With about 13 miles of spotless sandy white beaches, blue waters, and sunny skies, it's easy to see why Varadero has been a vacation destination for more than a century. Even though the town itself is small, you can expect a wide range of choice when it comes to hotels, dining, shopping, entertainment, and activities.
The famous beach stretches along the Hicacos Peninsula, a narrow strip of land that is under a mile wide at its widest point, extending nearly 13 miles out from the mainland. Technically, it is part of the town of Cárdenas. Along with the beach, you can explore the tropical environment. Varahicacos Ecological Reserve is home to many native species of fish and birds. Parque Josone is a beautifully manicured public garden on what was once a stately mansion's grounds in pre-Castro days.
Like the many visitors who have enjoyed this tropical paradise over the decades, you'll find it hard not to fall in love with Varadero's natural charm.
Playa Azul is the name given to 13 miles of soft, white, sandy beach and turquoise waters under the perpetually sunny skies - this one's a no-brainer. Whether or not you'd call yourself a sun worshiper, it's hard to resist the natural appeal of a relaxing day at one of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches.
The peninsula is home to many interesting natural features to explore, including caves, lagoons, and cayas (keys). Cueva de Ambrosio is the closest cave. In its 820-foot length, you'll find a fascinating environment with ancient black and red pre-Columbian drawings. Cayo Cruz del Padre is one of many small islands you can explore.
You can enjoy those pristine turquoise waters in various ways, including swimming, scuba diving, and snorkeling, catamaran tours, and even swimming with dolphins. Cayo Piedras del Norte is about one hour's boat ride north of Playa las Calaveras. If diving isn't your thing, you can take a glass-bottom boat ride to view the gunboat, airplane, and other vessels deliberately sunk to create an underwater marine park.
Music is everywhere in Varadero, from traditional Cuban favorites on the streets and even on the beach to salsa and other Latin dance music in the clubs. The town is full of great live music venues like Sala de la Musica and Calle 62 to check out. The Tropicana Matanzas is famous for its cabaret.
Even if you stay at an all-inclusive resort, you'll want to get out and sample from the vast array of restaurant choices in town. A wave of new, privately run restaurants is taking Varadero by storm and offering the best of fine dining, fusion cuisine, Cuban, and Caribbean favorites, and plenty of seafood.
Its peninsula location on the Atlantic sends constant breezes to temper Varadero's tropical sun. Average temperatures in Varadero range between a pleasant 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit year round, making it a popular destination 12 months of the year.
Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport (VRA) serves both domestic and international flights, located about six miles from Varadero. A taxi from the airport to your hotel should cost about ₱25 to ₱30. The double-decker bus that runs along the peninsula and back all day costs ₱5 per day, and it makes the run to the airport as well.
The Hershey Train is a slow and scenic way to make the trip between Havana and Varadero. Built by the Hershey company to transport sugar, it now serves as the country's only electric train, leaving from Casablanca (across the bay from Havana) and arriving at Matanzas, about 30 miles from Varadero.
Varadero is about 87 miles east of Havana, linked by the Vía Blanca highway. From there it links to most other places in the country.
Viazul bus line makes the trip from Havana to Varadero in about 1 hour and 40 minutes. It's a popular and budget-priced way to make the trip. Viazul service also runs between Varadero and Matanzas daily, including the airport, with overnight runs to Santiago de Cuba and other centers.
With 50 hotels in town, it can be hard to choose. There are many upscale resorts like the large Meliá Las Americas, with vines climbing its impressive lobby as you walk inside. Blau Varadero, the tallest building that emulates an Aztec pyramid, is impossible to miss. Inside, you'll love the 14-floor courtyard with a lush hanging garden. Beny's House is one of the many "casa particular" or private guesthouses, with manicured gardens and a patio to enjoy.
La Playa - the beach is where a lot of the action is centered in Varadero, for obvious reasons. It runs along the length of the whole town, dotted with resorts and hotels. It's also where you'll find most of the hottest nightlife options.
Cárdenas - if Varadero is tourist centered, you can get a taste of authentic Cuba in this nearby port town. The small city has narrow streets lined with period American cars, and ornate Spanish-Cuban architecture, including the beautiful cathedral, along with a selection of bars and cafes to while away the day.
Matanzas - this nearby town is where you'll find museums, galleries, and beautifully ornate Spanish-style architecture. The Cuevas de Bellamar, a famous archaeological feature, are located in Matanzas.
The hop-on hop-off bus costs just ₱5.00 and the ticket lasts all day. You can hop on and off as many times as you wish. It drives around the peninsula from one hotel to the next and goes all the way to the Plaza Las America.
Taxis are fairly plentiful in Varadero, including both official and private taxi companies. A taxi fare to nearby Cárdenas should cost about ₱20.00.
Car rentals in Cuba are offered only via local companies, which include Rex, Havanautos, and Cubacar. Advance booking is advised - as far in advance as you can, including up to a year ahead. Rates start at about ₱58.00 per day.
For souvenirs, there are many vendors with carts set up along the beach with crafts and other items. You'll find better prices in the shops in town on locally made wooden carvings and jewelry. Avenida 1 is where you'll find artisan-style goods, including high-end antiques from Cuba's past at the Galería de Arte Varadero, and ceramic art at the Taller de Ceramica Artistica. The popular flea market is also located on Avenida 1.
The Plaza Las America, near the tip of the peninsula, is where you'll find a number of shops, including a well-stocked grocery store. El Rapido is a chain stocked with basic staples, and you'll find them in Matanzas. A quart of milk costs about ₱2.00 and a dozen eggs should cost around ₱1.50.
For fine dining in a refined atmosphere and a menu that spotlights local seafood and beef, you can try Varadero 60, where main dishes start at about ₱10.00. For paella and other Spanish favorites, look to Restaurante Meson del Quijote, with main dishes that start at ₱8.00. The government-run La Vicaria is popular for its large portions of Cuban favorites like lobster with chicken and pork. Mains start at ₱4.00.