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By Habeeb Salloum
We had reached Varadero Beach, the Rolls-Royce of Cuba’s beaches, and had just checked in the Melia Las Americas, one of the top hotels located in the heart of that world-renowned resort. I was in top form. I had travelled to Cuba many times before and I knew that this holiday spot had many attributes for winter vacationers coming in from the cold lands of the north.
That evening, after enjoying the hotel’s nightly entertainment and with the flavours of our fine dinner still lingering on our taste buds, I went to sleep and dreamt of romping the next day on the hotel’s beach – part of Varadero’s 20 km (12.5 mi) sugary-white sands. The resort’s mile after mile of talcum sand and clear-blue waters are unsurpassed in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. For me, Varadero has always been a perfect spot in the sun and I never tire of its lure. Each time it’s sands seem to be more seductive that the last.
Spread out along the seaside, the town of Varadero and its beach is Cuba’s major tourist attraction, drawing some 1 million out of the 4 million visitors to the island, and it is these tourists who annually bring in much of the foreign currency sorely needed by the country. Located 144 km (90 mi) east of Havana, this resort has been developed into a first-class holiday spot by joint ventures between the Cuban government and European and Latin American companies. Its beaches are bordered by some 60 of the most sophisticated hotels in the Caribbean, many under the hospitality-minded eye of European or Canadian management. Most of these hotels have much to offer in beach and sea activities. As well, the beach offers a world-class golf club, a dolphin axiom, and an ecological park.
Rounding off Varadero’s many attributes are the safety of tourists, the cleanliness of the resorts, and the educated, warm-hearted and friendly inhabitants who love to enjoy themselves. It is said that Varadero’s youth escape from their somewhat harsh lives through love, and love seems to be everywhere, even infecting the tourists.
Yet, Cuba has drawbacks such as shortages of almost everything, brought on mostly due to the American blockade (which Cubans hope will end soon), and due as well to the country’s bureaucracy. However, tourists there do not seem to worry about these things. For them, the country has everything to offer the winter vacationer. Often tourists ask Cubans about their lives. Rarely do they get a satisfactory answer. In the words of one of the bell-boys, “It’s too complicated!”.
Even more appealing to a good number of tourists are the tours sold in the Varadero hotels. Besides the sea excursions, from among those that are offered, in my view, the following are the most worthwhile:
The Sugar Tour: a half day excursion including a visit to a sugar cane plantation with a demonstration on how cane is cut manually; a tour of the interior of an old sugar cane factory with its machines and equipment; a trip on an early 20th century steam locomotive to the city of Cardenas’s rail station built in 1875 and then a tour of the city including a visit to the Museum Oscar Maria de Rojas. Cost: 45 CUCs
For history buffs, the full-day Three Cities Tour that includes Santa Clara, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos being 3 of Cuba’s oldest cities. It begins with a scenic drive to Santa Clara where Che Guevara defeated Batista’s army in 1958. After touring the Che Mausoleum and Museum, the tour leaves for the city of Trinidad, founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The sugar and tobacco trade that they established made the city wealthy and many of its confetti-colored merchants’ mansions and churches from that era remain. After touring this venerable city, the tour leaves for Cienfuegos, a lovely seaside town curving around a stunning bay. A tour is made of the city, which includes its colonnaded buildings, Park Jose Martinez and Prado, a tree-line boulevard lined with grand neo-classical mansions. Cost: 93 CUCs.
Every first-time tourist who journeys to Varadero should make at least one visit to the splendid Tropicana in Havana, a nightclub where Cuban folklore can be seen at its best. It will be a spectacular climax to a vacation lazing on one of the most renowned beaches in the world. Cost: 149 CUCs.
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. 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).
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:
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.
Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian author who grew up in Saskatchewan, joined the RCAF during the Second World War, and then worked for the Canadian Department of National Revenue for 36 years. For the last 30 years he has been a full-time freelance writer and author specializing in food, history and travel. Besides 7 books and 20 chapters in books, he has had hundreds of articles about culture, food, travel, history and homesteading in western Canada appear in such publications as the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Western Producer, Contemporary Review, Forever Young, Vegetarian Journal and Saveur.
Habeeb was awarded the 2013 Saskatchewan Tourism Travel Media Award by the Saskatchewan Tourism on April 10, 2014 for his literary work on travel, tourism and the culinary arts of that province.