Travel Guide Draft Varadero y Matanzas
Varadero and Matanzas province
Varadero is the most popular tourist destination and a very exclusive part of Cuba. First for endless and gorgeous “Playa Azul”, a stunning 20km long pristine white sand beach and the calm turquoise waters going with it, considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Along with this fantastic paradise postcard Varadero is one of the largest all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, offering a lot of activities, poolside entertainment, water activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, sport fishing, sailing, catamaran cruise… Culture is not left aside with many museums and art galleries, numerous handicrafts markets, cigar and rum shops while a very festive nightlife will occur in its numerous bars, discotheques, cafes, and cabarets.
Being a tourist friendly huge resort peninsula makes Varadero less authentic than other colonial cities such as Santiago de Cuba or Havana. Excursions to Matanzas, Cardenas, the “Peninsula de Zapata” or the “Bahia de Cochinos” will make you catch a more diverse and realistic Cuban experience.
Aside from its glorious beach, nature lovers will enjoy the “Reserva Ecologica de Varahicacos”, hiking its trails, visiting ancient caves or simply discovering its unique fauna and flora.
Varadero is located on the Hicacos Peninsula, on the northern coast of Cuba. 140 km (93 miles) from Havana and 32 km (21 miles) from Matanzas, the largest and capital city of the homonym province, Matanzas. The peninsula takes its name from a type of spiny cactus (Hicacos). The long and narrow Hicacos Peninsula (14.4 sq km (5.6 sq mi), 21 km (13 mi) long, 1 km (0.6 mi) wide), an elongated island, is separated from the mainland by the Kawama channel and the Laguna Paso Malo. Downtown Varadero is on the southwest end of the peninsula. Going northeast, you’ll find most of the beach resorts and a nature preserve called “Reserva Ecologica Varahicacos.
Located South of the province of Matanzas, the “Cienaga de Zapata” includes the “Peninsula de Zapata” and the “Bahia de Cochinos” (Bay of the Pigs). The “Cienaga de Zapata” is the place of the “Gran Parque Natural Montemar” offering great natural and historical interests as an untouched green territory. Covered with forests, it hosts a fantastic and unique fauna and flora. Crocodiles, manjuaris, birds and about 78 species of endemic plants made this region one of the six biosphere preserve of Cuba.
Evidences found in many locations along the peninsula, such as the “Cueva de los Musulmanes” or the “Cueva de Ambrosio”, shows that the region was first inhabited by indigenous populations. The Tainos, related to the ‘Arawak’ tribes populating the Caribbean.
During the XVIth century colonial times, when the Spanish settled the island, a port was created on the peninsula. Varadero means dry dock in Spanish. The name persisted till now.
Tourism began in the late XIXth century. Rich Cuban from Havana began to build vacation houses, quickly followed by many Americans amongst which the French-American millionaire Irenee Dupont de Nemours. Following, many resorts and mansion flourished along the coast between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. The peninsula rapidly became a prestigious vacation destination for elite tourism.
Cuban revolution radically changed the goal of the government which was caring about improving the life of the Cuban people. Budgets were redistributed for health, education instead of tourism industry. During the American embargo and the tensed relations between Cuba and the United States, many rich American were expropriated from their houses, and these mansions were turned into museums, art galleries… making Varadero one of the most important cultural center on the island, hosting many events such as exhibitions, concerts or festivals. At this time Varadero became a favorite Russian resort.
During the 1990’s, the Cuban government decided to invest more on the tourism industry. Many new hotels and resorts were built on the peninsula.
Major tourism destination in Cuba, more than 1 million tourists visit Varadero each year, mostly from Canada, Europe and Latin America. The US embargo and restrictions are in a good way to be lifted, at least less restrictive for American tourists to visit the island.
See and Do
Playa Azul - Varadero
Considered as the number one reason to visit Varadero, it is said to be the best beaches in the Caribbean, if not in the world. Varadero Beach, known by locals as “Playa Azul” (Blue Beach), is the first and best beach destination in Cuba.
Varadero is the ultimate beach destination and a paradise for beach lovers. This spectacular beach is absolutely wonderful and so is the water. Powdery white soft sand, crystal clear waters warm as a bath, are inviting to spend hours soaking up the sun enjoying the turquoise sea. Sit back and relax, watch the day go by, get a nice tan, have a drink, feel the sweet breeze blowing on your skin, listen to the melodious sound of the waves and the birds singing by the palm trees, smell the odor of the fresh fish cooked in a beach restaurant nearby.
Here, boring is not a word. Most of the attractions and activities are located on the beach and in the sea.
The shallow waters are ideal for swimming. Varadero beach life offers water sports, beach volleyball, swimming, and massage on the beach. Kilometers of white sandy beaches with coco palms to stroll down along the various hotels and cabanas.
If the amenities provided by hotels on the beach are for guests only, all the beaches in Cuba are public. You will find along the beach plenty of sunshades and beach chair rentals. The beach can be more crowdy near the resorts, anyway there is plenty of room for everyone, and you will find some times when you will have the beach for yourself.
Parque Retiro Josone - Varadero
One of the most popular attraction in Varadero, “Parque Retiro Josone” (Josone Park) is a little oasis in the center of Varadero and worth a visit.
