Varadero is a relatively exclusive part of Cuba, abundant with private hotels, gorgeous white beaches and the country's only full golf course. The fantastic beaches with clear turquoise warm water makes this an island lovers paradise. If you are looking for "real life Cuba", this part resembles it the least.
Varadero is a resort town on the ~30 km long Hicacos Peninsula, off the northern coast of Cuba. The peninsula's shoreline offers the best beaches in Cuba, as well as one of its largest tourist destinations. It first gained popularity with American millionaires (before the revolution and embargo), and was apparently Al Capone's vacation spot. In the 90s a large hotel building campaign transformed Varadero into a mostly four and five star all-inclusive resort destination. These are primarily filled with Canadian tourists, with their all inclusive packages being one of the most accessible winter time beach get-aways from Canada.
- 1 Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport. Many package tours fly directly to Juan Gomez airport from Canada and from Europe, the second busiest airport in Cuba. Its situated between Matanzas and Varadero. There is a currency exchange booth in the departures hall. The booth in the arrivals hall is now closed.
- Taxi from airport to the town (about 10km) costs about 25-30CUC. It may be possible to bargain the fare to about 20CUC, but not much less.
Alternately you can walk out to the airport parking lot and tip (5-10CUC) one of the tour bus drivers to hitch a ride to your hotel/resort - this always works out cheaper than taxi if you travel solo.
- Viazul Buses arrive from Havana and Matanzas three times daily at the 2 bus station. These buses also stop at the Varadero airport. They run a daily overnight service from Santiago de Cuba, stopping at Sancti Spiritus, Camagüey, and Santa Clara in the middle of the night. There is also a morning bus to Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad, returning in the afternoon/early evening.
- Hiring a car is also possible in the Varadero Airport or through various hotels.
It may also be possible to get to Havana on a hotel transfer bus for about 10CUC by negotiating with the driver.
There are no trains.
Many visitors do not stray far from their package tour hotel. Depending on how close to the town of Varadero your hotel is located, many opportunities to explore either on foot or with a vehicle are present. Visitors staying at Varadero beach hotels (pretty much from the Internacional Hotel or past) end up walking the beach. Any trip to town will require a ride. Those staying in Varadero town have many options on foot.
There is a double-decker open-on-top bus that runs on a regular schedule from the tip of the peninsula (up by the Barcelo Marina Hotel and Princessa del Mar) all the way into the town of Varadero, with stops at the International Centre (shopping mall with about 100 stores, and restaurants), the open-air marketplace, and most major hotels. Look for the blue sign-posts to indicate stops, routing, and schedules. 5 CUC gets you a day pass that you can use as much as you want to go along the whole peninsula. Watch out for the palm tree branches when sitting on the open top. The branches will whack you in the head, seen it happen at least 7-8 times. Cheers.
All hotels will have a taxi stand. Fares are either metered or set by distance. Some hotels, mostly the better ones, have car rentals available right at the hotel. There are also several rental outlets in Varadero.
In town, there are motorized trikes with a round enclosure (think of a car-sized orange) that are available for hire, either for sightseeing or point-to-point travel. These are referred to as Coco Taxi.
There are also horse-drawn caleches (carriages) available for hire. They are more prevalent in town, but any hotel concierge or front desk can arrange one upon request.
Mopeds are readily for hire throughout town at a cost of 9CUC for one hour, 12CUC for two hours or 20CUC for twenty four hours. You'll need a drivers license to rent one, even a learners one will do.
- Parque Josone — A park in the middle of Varadero filled with birds, vendors, music and camel rides for the kids.
- Tropicana Matanzas — Visit the newest Tropicana, the most famous cabaret of Cuba. An artistic production featuring Cuban dance, music and history. W-Su, 5 hours duration, 49CUC.
- Varadero Museum.
- Hit the beach!. The white sandy beaches of Varadero are considered the best in Cuba. All shorelines are open to the public and the beach generally gets better further out in the peninsula. So especially if you're staying at the base of the peninsula, find a way out to either the town center or by some of the nice resorts to enjoy the best Varadero has to offer. Free..
- Delfinario — A dolphin show with the option to actually swim with the captive dolphins, 15CUC for the show and 85CUC for the show + swim.
- Cuevas de la Bellamar (Bellamar Caves). Visit the oldest tourist attraction in Cuba, open to visitors since the 1860s. The caves are extensive and impressive. There are quite a few steps down into the cave and it is slightly damp and rough underfoot, and also very warm. 5 CUC.
- Seafari Cayo Blanco (excursion by catamaran). Monday to Sunday, the excursion takes 7 hours. Snorkeling in a coral barrier reef, entertainment, music, lunch and open bar with Cuban cocktails in Cayo Blanco. There is the option to either swim with the dolphins or visit the dolphin show at Delfinario and enjoy a sunset party. 75CUC for the sunset party and dolphin show trip. 85CUC for the chance to swim with dolphins instead..
