“Varadero beach is full of tourists” seems to be the automatic response I get from any independent traveller who I speak to about Cuba. It’s a curious response given most of these self-professed “non-tourist” travellers I meet (otherwise known as backpackers) have never actually visited Varadero Beach. They are simply citing a stereotype that has been cited to them by someone who has…probably also never visited Varadero Beach.
For the record (and to address an ongoing annoyance), here is the Oxford English Dictionary of tourist: “a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure”. Guess what, Mr (or Ms) Independent traveller/backpacker – that’s you. Doesn’t matter how local the transport you use, or the food you eat. You’re. A. Tourist. Just as much as someone who hops off a cruise ship or spends two weeks in a resort in Cancun (or Cuba). You may approach your tourist activities in a different way but: You’re. Still. A. Tourist…ok, rant over.
Earlier this year, I stared into the face of my own stereotypes about Malaga, a Spanish city I was convinced (without having visited) was riddled with Brits abroad and tourists of a kind that were…not my kind. When I arrived, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and yet fundamentally wrong with my assumptions. It turned out to be both a great destination and an exercise in learning to visit places with an open mind.
So, in the spirit of exploration, I added Varadero Beach to my Cuba itinerary. Three nights in a four-star, all-inclusive resort. I wanted to see what Cuba’s beach resorts were really like.
The result: I left with incredibly mixed feelings. Varadero had a lot of good, but there were also plenty of bad and just downright ugly things about the place.
Understanding Cuba’s Beaches
Varadero Beach is without a doubt one of Cuba’s tourist beaches.
Cuba is a quirky place for sure, but it wasn’t until I started researching beach areas in Cuba that I began to understand how different Cuba was compared to other islands I’d visited in the quest for a spot of sun-soaking.
My ideal beach retreat in Cuba would have been a beautiful stretch of icing-sugar sand giving way to the kind of turquoise waters that are so prevalent in the Caribbean. My accommodation might have been a small, rustic cabana and there would have been a fish barbecue near the beach at night. Not too much to ask in Cuba, right? Wrong.
It turns out that there are two main kinds of beaches in Cuba: tourist resorts which until 2008 did not permit Cuban people to enter (Varadero Beach is one such place). In response to my independent traveller friends, there are a lot of “tourists” in Varadero because the Cuban government have contrived it that way.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are Cuban holiday/vacation beaches which usually front onto slightly less attractive patches of sand and feature Soviet-era accommodation that, as one website colourfully described it: “find the building that looks like it is a nuclear research plant and you have found your accommodation”.
No cabanas, no hammock hotels, just a choice between mega-resorts for foreigners or 1950s hotels and holiday camps for Cubans. In the spirit of fairness, I decided to try both: three nights in Varadero Beach in the north and a few nights in Playa Ancón on the south coast a few kilometres outside of Trinidad (more on Playa Ancón and, specifically, La Boca, where I ended up staying, coming soon).
Note: I did some web research but ultimately turned to the Cuba Lonely Planet for my final choices. You can buy a copy here.
Arriving at Varadero Beach without a package holiday
I was on a travel high when I arrived at Varadero thanks to the adventure that was the Hershey Train, which I took from Havana most of the way to the beach resorts.
Checking into the hotel, it immediately struck me how much me and my Travel Amiga, Karen, stood out. In a world where package holidaymakers descend by the dozens, arriving en masse each Thursday and Saturday at pre-determined times, we were already out of whack meandering off the street on a non-standard day and without a clip-board wielding holiday representative at our side.
The check-in process was slow thanks to my inadequate Spanish and the check-in lady’s lack of English, but eventually, we muddled through the details: the amount of the credit card charge for using a visa, where I could obtain a beach towel (and the associated rules around possessing one) and, most surprising to the lady behind the desk, what to see and do outside the hotel.