Designed in 1940 by a couple, Jose and Onelia, this nine hectares’ park is the perfect place if you want to spend some romantic time away from the beach, sitting on a bench or going for a walk around the lake or under the shade of its luxurious tropical vegetation. Featuring many activities, the park is a great way to spend an afternoon wandering around its alleys, from the botanical garden till the huge bird cage where you can see a large variety of colorful birds. You can enjoy the swimming pool, a boat ride on the lake while kids will love the camel rides, the mini golf or the playground. Rest in one of the few bars to sip a tasty Mojito or Pina Colada, pass by the sugar can juice stand or savor some delicious cuisine in one of the four restaurants located in the park, La Campagna (Creole cuisine), Gruta del Vino (wine bar and Seafood restaurant), El Retiro (International cuisine) and Dante (Italian cuisine).
Reserva Ecologica Varahicacos - Varadero
This three square kilometers park, created in 1974 at the northeastern end of the peninsula, stands as Varadero’s ecological and wildlife preserve.
You can hike its trails through the forest to go to natives historical places such as the “Cueva de Ambrosio” (Ambrosio Cave), “Cueva de los Musulmanes” (Muslim Cave) and the giant cactus “El Patriarca”.
Cueva de Ambrosio - Varadero
Situated inside the “Reserva Ecologica Varahicacos” (Varahicacos Ecological Preserve), the Ambrosio Cave, discovered in 1961, is an archeological site interesting for its pre-Columbian black and red drawings.
This 300 meters’ cave contains 72 Taino rupestrian rock drawings, consisting of concentric circles. They are said to be more than 2000 years old.
Later it was used as a ceremonial site and also as a refuge for escaped slaves, it is now inhabited by hundreds of inoffensive fruit-eating bats which are hanging from the ceiling.
Cueva de los Musulmanes - Varadero
Also located in the “Reserva Ecologica Varahicacos” (Varahicacos Ecological Preserve), the ‘Muslim Cave’ was the place of discovery of fossils of a prehistoric mammal ancestor of the Guinea pig, and the skeleton of a man dating back between 500 BC to early 500 AD.
Later, the cave was used by Cuban smugglers who called themselves ‘Musulmanes’ which give its name to the place.
‘The Patriarch’ is the only witness of the arrival of Cristopher Columbus. It is a 500 years old giant cactus, measuring more than 6 meters (20ft) high.
Cayo Piedras del Norte - Varadero
Cayo Piedras del Norte is a 'marine park' where different vessels and aircraft were sunk in 15m to 30m of water. You can watch the richness of Cuba’s marine life taking a glass bottom boat tour or dive around the yacht ‘Coral Negro’, a missile launching gunboat or a AN-24 aircraft.
Now a hotel restaurant and hosting Varadero’s golf club house, this mansion was built in the 1930’s by architects Covarrocas and Govantes for Irenee Dupont de Nemours, a French American millionaire. The luxurious hacienda style construction is made of Italian marble and decorated with many bronze candelabres and paintings. On the ground floor is the lobby of the hotel and the restaurant Xanadu, on the second floor are six rooms and on the third floor is the panoramic Bar Mirador, one of the best place in Varadero to sip cocktails while admiring the sunset. The basement hosts the wine cellar.
Delfinario (Dolphinarium) - Varadero
Located in a natural mangrove, the dolphinarium presents several shows and offers you the possibility to swim with dolphins. You will fully interact with the dolphins, perform various tricks, they will even jump over you. A fantastic experience for both kids and adults. Think about bringing your swimsuit and towels. Not to hurt the dolphins skin, wear as little jewellery as possible and don’t apply sunblock lotion before you get in the water with them.
Iglesia de Santa Elvira - Varadero
Built in 1938 out of stones and wood, this small ‘colonial-style’ church is uncommonly resembling an alpine chapel. Mass is held in Spanish.at 10:30 on Sunday.
Parque Central and Parque de las 8000 Taquillas - Varadero
Downtown Varadero, facing each other accross the Street are the ”Parque Central” and the”Parque de las 8000 Taquillas”.
In the “Parque Central” you can find a monument to the national hero “Jose Marti” and the "Monumento a los Martires" (Martyrs monument).
In the “Parque de las 8000 Taquillas” (Park of the 8000 cubicles) you can find shops and boutiques.
Centro Todo En Uno - Varadero
This amusement park offers many activities such as bowling alley, arcade games, pool tables, bumper cars, roller coaster, merry-go-round. You can also find snack bars, pizzeria, a restaurant and the cheapest beer in Varadero.
Mostly frequented by Cubans, it is a good way to have some fun out of the hotels and to meet locals. The park is quiet on weekdays and more busy during the weekends.
Casa de Al (Al Capone’s House) - Varadero
Al Capone’s house is a beachfront house dating from the 1920’s. Even if the famous gangster often visited Cuba during the prohibition era, he never actually lived in the house. It is now hosting a qualitative restaurant offering a fantastic atmosphere and serving wonderful seafood and paellas.
Cayo Blanco - Varadero
A little piece of paradise, “Cayo Blanco” offers you to enjoy its amazing beaches and turquoise waters, swim, snorkel or simply relax with a drink while listening to live music. Half an hour away from Varadero, this ‘key’ is only accessible by boat or excursions.
The province of Matanzas is the place for many different touristic activities away from Varadero Beach and Hicacos peninsula. Most of them are located in the city of Matanzas, in the “Valle de Yumuri” or on the “Península de Zapata”.
Matanzas – Matanzas Province
Matanzas, located West of Varadero, on the “Bahia de matanzas” (Bay of Matanzas) is the capital city of the province of Matanzas. The city was founded in 1693. It is also called ‘The city of bridges’ for the 17 bridges crossing the three rivers, “Yumuri river”,” San Juan river” and “Canimar river” going through the city.