- Villa Du Pont Once the residence of Irénée Du Pont, the green-roofed hacienda style building built in 1928 is today the headquarters of the Varadero Golf Club. The golf course, just a few steps away, features 18 holes, the largest in Cuba. The visitor has the opportunity to admire the splendor of its mahogany furniture, floors made out the finest Italian marble, bronze candelabra and oil paintings. The basement offers Varadero´s most luxurious and expensive restaurant, "Las Américas". On the first floor there are 5 finely decorated and equipped guest rooms, plus a presidential suite. A few steps higher on the second floor, an attractive bar "Mirador" (open 24 hours), product of a mixture between art deco and Moorish style, will surely keep you there sipping tasty Cuban cocktails at sunset.
- Skydiving. Varadero has a skydiving company located at the end of the peninsula; a great location for beautiful sandy beach landings. Around 200 CUC.
In tourist facilities and other service units, prices are set in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). In Varadero, Cayo Largo del Sur, Jardines del Rey (Coco and Guillermo Keys), Santa Lucía Beach, Covarrubias Beach, and Holguín province, you can also pay in euros. Credit Cards (except those issued by US banks or their branches in other countries) can be used in most Varadaro shops but it is more useful to take cash (CUCs) to the markets.
In Cuba there are two different currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP). (1 CUC=24 CUP).
You may exchange Euros, Canadian dollars, Pounds, Swiss francs, and others for Cuban Convertible Pesos. The exchange rates for those currencies are set in accord with the exchange rates on the international market. You can acquire 'pesos convertibles' at the airport, banks and at the Money Exchange Offices, called "CADECA" (you can find these offices everywhere in the country). You can obtain Cuban Pesos also in the CADECAs or at any local bank or at the front desk of your resort.
Make sure you count your change at CADECA before leaving the booth. The exchange booth at the Varadero Airport is known to short-change tourists by trimming it to the nearest 10CUC, which is never a practise throughout the country as they're supposed to give change to the nearest 5 centavos (0.05 CUC).
Beach Vendors are abundant on the beaches bracketing the resorts. Their "carts" are built up from a bicycle with many shelves and hooks to display their wares while easily rolling along the beach. Haggling is not as common in Cuba as it is in the Dominican but it can be done.
The usual items that people shop for in Cuba are rum, cigars, coffee and jewelry.
Rum is best purchased at the Casa de Ron, this shop has the best selection. Though other small grocery stores and hotel gift shops stock the favorites.
Across the street from the Casa de Ron is the cigar shop. Again, the selection is enormous and the prices are better than in some of the hotel gift shops.
Many packages are "all-inclusive" at major resorts, especially those further up the peninsula. These cater primarily to North American tourists, who make up the bulk of visitors. Some of them do offer room/hotel packages (EP, or European Plan), but they are becoming harder to find. Most hotels past the golf course are all-inclusive by circumstance, as there are few nearby restaurants. There is a very good restaurant at the Marina, and several at the International Shopping Centre. The clubhouse at the Varadero Golf Course (this was the old Dupont Mansion) has an extensive menu and a lovely setting overlooking the ocean on one side, the golf course on the other.
In the town of Varadero, there is everything from open-air marketplace-type food stalls to the local version of fast food. In town you can find: Pollo Loco (pronounced poy-yo lo-ko, or crazy chickens), hamburguesas con queso (cheeseburgers), sandwiches (being a Miami invention, pressed Cuban sandwiches are hard to find), and the odd pizza joint. There are also a few restaurants serving sit-down dinners and lunches. Chicken, pork and fish are the most frequent items, but beef is not hard to find. Menus are usually posted outside.
Visitors staying at any of the hotels in town have many choices. Many of these hotels are older and nowhere near as fancy as the beach resorts, and they cater to a different clientele.
The Mojito is Cuba's signature drink. Made with freshly crushed mint, lime juice and white rum it is a unique delicious flavour. Second to the Mojito is the Cuba Libre, a combination of rum, cola and lime juice.
Cristal beer can be had for a dollar a can. It is a good tasting light pilsner. Mayabe is another good beer, not as light at Cristal and not as heavy as the much stronger Bucanero or Bucanero Fuerte. Most all inclusive resorts stock both Cristal and Bucanero.
Caney is made in the former Bacardi factory on the east end of the island. It is Cuba's premium brand of rum. It's available in Carta Blanca (white), or traditionally darker varieties of differing aging quality. Rum is called "Ron" in Cuba and "Ron Mulatta" is a cheaper brand often supplied to inclusive hotels (it tastes just as good). If you don't drink Rum you might want to stop into the duty free store on the way down and bring your favorite drink. Low quality Russian Vodka can be obtained in Havana, but high quality spirits are hard to find and expensive as it caters to Cuba’s tourists.
Wine made in Cuba is very sweet and not all that far from grape juice. It has its charms but true wine lovers may want to bring a bottle from home or the duty free shop.
Cubans also drink plenty of coffee, and they like to brew it strong. Order café espresso for a straight shot, or café con leche if you'd like it mixed with warm milk. Ask for café americano if you want a milder brew.