Her puzzled, and somewhat frustrated look told me it was the first time she had been asked that question. And, it seemed, by venturing into this unfamiliar territory I’d thrown up an immediate red flag that I simply didn’t get this all-inclusive lark and I was perhaps to be marked down as potential trouble. Nevertheless, she gave me some broadly useless instructions that, I assume, were aimed at deterring me from leaving the hotel, handed over my room key and smiled goodbye.
Varadero Beach: The Good
As a long-term traveller, good travel maths dictates that I should stay in the cheapest accommodation in order to spend less money and thus travel longer. For that reason, four-star hotels are not commonly on my radar. Plus, staying in the Casa Particulares is one of the best ways to experience Cuba, in any case. However, in order to see Varadero Beach how the vast majority of overseas visitors experience the area and, to be honest, to extend myself a bit of luxury, I booked into the Barceló Solymar Hotel.
As four-star hotels go, uproot the Barceló and plonk it in a city like London or New York, attach a four-star designation, and TripAdvisor would probably implode with angry reviews. Suffice it to say, by international standards, the Barceló would pass a three-star test at best in most other countries in the world. However, I wasn’t in most other countries, I was in Cuba and once I got used to the funky scent emanating from the ancient air-conditioning unit and overlooked the tired-looking decor, it’s fair to say that the Barceló was a reasonably good place to stay.
It was close to evening time by the time I arrived at the hotel so after a quick shower and change, I headed downstairs for dinner – at the buffet.
Ok, this little man was not “on the buffet” but he lived in the restaurant…and he definitely fits under the “good” category. If anyone knows what species he is, I’m dying to know!
I have to say, I’m not a fan of buffets. Absent an extravaganza of the kind I experienced at the Sofitel in Manila, I find the food is generally low quality, repetitive and thanks to my inability to make firm decisions, I end up eating the weirdest combination of flavours that wouldn’t be served anywhere, ever. However, after days of bland chicken and rice (and, ironically, American food), the buffet at first sight looked inviting. And things continued to get better as my drinking instincts quickly detected the free-flowing sparkling wine.
Several glasses and a full stomach later (courtesy of a couple of trips back and fore to the buffet), I was in travel Heaven. A choice of pools, a beach (I’d yet to visit), free food, free drink…free everything! What wasn’t there to love…I naively thought.
I retired early that night, still slightly swaying after the Hershey Train (or perhaps after the free wine). I woke early the next day, indulged in a free breakfast and headed to the beach.
It’s worth taking a few seconds to stare at the picture above – Varadero Beach in all of her beauty. And, for the sake of openness and honesty, I have not done ANY editing to the picture, which was taken on my iPhone 5s.
I’ve seen some pretty damn amazing patches of sand and sea around the world. I say that not to boast but to put into context my next statement:
Varadero beach is most definitely one of the top 5 most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.
It’s not a claim I make lightly and for this reason, and this reason alone, I will look any tourist/independent traveller/backpacker (whatever you want to call yourself) dead in the eye and say that you should visit Varadero.
But I wouldn’t be telling the entire reality if I left things there.
Varadero Beach: The Bad and the Ugly
Note: I have photographs of the debauchery and bad behaviour I saw in the hotel but it’s not appropriate for me to publish pictures of identifiable individuals, some of whom were well-behaved. Instead, what follows are some pictures of what you can see if you walk outside of the hotels at Varadero. Something I strongly urge you to do.
As I predicted, over the following two nights I was tired of the buffet food. It became repetitive, I got bored of sitting in the same restaurant space and within a day even the free-flowing wine lost its sparkle (figuratively – it was actually as bubbly as ever).
The resort did feature a number of internationally themed restaurants (Mexican and Chinese amongst them) but courtesy of a bureaucracy that would put the Italians to shame and my ongoing lack of forward planning, I never got a look-in. By day three I was going crazy with the need to break free and eat somewhere new…a concept that is hard to balance in the face of a travel budget and food that is effectively available for free.
Yet the boring buffet wasn’t the worst of it. There was something far more ugly in the resorts of Varadero and I’m ashamed to say that it lay in the people who were staying there.
