Varadero Cuba

The province east of Havana – Largely flat sugar-cane country – was in the 19th century Cuba’s most important cane-producing region. For today’s visitors, however, the focus is on the beach resort of Varadero, Cuba’s biggest draw, with opportunities for side trips to atmospheric, time-warped towns and to swamplands of the south coast.

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Varadero has enthusiastic proponents and equally passionate detractors among its visitors. A long peninsula with many dozens of hotels and restaurants, bars, fast-food cafes and grocery shops stretching right to the tip (and more of each on the way), Varadero doesn’t feel much like Cuba at all. It is a package tourist enclave, and plenty of visitors fly in and never venture further afield. If you want to see and learn what makes Cuba a fascinating place, though, you’ll need to escape for at least a couple of daytrips. In towns around Cuba you’ll meet tourist who-like jailbird escapees – rejoice at having got out of Varadero.

Varadero has many extremely comfortable hotels (most of them the results of international joint ventures), open bars and an excellent range of watersports. And, unlike other parts of Cuba, topless sunbathing is allowed here. If you tire of the beach, there are organised excursions to every conceivable point of interest on the island – including Havana.

Varadero occupies a long, thin insular spit of sand, with water on both sides and bridge to the mainland. Between Calles 25 and 54 there’s something of a local community of Cubans, with ancient Cadillacs parked outside rickety wooden bungalows. The liveliest area is around Calles 54 to 64, with a shopping mall, a host of restaurants and bars, and the Retiro Josone, a pretty park set around a palm-fringed boating lake. Spreading several kilometres further east are the newest hotel complexes.

Matanzas and Cardenas

These quintessentially Cuban provicial towns are a world apart from Varadero. Their poorly stocked shops, dusty backstreets and primitive transport provide Varadero’s package tourists with a convenient insight into Cuban life before they’re whisked back to their hotels.

Matanzas, 42km (26 miles) west of Varadero, is busy and grimy. Lying alongside a deep bay, it came into its own during the 19th century’s sugar capital. On the leafy main square, Parque Libertad, the Museo Farmaceutico (Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sun 8am noon) is a wonderfull preserved chemist’s shop, founded in 1882. On a street running east towards the bay, the neo-classical Catedral de San Carlos Borromeo is undergoing renovation.

A little further to the east, impressive buildings on Plaza de la Vigia include the Palacio de Junco, which houses a second-rate provincial museum, and the Teatro Sauto. Constructed in 1863, the lovely theatre has tiers of wrought-iron boxes and a painted ceiling.

Las Cuevas de Bellamar (daily 9am-5pm), a short distance east, are Cuba’s oldest tourist attraction. The caves were discovered by chance in 1861 by a Chinese workman. Tours (in English) take you down into a vast chamber for views of the many stalactites and stalagmites.

Fortunes have changed for the town of Cardenas, 15km (9 miles) east of Varadero. Once the island’s most important sugarexporting port, it’s now a somewhat ramshackle place. But the main square is elegant, and Museo Municipal Oscar Maria de Rojas (Plaza Echeverria e/ Avenidas 4 y 6; Tue-Sat 10 am-6pm, Sun 9am-1pm), the second oldest museum in the country, houses a quirky collection of items. There is also the Museo de la Batalla de Ideas (Calles 12 y Plaza Echeverria; Tue-Sa 9am-6pm, Sun 9am-noon). Inaugurated by Castro in 2001, it documents the campaign for the repatriation of Elian, a local boy who was at the centre of international controversy in 1999-2000. His mother died while fleeing with him to Miami, but after months of heated controversy he was returned by the US authorities to live with his father.

Zapata Peninsula

The Zapata Peninsula is the largest wetland areain the Caribbean, flat as a pancake and covered in mangrove swamps and grassland plains. Its protected wildlife includes crocodiles, manatees and numerous species of birds. Frankly, though, you are unlikely to see any interesting wildlife unless you take a guided bird-watching trip from Playa Larga. You can see penned reptiles at the crocodile farm at La Boca, a popular tourist site where you can pose with a baby croc and try crocodile steak.

A more appealing prospect is picturesque Guama, a halfhour boat ride from La Boca along an artifical channel and then across the vast Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake). Legend has it that the Indiansdumped their jewels into the water rather than surrenderthem to the Spanish conquistadores. Guama is a group pf tiny islands connected by wooden bridges. A few visitors stay in the thatched cabanas, but most just come to wander along the boardwalk, greet the ducks and egrets, and have meal.

It may be peaceful now, but the Zapata Peninsula is best know for the violence and bloodshed that once visited its shores. South of La Boca you soon come Playa Giron – site of the 1961 US-led Bay of Pigs invasion (for more information, click here), in which more than 100 people were killed. At irregular intervals along the often crab-infested road are a number of concrete memorials to those who died during the invasion. There are two simple, insolated bungalow hotel complexes on the bay, one at quiet Playa Larga, the other at Playa Giron, where the already scruffy beach is further spoiled by a concrete breakwater. Once major attraction, however, is the excellent Museo Playa Giron (daily 9am-5pm) which serves as an emotional memorial to the three-day Bay of Pigs debacle.

Battle beach

(The First Defeat of Imperialism in Latin America) – billboard at Bay of Pigs.