I still receive negative comments about one of my favorite places in Cuba–Varadero. I’ve always included 2-3 nights there at the end of my expeditions. But some veteran Cuba travelers feel I should instead take guests to see the “real” Cuba. Hey–if they want to stay in the cane fields and sleep with the campesinos, they should go for it! After talking with some folks about Varadero and their criticism of it, I’ve discovered (predictably) that some of them have never even visited it!
Varadero is the name of the beach area about 90 miles east of Havana. It is located on a 15-mile long peninsula that is very narrow. The beach is one of the prettiest in the Caribbean. It was a favorite destination of wealthy Americans during the Roaring 1920’s. Industrialist Irénée Du Pont bought most of the peninsula and subdivided it. He built a beachfront mansion that was about as elegant as any in the world at that time. Today it is a unique luxury 6-room hotel. It is open to the public for lunch and dinner, as well as drinks in the 3rd-floor bar. The adjacent former guest house is now a clubhouse for the nearby 18-hole golf course.
Al Capone also built an artistic stone house in Varadero. His backyard was a beautiful beach. Across the street from his front yard was a marina—a very convenient place from which to ship rum to Florida during Prohibition. Today it is now a restaurant–Casa de Al. It’s a great place to sit on the deck, have coffee or a drink, and watch the pelicans dive into the ocean in search of fish.
So why are some Cuba fanatics so critical about Varadero? I think possibly because there are dozens of luxury resorts along the beach. Some travel “purists” claim it’s not the “real” Cuba, whatever that is. A lot of this attitude comes from now-outdated regulations. For many years, tourists were restricted to hotels located in the middle and on the east end of the peninsula. Several years ago the regulations were changed, so that visitors from all countries can now stay at casas particulares (bed-and-breakfast inns). Because the peninsula is so narrow, even the worst-located casas are only a few blocks from the beach. Many are located right on the beach! Even though there are high-rise hotels further east, the town on the western side is really delightful. The homes in front of uncrowded beaches are mostly 2-stories high, and located within easy walking distance to shopping, good restaurants, parks, and musical venues. The terrain is essentially flat, so it is very easy to get around by walking or bicycling.
I also believe that Varadero and the surrounding area give us a glimpse into the future of Cuba. Many of the Cubans there seem to have more of a middle-class or even upper-middle class aura and lifestyle (by Cuban standards). This is apparently due to the touristic (a Cuban word) nature of the area. Even though the government is raking in the money from the hotels, a lot of cash changes hands directly between tourists and local business-people. Many Canadians visit Varadero every winter, and make friends with locals. In turn, many of the locals are invited to visit Canadians and other foreigners in their home countries. I met a Cuban deep sea fishing boat captain who had been to Canada four times over the past few years, with all expenses paid by his hosts.
So when some of my PC friends gently criticize me for taking groups to Varadero, I’ll often ask them to view those luxury high-rise hotels to the east as modern cash-flow generators. They are helping the government and the economy survive these turbulent times until both can evolve into more sustainable entities.