I don’t know whether it was bad luck that the hotel I’d booked into was popular with Canadian tourists, but I suspected the resorts filled with British holidaymakers wouldn’t have been much different. Morning, noon and well into the night, large groups of Canadians staggered around the resort wielding large travel equivalents of sippy cups (“You can drink more that way” I was informed) and generally being obnoxious tw@ts.
I’m very sorry for using that particular expletive, which is the second worse curse word in the English language (after the “C-Word” which you will NEVER see on this site), but I felt that strongly about the mass of idiots that I met in Varadero beach.
Ignorant, arrogant and disrespectful, the majority of my fellow hotel visitors were the kind of people who simply shouldn’t be allowed to possess a passport. (I should say that I did meet a small handful of nice visitors during my stay but they made up less than 1% of the people I came across).
Drinks were knocked on the floor in the hotel and left for people to walk through, food was thrown and swept onto the floor and plastic cups were left to blow in the wind (and sea) on the beach. I saw one girl empty several cups of beer onto the floor in the beach bar (sorry, call me intolerant but I lost my patience and shouted at her but, seriously, I shouldn’t have to explain to a twenty-something why you shouldn’t throw drinks on the floor).
The detritus dropped by the people at the resort was literally everywhere and I was embarrassed for the entire Western world because of it.
There was screaming, shouting, throwing and even some aggression (one guy whacked his sippy-cup off the bar towards the barman who was trying his best to serve the dysfunctional mob, soaking the barman in half a litre of beer. The idiot shrugged smugly, burst into laughter and high-fived his friend while the barman displayed the patience of a saint simply continuing his work). What can I say? To the (vast majority of the) people I came across in Varadero – Shame. On. You.
By Day three I was anxious to leave. But not before I’d performed a small experiment. Somewhere before the 48th Cuba Libre had been consumed by some of my fellow hotel guests, I managed to engage in a conversation about Cuba, its sights, its history, politics and culture.
I don’t judge too harshly the lack of historical knowledge possessed by the people in the resort. Until I travelled to Cuba, I wasn’t too familiar with the details myself (apart from a broad understanding of the country’s past). But it was the attitude of these travellers that bothered me. In their mind (and words), Cuba was “primitive” (my eyes flicked open like saucers when I heard that description), a country they were only visiting because one friend was too tight to pay the extra to go elsewhere. Plus, there were “way too many locals” in the hotel. I explained the rule about Cubans not being able to enter tourist hotels until 2008 and my comment was met with no concern.
“Have you been outside the resort”, I asked, certain I knew the answer. “No, and why would you want to when you have everything here.”
“To understand and explore the culture of Cuba,” I encouraged, my frustration mounting. A mix of shrugs and faces that looked like I’d just told the travellers that the bar had run out of beer.
“Give me two days..or just one day of your time,” I implored. “I’ll show you around Cuba. I’ll be your guide. I’ll introduce you to the people, the cities. You’ll see things that will open up and quite possibly even blow your mind. Just give me one day?”
“But we’ve already paid for everything here.”
“I’ll pay for you.” It seemed like a generous offer on my part but, sadly, I was confident it was an offer I could make knowing that it was never going to cost me a penny. “We’re going to the pool tomorrow,” came the anticipated reply. I couldn’t even pay these people to leave the resort.
“The pool. Of course,” I muttered. Followed by the buffet, the bar and the bed. It was the routine they had replicated every day since they arrived, would repeat every day until they left and, most likely would endure for every two-week trip they took for the rest of their lives.
Defeated, I left the drinking games in full swing, stepped over the sticky pools of beer that the bar staff couldn’t clean up fast enough and went to bed somewhat depressed with the slice of human race I was staying with.
Being a representative of your country
What would Jose Marti think?
Leaving Varadero Beach I was conflicted. I was so, so sad leaving the beauty of the sand and sea behind. But more than that I was relieved to unshackle myself from the resort and the holiday-makers that left me wanting to write a letter to the Canadian outbound tourism minister.
