Western Cuba: Places to Explore

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Varadero

Depending on your tastes and ambitions, Varadero is either a tropical paradise or a tourist inferno, but the fact remains: its beaches are excellent, and its offerings rival those of similar resort areas anywhere in the world. It's also a good base for excursions to Matanzas, Cárdenas, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and the Península de Zapata.

This narrow peninsula—really an elongated island separated from the mainland by the Laguna Paso Malo—is 18½ km (11 mi) long and is edged by white-sand beaches and clear waters in mesmerizing blues, greens, and aquamarines. At an average width of 700 meters (770 yards), Varadero extends northeast to Punta Hicacos, Cuba's northernmost point. Laid out in three longitudinal avenues intersected by 69 cross streets, Varadero is easy to navigate. The town itself, a modest village of some 15,000 inhabitants, is now nearly lost amid the maze of hotels.

Originally inhabited by the Taíno, Varadero was settled by the Spanish in the late 16th century. In the late 19th century, families from Cárdenas began to build summer houses here. In 1883 the first town council established a plan for building baths and recreational facilities. The Varadero Hotel opened in 1915, and in 1926 the du Pont de Nemours family—powerful American industrialists whose early fortune was made in gunpowder—bought most of the peninsula and built a large estate complete with a golf course. Other wealthy norteamericanos followed, including Al Capone.

By the 1950s, numerous hotels were under construction; they followed the example of the Hotel Internacional, a quintessential den of iniquity complete with a casino, mobsters, and abundant available women. After 1959, the Revolution declared the elitist enclave public property and rank-and-file Cubans were allowed on the beach. Varadero then became a favorite Russian resort, where Eastern European tourists frolicked in the sun and guzzled mojitos right under Uncle Sam's nose.

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