Most people that have heard of Varadero know that’s it’s a destination of powdery white sand, swaying palms and that glorious turquoise Caribbean. They may know it as a strip of all-inclusive package resorts where the day revolves around the hotel pool, the beach, resort bars and resort restaurants.
You don’t even need to leave the property, and in fact, you may even be encouraged not to.
What’s the point when you can leave your own country, go to a destination like Varadero and simply chill or go wild? All that matters is the sun, maybe a little booze and somewhere to swim. Who cares what country you’re in. Right?
That’s all well and good if you like to holiday that way, but we prefer to get a taste of a country’s culture, explore the countryside or try to get something unique out of it all.
Each to their own, as they say.
Rather than fly straight into Varadero, as the majority of the all-inclusive folk do, we grabbed a colectivo from Havana bus terminal after returning from Viñales. We just missed the last bus to Varadero thanks to the excruciatingly slow service and odd booking system they function with.
Colectivos are always around looking for fares, so it’s as simple as finding a guy with a car, working out a price and jumping in. It’s luck of the draw if someone else shares the car with you, but the bottom line is, it’s generally cheaper if you do share.
We’re good with that.
As I explained in my previous post about staying in casa particulars (homestays), we didn’t actually have one booked for Varadero. Once we were in the colectivo chugging east out of the city, our driver learned we had nowhere to sleep for our two-night stay.
A Cuban wouldn’t be Cuban if they didn’t know at least one person that owns a casa particular, so lo and behold, he knew someone in Varadero. Long story short, we were shown the casa on arrival, didn’t like the look or feel of it, paid our colectivo fare and eventually found a casa on our own. A bit of a struggle on a Friday afternoon, I assure you.
Varadero town centre doesn’t actually have much to it. The main drag has a handful of eateries, small shops and a covenience-cum-varierty store that has very limited supplies. I guess it is a country that operates by rationing to its people.
Ageing colonial buildings mixed with dated concrete hotels that lost their sheen many years ago, and all through the residential areas you’ll find some striking pastel-coloured 1950s gems that give the town its visual character.
So if you’re not staying at an all-inclusive resort, what is there to do in Varadero town?
Well, you can start with the beach. The difference here is the number of locals far outweighs that of foreigners. It can get just as busy out there on the powdery sand, but all that matters is that warm, clear water. Let’s just try to ignore all of the garbage the locals leave behind in the vegetation between the beach and the road.
Vernissage Café – corner Avenida Primera & Calle 36
La Vicaria – corner Avenida Primera & Calle 38
Eateries cater to tourists and locals, so you get the best of both worlds in the town centre; be it at a small local fast food joint or somewhere much finer.
If the munchies strike at 3am and you’re in dire need of some food or a drink, there are a couple of 24hr cafés along the main strip that can help you out. Drop into Vernissage at any time of the day or night for bocadillos, burgers or baguettes, or try them for their breakfasts, juices, coffee or cocktails.
Grab a table at La Vicaria where you can sample some seafood, meat, a shrimp cocktail or Cuban paella in their cabaña-style set-up. This government run restaurant is as popular as ever thanks to its hefty portions which I even struggled to finish.
Go for the crumbed Uruguayan pork steak (5.5) filled with ham and cheese, then fried. Lighten the load with a sweet ending of flan (1.75).
For a touch of Italian, head to the palm-fringed terrace at Palador Nonna Tina. Pizza, pasta, vino and a mixed bag of ‘service with a smile’ or ‘I really don’t want to be here’. We didn’t get as far as the pizza, but the pasta is very doable.
Spaghetti al gamberetti (9.5) at Palador Nonna Tina – 5, Calle 38
There’s no need to queue with the camera-wielding tourists at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana if you’re heading to Varadero. This Cuban icon was thrust into popularity thanks to the likes of Pablo Neruda, Salvador Allende, Ernest Hemingway and Nat King Cole eating and drinking there.
At the Varadero outlet you can spread out around the beautiful traditional house and sweat your tits off outside, or if you’re eating, that’s your ticket to sit inside the air-con comfort.
La Bodeguita del Medio – corner Calle 40 & Avenida Playa
The menu is typically Cubano with plenty of meat dishes, starters like black beans, ajiaco & fish croquettes (2) or mains of lobster, roast pork (6.75) or jerked beef.
If you’re lucky, you may even see the roast pork guy that sets up temporary shop opposite Casa de la Musica by the beach. He slices it fresh from a hunk he’s cooked at home, stuffs it into a roll with whatever sauce or condiment he has available. And there’s no guessing why there are some many people standing around or sitting in the vicinity. This is one of the towns wifi hotspots.
You may as well be chomping into a juicy pork roll while you’re reconnecting to the world, right?
We grabbed a colectivo from the Havana bus station, which cost CUC$20 per person and took 2 hours.