Even as I travelled further and further from Varadero, it took a long while to shrug off the feelings of disgust I had for my fellow hotel guests.
Sure, I get that not everyone wants to engage in an adventure when they get a few weeks of holiday each year. And not researching the history of the country you’re visiting is sad, but not a sackable offence (I’d like to hope some awareness rubs off along the way). Even excessive drinking and debauchery are not unfamiliar territory in my world – hell, I spent four years in an 80% male, rugby-focused university in England and have stayed in my fair share of party places.
But that wasn’t it. What bothered me most was this: in a country where so few Cubans can afford to travel, as a visitor you are very likely the single biggest vision of what the outside world represents, and I was disgusted to my core to think that the hotel workers in the resorts see such a disgraceful and disrespectful display of behaviour that they most likely think that Canada (and probably other Western countries) are riddled with Philistines that haven’t seen progress since the middle ages, let alone the 1950s. If I were to attach the label “primitive”, it wouldn’t be to the country of Cuba, it would be to the people I met.
Time and again, I wanted to shout, “This isn’t normal, this isn’t what people outside Cuba are like”. But how could my protestations hold weight in the face of the ugly behaviour of the tourists that swarm the beach each year, taking the sparse resources for cheap kicks and even cheaper beer? I’ve said it once but I’ll say it again. If you are the kind of traveller who hits up a resort in a no-holds-barred style that fits very squarely into the “we’d never get away with this, let alone dare to try it at home” style of travel – Shame. On. You.
You are a representative of your country when you travel and what local people think of you matters, especially when you are their most significant window to the world.
And as I looked out of the window onto Cuba’s world, watching Varadero with its mega-resorts and soft, beautiful sand fade into the distance, I found it hard to sum up how I felt and whether I would or would not recommend other people to visit Varadero. But on balance, I think my answer is this: Do visit. Do see Varadero Beach. But go and be a gleaming example. Go and be the best of what your country represents. Go and inform the Cuban people that the outside world is a place they should, if opportunity knocks, one day go out and explore.
Tips for how to have a good stay in Varadero
Consider staying at a casa particular
There are a number of casa particulars in Varadero where it is possible to stay if you’re not interested in a resort. However, be aware that many of the beaches in Varadero are attached to hotels so I’m not sure how easy it will be to find some public sand (let me know if you find out). The good news is that you can now book casas ahead using Booking.com.
Do your research!
There are probably calmer hotels available in Varadero and I most certainly failed on this front.
TripAdvisor is a popular place to start your research – click here for a list of the top hotels in Varadero (according to TripAdvsior).
You will find tips here for how to get the most out of TripAdvisor reviews.
Book your hotel in advance
If you’re taking an independent trip to Varadero, make sure you book online before you leave home for the best prices. The rates are practically double if you simply turn up.
The Barceló Solymar cost £66 per night all inclusive for two people. Booking direct with the hotel in Varadero on arrival would have cost twice that.
TripAdvisor is the best place for checking hotel reviews and booking in one place. You read reviews and find prices for Varadero on TripAdvisor here.
Consider booking with a tour operator for customer service access
Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone to take responsibility if your trip isn’t going to plan. Also, tour operators can help you find a resort that will suit your travel style.
TUI (formerly Thomson Holidays) is popular in the UK (94% of their customers rate their holidays as good or excellent). Click here to check out their trips to Varadero.
First Choice is also very popular. Click here to see their trips to Varadero.
If you know of any other tour operators you’d recommend, especially in the USA or Canada, let me know in the comments below.
Leave your resort and explore Varadero
There’s a wonderful world stuffed with Cuban culture just beyond the walls of the resorts. Click here for a list of the top attractions in Varadero.
Leave Varadero, even if it’s just for a few days
Even if you take a package deal (quite often it is cheaper than paying for flights and hotel separately), try and tack on a few days to visit at least one other place (Havana is a close and excellent option).
Alternatively, most hotels offer day trips. They will be more expensive than travelling separately but are still a better option than seeing nothing but the bottom of your beer glass.