Travel The rise and fall of Varadero, Cuba's capitalist coast

The rise and fall of Varadero, Cuba's capitalist coast

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It’s striking how loved Varadero is by foreigners living in Havana. Sadly, it took me years to visit because snobbishly I’d decided it wasn’t “the real Cuba”. Johnny Considine, who runs the high-end Cuba Private Travel, agrees. “I think anybody who lives in Cuba begins to appreciate it,” he says. “The town is brilliant.”

‘It remains a Cuban community’

Varadero town is at the landward end of the peninsula, close to the Kawama channel that separates the peninsula from the rest of Cuba. Its 69 streets ladder three avenues heading north. Low slung houses in worn pastels roast under the sun, interiors shaded by wooden slates, terraces a clutter of rocking chairs.

Cuba’s famous old cars cruise the avenues, the mint ones offering tours, the belching jalopies running bus routes. Horses wearily pull carts. The lines of houses are broken occasionally by weather-beaten hotels rising above the languor, but it very much remains a Cuban community.

Travel further up the peninsula, on the highway that edges up the mangroves of the eastern side, and big resort hotels appear. They were built from the Nineties onwards by Fidel and then Raul Castro’s regimes as money raising projects following the collapse of a Soviet Union that had, until then, supported Cuba. Spanish and Canadian companies such as Melia, Iberostar and Blue Diamond moved in as operators. For a while Club Med arrived, but pulled out again in 2003. Cuba is not an easy place to do business.

Hidden amidst what is a fairly denuded area is some stunning nature. There’s a huge cave, batty and stalactitey, where visitors can dive. There are cays requiring a catamaran trip. On the south coast, there are the Zapata swamps, home to miniature hummingbirds. And, of course, there is fabulously sultry Havana, 90 miles to the west.

The evolution of a resort town

The name Varadero means dry dock, which is how the Spanish used it after they arrived in 1492. The original residents remain visible in the drawings in the caves. It became a resort in the 1880s when 10 families from the nearby town of Cardenas built houses on the dunes.

Renée Méndez Capote wrote of the wonder of the early days in her Memories of a Cuban girl who was born with the century.“It was a silent and deserted world populated only by tiny beings: little white crabs and iridescent shells … My childhood caught in the baskets of silver sardines fried and eaten, heads and everything.” It’s still possible to buy fish off the fishermen on the beach.

Virgina Morales has one of the loveliest of the older houses, Casa Menocal. On two adjoining plots facing the sea in town, it has stone slab roofs, hardwood interiors, creole tiles and is surrounded by gardens. It is often believed to have been built by Mario García Menocal, an early 20th century Cuban president, but in fact it was his cousin’s project, Virgina’s grandfather.

“Varadero was populated very slowly,” she says. “The access routes were by train to Matanzas or Cárdenas and then by road to Varadero. The Via Blanca [the highway along the island’s north coast] began to be built in 1954 and ended in 1960 with the construction of the Bacunayagua bridge, so access to Varadero from Havana was long and tedious.”

This means the beach lacks the seedy if glamorous history of Havana, despite attempts to create one. The Casa de Al Capone has a photograph of the mobster on the wall, but little evidence he ever lived there.

The best building on the peninsula is Xanadu, on a cliff above the beach halfway up the spit. It was the winter home of the French American industrialist Irénée du Pont, built in 1927, three storeys with a mirador on top. It is now a bizarre, uncomfortable but brilliant hotel.

The estate ran to 180 hectares, with five miles of beach. Those grounds are now the Varadero golf course. Thor-Erling Sjøvold, husband to a senior diplomat in Havana, has become an expert on its 18 holes, unsurprisingly.

“It’s easy and fun to play,” he says. “The problem is, like most things in Cuba, you never know what to expect. Sometimes it’s well maintained, at others the fairway is a jungle.”

So Varadero was exclusive. A friend, Magda Cruz, is old enough to remember the years before Castro’s 1959 revolution. “I don’t recall any of my family visiting Varadero,” she says. “It was not for the poor.”

The revolution changed that. Good socialists were offered holidays. The Park of 8,000 Cubicles was created so people could store their things. Festivals were inaugurated. Then came the Soviet collapse and the eyes of the state saw profit in looking to foreign package tourism.

A drop in European trade

Varadero was doing well until the pandemic. In 2017, a record 1.7 million visitors came through the resort’s Juan Gualberto Gómez International Airport, the vast majority were Canadians escaping their brutal winters. Someone who has seen the current figures say the numbers are still good, if nothing on 2017’s scale.

The better resorts – those able to import food without relying on Cuba’s cash-strapped government – are operating on good levels of occupancy. There are other signs of optimism. A vast new Indonesian-owned hotel, the Grand Aston, is about to open at the resort’s entrance. Sources say the airport is soon to receive major investment from Spain.

Johnny Considine says that many of his well-heeled clients still find much to love. He sends clients to Mystique Casa Perla, a newish Royalton small hotel at the edge of the town that is à la carte rather than all-inclusive, and is therefore lovely.

Tui refuses to give its reasons for stopping their Manchester flights, saying only: “We constantly review our flights and holiday offering in line with demand.” But, says Considine, many European tour operators are now refusing to sell Cuba.

This is a result of one of Donald Trump’s last acts as president. He put Cuba on the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Now no one who visits Cuba can then travel to the US on an ESTA visa waiver, irritating for visitors who find out too late. “For operators, Cuba has become a low volume/high complaint destination,” says one European businessman.

Varadero still lags behind its Caribbean competitors in service and food. This hasn’t been helped by the hotels losing staff to the grand exodus of Cubans fleeing the island’s economic crisis. “In the 1990s, people said that in 20 years, Varadero would be like Cancún,” says the businessman. “But that date keeps moving further away.”

My father-in-law puts this another way when I ask how Varadero has changed since he honeymooned there in 1985. He makes a very Cuban joke about the caught-in-aspic nature of his country.

“How has it changed?” he says. “Nothing has changed.”

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