Cuba's biggest beach resort, with a hotel zone and some public beaches. Pretty.
I came here in January 2019 with my husband Rhod, son Rhodri and his friend Daniela. It was a stop-over on a three-day road trip from Havana. We only stopped here for two hours, to get a taste of the famous beach. We now live on the Caribbean coast of Yucatán in Mexico, so being on the beach is not so precious for us any more, but we still wanted to see the beach for comparison.
First thing that we noticed was that the beach was empty. Well, certainly by comparison with Riviera Maya in Mexico. We went to the western end, downtown Varadero, where locals now go to the beach and mix with day-trippers and foreigners. If you’re looking for Varadero on a budget, this is the area to be in. The main street, Avenida 1, is lined with cafes, bars and restaurants. You can even find food stalls here, which we have not seen anywhere else in Cuba. Here we bought a bun with pulled pork, what they call cochinita pibil in Mexico, cooked in the ground with hot rocks. There are also some convenience stores selling drinks, alcohol and snacks for the beach. Here we found the best shop in Cuba, one of those PanAmerican shops where Cubans can buy 'luxury' items such as soap, coffee, cheese, beer and even chocolate. We stocked up here for our road trip. As for the chocolates, we actually did bring them with us from Mexico, but we kept them as presents. We gave them to any new friends we came across, for their children. They never had Ferrero Rocher or Toblerone before.
You may have a different experience if you come here for an all-inclusive holiday, in one of the hotel resorts. That will be most likely on the eastern side; they tend to have either mega all inclusive resorts for foreigners there or 1950s hotels and holiday camps for Cubans. The beaches in such resorts may be more crowded. Don't expect cabañas, or the small eco-hotels with hammocks that can be found in Tulum and along the Riviera Maya.
Another noticeable difference is the lack of hustling vendors on the beach. We were not approached by any. There were no public toilets and showers either, but that is common in Riviera Maya as well. So if you like quiet beaches, you will like the western public beaches of Varadero. And while you can find a few bars and restaurants here (although not directly on the beach, just off it), as I already mentioned, don't expect any extravagant food, just basic seafood. And great mojitos.
As for the quality of the sand and water, it compares well with Riviera Maya. Well, the sand is pale blond, not white like in Tulum or Cancún but it is soft enough. The water is clean and light blue. The seaweed problem is everywhere the same in the Caribbean, as it is of an intermittent nature. So it is either present or the sea current just takes it away after a storm or rain. We experienced strong waves here, but that could just have been strong wind on the day; I can't judge if that is frequent here (strong waves are frequent in Cancún, by the way, but not on the rest of Riviera Maya).
The location itself also reminded me of Cancún because this resort is situated on the long and slender Hicacos Peninsula. It is about 1km wide at its widest point and about 20km long. It is separated from the rest of Cuba by the Kawama Channel. There are some parks on this stretch, like Parque Joson, where you can paddle a boat or water bike, and Parque Central with handicrafts markets. A very similar set-up to the Cancún hotel zone and its attractions, including a lagoon on one side of the hotel zone.
Varadero has been in use from the 16th century. Not as a resort, but as a dry dock for ship repairs (varadero means 'dry dock' in Spanish) and salt pans. From 1887 some rich local families had their vacation homes here and the first hotel appeared here in about 1916, called Varadero. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, many mansions were expropriated from their owners and turned into museums. In the 1990s, desperate for cash (as the Soviet block collapsed and stopped supplying Cuba), the resort reopened for tourism. Today Varadero is primarily visited by European and Canadian tourists, and receives more than 1 million tourists annually.
If you go to the public beaches, perhaps on a day trip from Havana, you will mix with the locals, like we did. It is a lovely way to get to know the Cubans, to have informal chats on the beach and make new friends. They are such warm people. This is due to another recent change that has taken place, which involves what was referred to as 'tourism apartheid'. Cuban people did not have permits to enter the resort until 2008 (unless they worked here). Yes, it was President Raul Castro who lifted that unpopular ban, alongside the restrictions on Cubans buying computers, DVD players and mobile phones. Cuba is changing. Slowly, but surely.
You may say that it is a bit of a hassle to come here for one day from Havana, and not that cheap (certainly not for independent travellers on a budget). This may be the case but it does make sense to do so if you combine it with a further trip to the colonial cities of Santa Clara, Trinidad or Cienfuegos. Come here before Cuba changes out of all recognition.
How to get there:
By car (private taxi) it takes about 1.5 hours from Havana; this is how we came here. We paid 150US per day and the car was a 1952 Chevrolet. The cost included petrol, and the driver's accommodation and food. The main road is Autopista Sur (highway), which begins before crossing the bridge over Laguna Paso Malo and ends at 19.4 km. Take the 1st or 2nd left off the Autopista and you will end up on the main strip, Avenida 1.
Renting a car is as expensive as hiring a car with a driver. If you are determined, try the rental agency across the road from the Hotel Nacional if you have not pre-booked a car online. When we checked with them, they had cars available at 100US per day (Toyota type). The petrol would cost you extra, of course.
By bus from Havana, it takes three hours, from Viazul bus station (at the corner of 26 Avenue and Parque Zoologico, Vedado). The tickets are around 20US/person.
Once in Varadero, there are several bus operators providing connections from the resorts to town, like Varadero Beach Tour – hop on and off double-decker bus service. If you are coming just for the day, go to the public beach from Avenida 1.