The slim peninsula of Varadero is one of Cuba’s great hidden charms. Chock-full of water activities, pool-side goings on, shops and accommodation, Varadero also holds some tucked away secrets and enchanting corners that intrigue the curious visitor in the know.
Blessed with 15 miles of diamond dust beaches lapped by limpid blue waters, the peninsula of Varadero is the jewel in Cuba’s crown. Few other resorts come close to beating the allure of this picture perfect beach holiday destination. Yet some visitors have yet to discover the area—which has capitalised on its natural charms to create a successful tourist industry. This is to belie both its fascination and its history – not to mention the range of attractions just waiting for those with insider knowledge to access.
The real Varadero
Previously a dry dock used by the Spanish, from where it gets its name, the Varadero peninsula as we know it today has its roots in 1887 when a clique of well-to-do families from nearby Cárdenas gained permission to build permanent summer homes in the area. By the 1950s Varadero had become the most renowned beach resort in the Caribbean, the sun, sea and salsa a siren call for wealthy Americans who could be here in a hop, skip and a jump across the Florida Straits.
These days, kite surfing and stand up paddleboarding make up some of the lesser-known beach attractions for those who want something beyond sand and sun. Two clubs in Varadero now offer this: Cubakiters and HKC Kite and Surf Club which also has a division in Havana. The conditions are perfect in Varadero for these two fast growing water sports. How better to work out then on the water and in the sun?
Thrill seekers who really want to step up their game, should head to Centro International de Paracaidismo where you can do skydiving over Varadero from an old Russian Antonov An-2 biplane or from a helicopter. From the aerial view you can appreciate the golden finger-like peninsular in all its glory, though this is definitely a white-knuckle ride for the brave only.
More than meets the eye
Defined as it is by its stunning coastline, it may come as some surprise to find that many of Varadero’s most memorable experiences can take place without a grain of powder-soft sand in sight. Varadero and its satellite towns are rich in lesser known cultural events, hidden arts venues and lush countryside just waiting for you to explore.
It’s a little known fact that Varadero has one of the best commercial galleries outside of Havana. Galeria de Arte Varadero has a well-curated collection of paintings, lithographs, jewellery, antiques and screen prints from some Cuba’s most celebrated contemporary artists. Pieces on show include Nelson Dominguez’s large scale paintings, reminiscent of famous Cuba’s most celebrated artist Wifredo Lam, dreamy feminine forms from Ernesto García Peña, sculptures from Alberto Lescay and Gilberto Frómeta’s dramatic abstracts.
Similarly worth dipping into, is the Taller de Cerámica on Avenida Primera. This workshop is run by a collective of ceramicists who make and sell their pots—vases and sculptures, from the rich terracotta clay the area is famous for—on site and you can see them work their magic in front of you.
Those after something of a more graphic nature can check out Cuba screen-printed film posters. These are sought after pieces, and originals from the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s sometimes go for hundreds of dollars on ebay. Even in reproduction, the bold, beautifully composed and visually witty posters make stylish souvenirs whether you’ve seen the film or not. The only place to snap them up in Varadero is tucked away towards the back of the two-storey ranch-like bookshop La Casa on Avenida Primera.
In Matanzas, 15 miles west of Varadero, there is also a quietly established cultural movement well worth tapping into. The area’s most celebrated artist, Osmany Betancourt Falcon or “Lolo” has his studio Galería-Taller here from where he sells his bronze and ceramic, darkly surrealist sculptures.
Dance to the tune
It’s not only visual arts that give the area its heady reputation. It’s hard to overstate what an art form salsa is in Cuba, and there is something mesmeric about watching dancers undulate across a dance floor. Some of the best dancers in the country compete in the Varadero Baila, International Festival of Salsa. Dance fans are well catered for with a week-long programme of concerts, dance shows and classes.
When you’re sufficiently inspired by watching this visual treat, you can have a go yourself; there are beginners’ classes available as part of the programme. If you can’t time your visit to coincide with this event you can head to the Academia Baile in Cuba, this dance academy is a recommended place to learn to dance salsa, mambo, rumba, danzon and cha cha cha.
It may be the strains of salsa, samba, son and reggeaton that visitors most associate with Varadero and Cuba but perhaps startlingly, classical music is played with equal prowess. For a truly authentic and unique Cuban experience, take a trip to the Sala de Conciertos José White in Matanzas. Named after the Afro-Cuban violinist and composer, the beautiful yellow and white neoclassical building is an architectural delight with traditional Cuban vitrales half-moon stained glass windows and wide verandah. The Matanzas symphony orchestra play here; recent concerts have included the Mozart Marriage of Figaro and Beethoven’s concert in C minor. Danzon, a type of ballroom dance invented in Matanzas is also played here. The delicate peach interior only seats 200 so this is a wonderfully intimate way to hear some of the world’s best classical music live.
Cigars and rum
A trip to Cuba wouldn’t be complete without the whiff of a fine cigar and a snifter of rum. You can buy rum in pretty much any shop within the resort but if it’s a tasting session you’re after, then head to the speakeasy style back room bar at the Casa del Ron on Avenida 1ra. Similarly, while most cigar aficionados will want to spend long hours admiring the major brands on offer at the glitzy Casa del Habano next door, the less known Casa del Habano Mi Cuba offers a smokers’ bar hidden out back on a leafy outdoor terrace.
If you are planning a holiday in Cuba, we invite you to visit Iberostar’s hotels in Varadero: 4 and 5-star beach resorts with all the amenities you need, located in one of the most paradisiacal corners of the Caribbean. Prepare to live a unique experience in a destination that has it all, where you will undoubtedly want to return.
FIONA McAUSLAN | 30/08/2017
Photography by Cordon Press