Varadero has a split personality, it is where many people spend the last couple of days of their holiday as a place to wind down and relax after the frantic city life of Havana, but it is also the all inclusive destination of choice in Cuba. If you have just arrived off the Transtur bus from Havana, the clean wide streets, with flat pavements and no one stood around hassling you to take a taxi will be a sweet relief. Perhaps the most exciting thing you will find here is a supermarket, but just double check the price the cashier asks you for your shop.
Where To Stay
If you are going all inclusive then there are only really two main choices; a mid-range hotel located in the central part Varadero, or an all singing all dancing hotel at the furthest part of the spit.
There are of course a few casa particulares (home stay’s) inter-dispersed between all of the hotels, and it is these that I really rate. Beny’s House located next to Parque Josone, is in a perfectly central location if you want to be out dancing all night, and is incredibly friendly and welcoming, but my personal favourite is Front Beach House (contactable through Beny’s) which is located right on the long white sand beach. Both casa’s are clean, with modern facilities and outside terraces that you can relax in. The two ladies that run Front Beach are incredibly helpful and cook the most amazing three course meals with wine or beer for just 12CUC, of particular mention is the lobster paella and creme caramel desert.
Things To Do
Nearly everything in Varadero is centred on the beach. There are numerous places to hire catamarans, or go kitesurfing. As a water baby, I loved the combined snorkelling and visit to the Cueva Saturno (36 CUC); an underground cave with a 22 metre deep fresh water pool perfect for swimming in. The water here is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom. This is just one of the many trips that can be booked at the tour desks available in every hotel in Varadero, others include helicopter flights, nights out at the Copacabana and trips to other parts of Cuba.
There is a hop on hop off bus that takes you down the length of the spit and all the way round the coast to Matanzas. This is definitely the cheapest way to explore the coastline, although outside of Matanzas itself, the stop near the snorkelling and caves, there is not much else that isn’t actually in Varadero. If you are using the bus to go snorkelling you are able to hire equipment when you get there.
Perhaps the most lavish trip that you can take is a day long yacht ride to a deserted island where you can scuba with a personal guide on an incredible reef. A freshly cooked lobster and champagne lunch will await you on the beach before a sunset sail home.
Most people will be looking to buy rum and cigars and enjoy the excesses of Cuban living. There are specialist rum and tobacco stores along Avenida Primera as well as in _ (shopping centre) but rum can also be bought in the supermarket on Calle 41 and in the smaller kiosk shops. The sale of rum and cigars are set by the government so prices remain static throughout Cuba, although this does not stop cashiers fro trying to overcharge unaware foreigners. Of course buy what you will consume during your stay from these shops but remember it is the same price to buy them at the airport on the way home and then you don’t have to try and squeeze them into your luggage. Remember of course to keep to the restrictions of the country you are entering or be prepared to pay taxes.
Talking of things to take home, there are almost more souvenir shops and markets in Varadero than the rest of Cuba combined. You can buy anything from t-shirts to leatherwork, paintings to Cuban coffee cups. There is such a wide range of souvenirs and gifts, and the prices are fairly similar throughout so if you find something you love, snap it up. A good tip to remember is that bartering is normal here and you can often exchange half full bottles of shampoo, beauty products and clothing for souvenirs as these items are either hard to come by or un-affordable for local Cubans.
For the most romantic end to your day go for a swim at sunset and lap up the last rays of the day.
Where To Eat
If you are staying in a casa rather than one of the big hotels and it is an option for dinner to be cooked for you – jump at the chance! The best meal I had in Cuba was cooked in my casa in Varadero. You will get large Cuban portions of traditional style dishes and it will likely cost you a fraction of eating out. It is also a great way of ensuring that you support the local community rather than handing over money in the government run restaurants.
Talking of government run restaurants; La Bodeguita del Medio also offers large Cuban sized portions of traditional food, it is not the cheapest place to eat but it has a great atmosphere with musicians serenading you as you eat on the terrace. The walls of this building, as with the other La Bodeguita’s, are signed by every visitor, making for a great entertainment as you search for the oldest signatures and working out where to put your own.
In Varadero there are several 24 hour bars, and it is common to sit down with a Mojito or two at any time of the day, but nightlife here only gets going at 11pm, so expect a few late nights.
For early afternoon drinks head to the bar named Calle 62 on, you guessed it, Calle 62! There is a large selection of drinks, all of which made by a master barman who allows you to determine how strong you want it to be. Trust me he will keep pouring that rum into your glass until you stay stop (I got to 50% rum 50% mixer before chickening out on my Mojito). This bar has a stage, live music and plenty of dancing once the sun goes down.
If there is one place you head to for a big night out in Varadero, make sure it is the Casa de la Musica. A live music institution which hosts the Buena Vista Social Club on a Wednesday as well as many other well known Cuban bands. Buena Vista nights are expensive at 65 CUC but do include drinks. Most hotels will also book a night here for you at their tour desks and arrange transport if you are not staying nearby. During the day Casa de la Musica is the Varadero wifi hotspot and you will find a number of locals and holidaymakers perched on the fence outside.
Havana Club also has a massive party scene, but aims towards a younger crowd. If you are looking for an Ibiza/spring break type holiday then definitely head here.
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