You can drink the water in Cuba but it is recommended that you purchase bottled water, which is available throughout the island in hotels and resorts. Another option is to buy a big bottle of water on your first days and keep refilling it at the resort drink fountains where water, cola and other soft drinks are dispensed.
- Paladar de la 31, Calle 31. Very extense menu with Cuban specialities, incredibly tasty pastas, sushi, salads, stews and a lot of dishes that you won't normally find in Varadero. Excellent food, friendly service.
Varadero has by far the biggest diversity of hotels in Cuba, you will find whole range of accommodation from little hotels to well known international chains like Melia, Sandals, Iberostar or the local Cubanacan.
Cubans can be found staying in Hotels of the Islazul or Horizontes brand. These hotels can be quite spartan if affordable. The experience may well be worth the inconvenience, although mingling is officially discouraged. The horseshoe shaped Hotel Islazul Herradura is a fine example.
- Hotel Varadero Internacional, Ave las Americas, Km 1. With 162 rooms, at 30km from the Airport, it is one of the classic hotels in Varadero. All included modality, with a great view of the beach. Prices starting at €50.
Make sure when you get into any of these hotels, ask for a mosquito net or a room that is located higher up in the building.
- El Caney, Varadero Beach (right in the sand). Best views of the beach while digging into local fresh seafood and meat grills. Traditionally Cuban.
Since 2012, casas particulares which can legally host foreigners have been in operation in Varadero. Apparently there is a wide variety in terms of the quality of the casas, from perfectly clean, nice and adequate to concrete blocks in the back of someone's house. Try to get a recommendation of a good casa particular from a trusted source. One casa particular which apparently has consistently good reviews from travellers is:
- Casa Kenia on Calle 56 y Playa, located in the same street as the Varadero Museum. There are three, clean bedrooms rented, with air conditioning, TV and private bathroom. The casa is located right beside a nice piece of beach. Price per night is 30 CUC but is negotiable especially in low season and when the guest wants to stay for 3+ nights. Kenia's mother sometimes runs a restaurant, but when this is closed, Kenia and her husband will sometimes let you use their own kitchen facilities.
- Hostal Varsovia, located in Boca de Camarioca at 5 km from Varadero. The property is a beautiful waterfront home located in a quaint fishing village near to Varadero. The house has two spacious rooms with ensuite bathroom. Great Cuban family and beach atmosphere. 25-30 CUC in Low and High season respectively.
The nicer hotels will have internet access. Otherwise you can visit the town's ETECSA, and buy and use internet cards for around 5 CUC an hour. This is an internet cafe, there's no wifi available.
Granma is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. An international version, containing different content to the version published for Cubans, is available in English as well as some other languages. Most hotels will have a copy at reception.
Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the official periodical of Cuba's Union of Young Communists is also available in English.
The Havana Reporter, an exclusively English-language newspaper published by Prensa Latina is available from the Varadero post office. It costs 1 CUC.
United States periodicals are not available.
Cuba in general, and Varadero in particular, are very safe places for travellers. Varadero is pretty strictly a tourist enclave, with limited access for locals, and routinely policed. Elsewhere in Cuba is much different. It is, however, arguably the safest country in the Caribbean for travelers, including single females. Use your common sense and you'll be fine.
Credit card scam at Varadero Airport — This scam involves storekeepers in small shops taking out a purchase as a cash advance on your credit card. When the victim tries to purchase, the shopkeeper says 'one moment' and goes to an accomplice working at the CADECA cash exchange counter to give the amount of the cash advance and the card number. The CADECA teller then processes the cash advance, and the storekeeper asks the victim to return to show passport and sign. The receipt appears like a sale as it is written 'VENTA'. The bank teller gives the cash directly to the shopkeeper. In addition, the shopkeeper can easily give a box of fake cigars from a bag or other source. Because the receipt comes from the bank counter and the client has signed for what is supposedly a cash advance, credit card companies (i.e. MasterCard) are reluctant to refund or complain against this particular (and very lucrative) merchant. The lesson for the tourist is to never let one's credit card out of one's hands, and even then in many places it is better to pay cash. Also, shops are less expensive after Customs than in the pre check-in lounge. Caveat emptor!
Beach Safety — The flag system on the beaches is simple to learn and will keep you safe while enjoying your vacation. Red flag, no swimming. Yellow flag, be cautious. Green flag, go swim. Remember that strong tides can pull you out further than you intended to go and then keep you out there. Life guards often can be seen patrolling wearing Red Cross symbols on their shirts.
Transferring money Be especially careful when transferring money at the airport CADECA, they've been known to slip out a bill when you're not paying attention.
Friendly locals Be careful with overly friendly locals who join you in a bar, and later demand to be paid a few CUC for their company.
There is no money exchange booth (Cadeca) in the Arrivals Hall. The only Cadeca at the airport is in the departure area where there are many duty free shops selling Cuban rum, cigars, artwork and other merchandise.