to the most beautiful beaches in Varadero.
In Matanzas, a good choice is the Hotel Louvre on Milanés street. It is a stunning old colonial building, with a décor and atmosphere which will take you back to the splendor of days gone by. On the Plaza de la Libertad, you will find the Hotel Velasco, also a colonial style building, and very comfortable indeed. Towards the Valle de Yumurí, the Casa del Valle is a health resort that will get you into closer contact with nature.
The entertainment choices in Varadero are almost unlimited. The intense nightlife here is in a league of its own, even when compared to La Habana. Every hotel, bar, restaurant, club and theater is accustomed to catering for visitors, and indeed many specialize in it. There is a mix of atmospheres and music here that will satisfy any taste.
Most hotels offer nighttime entertainment of some sort because few tourists venture out to explore the city and all its possibilities. For those with a taste for adventure and exploration, however, the choice is staggering. La Cueva del Pirata, on the Autopista Sur, presents the best Cuban bands live, and occasionally hosts cabaret shows. El Anfiteatro, near the Varadero bridge, offers a very popular cabaret and well-known Cuban bands sometimes stage concerts in the Parque Josone. One of the best salsa clubs in town is the Havana Club, near Hotel Siboney. If you are in the mood for a more private, intimate setting, you cannot beat Casa Du Pont and its top-floor piano bar. Here you can spend a relaxing evening enjoying nightfall and the gorgeous views.
La Casa de la Cultura, on Avenida Primera, is home to Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, a rumba group of nationally and internationally renowned musicians. Here, also, you can attend cultural events, poetry readings, folk groups, concerts of local trovadores (troubadors) and, every Saturday, the Sábado de la Rumba (Rumba Saturday) with Afro-Cuban dances inspired by santería (religion of African origin) rites. The Casa de la Cultura de los Corales houses the Sol y Mar art gallery, which exhibits an interesting selection of local arts and crafts. The Retablo gallery has a large selection of puppets and marionettes, and at Antigüedades gallery you can find antique ceramic, porcelain and glass for sale.
The Museo Municipal de Varadero, on Avenida Playa, presents a brief history of the city. The Museo Provincial de Matanzas has a more complete history of Varadero, as well as organizing cultural activities in its courtyard. On Saturdays it celebrates traditional Cuban music by presenting the Rincón Lírico band, and every third Saturday, hosts activities for children.
Another museum worth visiting is the Museo del Morrillo, an old colonial-era military fortress. The Museo Farmacéutico is a traditional 18th century chemist shop, which has been left intact, and is one of a kind. The Monumento al Esclavo Rebelde (Monument to the Rebel Slave) in Matanzas is an imposing feature, and demands a look; likewise the Monumento al Mambí Desconocido (Monument to the Unknown Mambí, or rebel in the Cuban Separatist War) in the Plaza de la Vigía.
For lovers of classical music, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Matanzas frequently gives concerts in the Plaza de la Libertad. If you enjoy theater, Teatro Sauto, an architectural jewel in Varadero, hosts regular performances while the Sala Papalote, on Daoíz street, presents shows for kids. For movies, try the Cine Varadero on Avenida Playa, which shows the best of Cuban cinema. In Matanzas, Cine Granma is also a good option. For bookworms, you are bound to find something of interest in the following: Santa Marta bookshop or José Smith Comas library in Varadero, Cultural bookshop and Pensamiento if you're in Matanzas.
Hotel Internacional offers an excellent show Mondays to Fridays, called Cabaret Continental, a colorful '50s extravaganza. Hotel Tropical gives you Disco Azúcar, which has an intimate and pleasant atmosphere. Hotel Tuxpan, with its disco La Bamba, is a favorite, a sophisticated nightclub that combines Latin and European rhythms.