It’s a beautiful resort but it’s not Cuba. More tourists are found here than Cubans. It’s only a showplace for tourists”, the young Cuban lady guide explained, as she began to give us an overview of Varadero. Her words, more than volumes of reporters’ stories, sum up what the local Cubans think of Varadero – the country’s top tourist attraction.
Everything in this resort of some 20,000 inhabitants is geared toward foreign visitors who are offered some of the finest tourist facilities to be found anywhere – a world that Cubans can only dream about. This crowning jewel of the 290 beaches in Cuba is a special pampered tourist resort. Varadero is the major source of the country’s foreign exchange and the government is anxious that tourists be catered to, not gouged or harmed in any way by unscrupulous individuals.
A spread-out town edged by 20 km (12.5 mi) of sugary- white sand, Varadero brings in much of the foreign currency sorely needed by the country. Some time back when the Soviet Union disappeared, the late Fidel Castro declared that ‘Tourism and the export of medicine will, in the future, satisfy Cuba’s need of foreign exchange’. His words were prophetic. Annually, tourists, now over 4 million, have brought in some 45% of the country’s foreign exchange.
Canada is leading the way in the number of tourists travelling to Cuba followed by the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Mexico among others. People choose Cuba as a winter destination, because of its exceptional beaches, its health facilities and the safe conditions in the country as well as for its rich history and culture and its social achievements. Crowning all these attributes are its people who are very hospitable and do their best to make visitors comfortable.
Located 144 km (90 mi) east of Havana, this resort is being developed into a first-class holiday spot by joint ventures between the Cuban government and European and Latin American companies – also partners throughout the country in agricultural, commercial, manufacturing and mining projects. Its beaches are bordered by some of the most sophisticated hotels in the Caribbean, almost all under the hospitality-minded eye of European or Canadian management.
Of all these 60 hotels, the ideal two in which to stay for those who like some variety in their vacation are the 4-star Hotel Starfish Cuatro Palmas, built in Andalusian style, and the 5-star Hotel Meliá Las Américas located at the choice section of Varadero Beach. Located in the heart of town near the entertainment and shopping area, they are, for many visitors, the ideal places where to spend a vacation.
On the other hand, if visitors are looking for an economical vacation, the 2- or 3-star abodes are the places to stay. A good number are all-inclusive and priced fantastically low. They offer tourists much more for their money than any other Caribbean destination.
Yet, hotels are only the periphery to Varadero’s appeal. The resort’s mile after mile of talcum sand, so fine that it glides like silk across the feet, and the edging clear-blue waters are unsurpassed in the whole of the Western Hemisphere.
Once a hideaway for millionaires, like the Duponts who banned ordinary Cubans from the beach, the Varadero today is almost exclusively the domain of thousands of tourists. Gone are the days when one of the top US Mafia leaders was the advisor to Batista, the country’s long-time dictator. With his cronies and the Mob they ran Cuba and built their luxury villas on Varadero Beach. Among others, the Dupont estate with its impressive villa has been transformed into a tourist spot with an 18-hole golf course.The majority of the tourists who travel to Varadero are a mixture of peoples from many nations. With their babel of tongues and cultures, they have made the resort truly cosmopolitan. It is one of the few retreats in the Western Hemisphere where tourists are not mainly Americans – the US has had an embargo against the country since Fidel Castro’s Revolution and its citizens are banned from travelling to the island. However, with the 2016 Obama visit to Cuba, U.S. visitors are beginning to come in increasing numbers. Cuban officials welcome US citizens, many of them former Cuban citizens.
Tourism has changed the lives of Cubans dramatically. Foreign visitors are largely responsible for the country’s survival. After the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s the country’s GNP was reduced 51 %. Tourism has covered most of this loss. To make more pleasant the stay of the sorely needed vacationers, in the last few years, the black market and prostitution have been drastically reduced due to a government crackdown.
All of Varadero is a tourist playground. The heart of town is crowded with restaurants, nightspots and shops. In their midst stands Retiro Josone Park consisting of a large artificial lake with row boats for rent, three restaurants and handicraft stalls.
Rounding off Varadero’s many attributes are the safety of tourists, the cleanliness of the resort, and the educated, warm-hearted and friendly inhabitants who love to enjoy themselves. Varadero’s youth escape from their somewhat harsh life through love, and love seems to be everywhere, even infecting the tourists.
These qualities have made the resort the fourth largest tourist market in Latin America. A Canadian visitor summed all this up saying, “For me Varadero offers, in a gratifying fashion, all I’m looking for in a vacation.”
IF YOU GO
1. Even though still reasonably priced, Cuba has become for tourists more expensive. It is best to take an all-inclusive package deal offered by travel agencies.
2. Visitors to Cuba must use convertible pesos known as Cuban Universal Currency (CUC). All the hotels have banks where money can be exchanged into CUCs. Take note that Cuba does not accept U.S. credit cards but does exchange U.S. cash into CUCs.
3. For transportation in Varadero, it is recommended to take taxis but negotiate the price first. They are the best way to get around. Also, there is a sightseeing double-decker tour bus that runs the whole length of Varadero, cost 5 CUCs. Passengers can get on and off all day with the same ticket.
Or if you prefer driving, you can rent a car at Gaviota Via Rent-a-Car but for a minimum of 3 days. Cost for a small car: 70 CUCs per day with full insurance. Gas is extra (currently at 1.20 CUCs per litre); Website: www.havanacarhire.com/inc/gaviota-appendix.html
4. In spite of all types of shortages, Cuba is still safe, thefts are rare and tap water drinkable, even in the villages. However, tourists are advised to drink bottled water.
5. The best buys in Cuba are um and cigars. Beware of Black Market cigars as they are not authentic. 7-year old Havana Club is the top rum in Cuba. It is smoother than brandy and sells at around 16.80 per 700 ml.
6. There are two places to stay in Varadero if preference is to be close to downtown: Hotel Melia Las Americas if one prefers to be close to downtown Veradero: Tel: 53-45-667-600; Fax: 53-45-667-625; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.melia.com/en/hotels/cuba/varadero/melia-las-americas/index.html; and Starfish Cuatro Palmas: Tel: 53-45-667-040; Website: www.starfishresorts.com/en/resort/cuatropalmas.aspx
7. Take bug repellent with you to protect against ‘no-see-ums’, tiny insects on the sands, and at times, mosquitos.
8. The best time to travel to Cuba is from December to the end of April during the dry, cool season.
9. Tours can be purchased at all hotels but one of the best tour agencies is Gaviota Tours: E-mail: email@example.com
For further information about traveling to and in Cuba, contact:
Cuba Tourist Board, Toronto: 1200 Bay Street, Suite 305, Toronto, Ontario M5R 2A5; Tel: 416-362-0700; Toll Free: 1-800-866-404-2822; Fax: 416-362-6799; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ; or the Montreal office: 300 Leo-Pariseau, Bureau 2121, Montreal, Quebec H2X 4B3; E-mail: email@example.com ; Website: www.gocuba.ca