People have been coming to Varadero for years. It’s kind of like the main ‘escape’ from Havana, given it’s only some 2 to 3 hours away along the freeway. Al Capone had a house here; from which he could largely dictate the running of Havana, at the time infested with Mafian influence. All the rich and famous and anyone important in the world during Cubas pre-revolution days graced the powder white beaches of Varadero.
We flew along the freeway at horrendously irresponsible speeds and got there in some 3 and half hours, normally a good 6 hours in a Viazul bus. An otherwise uneventful trip, except maybe for the transit through a Cuban sugar town called ‘Australia’. The van corralled down the main parade lined on each side with one of the following government owned business: souvenir shop, hotel or all-inclusive resort, restaurant, cafe or bar, small supplies market or beach supplies shop. That’s it. Squeezed in between seemed to be a small handful of local homes paraded past by globs of tourists and loitered around by Cuba’s famously irritating jintaros or touts.
We arrived at our casa particular which looked kind of like an amalgamation of apartments in this funny L-shape. It was hard to gauge what was happening, but it seemed like an older couple with suitcases had arrived at the same time. They were attended to and we were ushered inside to dump our bags whilst the room was finalised. On the way out we caught the older couple hastily rolling their suitcases out the front gate, chased by the casa owner. I dunno why, our room was fine.
There’s no denying Cubans have a real gusto for life. Make the most of it. Know your neighbors and treat your family well. This is expressed by a lot of time hanging about after a days work in the streets, just spending time with each other. The streets are always teaming with people, having conversations, playing small games like dominoes or chess, smoking cigars or sharing a bottle of rum. Iconic I know, but hands-down fact. An output of this gusto is an incessant, boisterous banter. The Spanish spoken here is by far the loudest and fastest I’ve ever heard. It might as well be Greek. Oh wow, what a lovely cultural anomaly I hear you say, well yes, but you try sleeping at 1am in the morning, or conducting a conversation at normal volume when surrounded by Cuban neighbors. It’s impossible. If Carlos is a block and a half away, call his name.. then ask him how he is.. then ask him what he thought of the baseball game last night.. don’t mind the person standing in front of you, or bothering to move closer. A general rule of conversation it seems, is to conduct it shouting. Latin America has taught me what a polite, quiet and conservative culture we Australians are. Perhaps too much so, it’s possible; but the Latino’s and particularly the Cubans can be a downright rowdy bunch.
We’ve really only had reprieve from the incessant offers from the jintaros in Vinales. Here they’re back on their game. Every horse and cart, every heritage taxi, every coco-taxi will slow down to your walking pace and ask if you want a ride.. good price and all that. A simple ‘no gracias’ is typically enough to send them packing but you couldn’t count more than 45 seconds without an offer. As in Havana, conversations with friendly locals are unfortunately usually loaded. And I know this sounds like a bit of whinge but it can be weathering. Don’t get me wrong, the experiences we’ve had with our casa owners has been absolutely amazing. To be invited into their homes, fed like old friends and engaged in conversation has been the take-away experience of the whole trip.
But generally outside of that, the jintaros are relentless and most customer service staff are bored and completely disinterested. It takes a bit of getting used to, but as an overly polite, courteous people you can find it annoying if you invest too much in the temporary relationship.
Varadero is an unusual place. A narrow peninsula with an Atlantic and Caribbean side you can walk from one to the other in a matter of minutes. We were holed up in ‘downtown’ which is the strip as explained earlier. There’s a ‘hop-on-hop-off’ tourist bus here, you know, one of those open top things, with a bored girl on a microphone pointing out the tourist attractions as they pass. We jumped on given we had 4 nights here and outside the beach, it’s the ‘other’ thing to do. Our plan was simply to ride the circuit and be done with it. We didn’t feel that whole ‘hop-on-hop-off’ concept really applied in any real means here. Beyond the strip at the western end is a handful of old hotels, of the 4-star self-rated type with a dirty old pool and 50 or so rooms that haven’t been touched since the 60‘s. Al Capones house is in amongst them, with a nice fiberglass homage to his gangster car, parked out the front. It’s now a kitschy restaurant. At the other end of the strip, some 10 or so kilometers up the road along the peninsula and you’ll hit the ‘all-inclusive’ resorts.
Take a handful of Soviets who’ve never had a days holiday in their lives and tell them to build a holiday resort and you’ll likely get what you have here in Varadero. Concrete, utilitarian style blocks painted ravishing colours like sunshine yellow, blood red and ocean blue. Most have that ‘closed-for-summer’ look where the only thing on the menu would be ‘radishes’. They’re kind of frightening to look at and it chills me to think had we booked somewhere like that, how it would be getting out of the taxi and wandering up to the vampires in reception. Beyond the initial ‘all-inclusives’ there’s some serious international investment that’s created small empires and cities from their resorts. And it’s an odd demographic here. Mostly groups I’d say, of retirement age and either Russian, French or Canadian. We’ve felt a little out of place the whole time, given there doesn’t appear to be a huge proportion of independent travelers. Most seem here on short-term vacation, most are sunburned. Halfway through the tour we’re about ready to get off but the resorts and superbly crafted micro-villages continue. Eventually we disembark into the lush gardens of Parque < > back in downtown and drop into ‘Dante’s’, a fine Italian restaurant, where we sit by the lake and enjoy a superb espresso.
Coffee in Cuba is probably the best we’ve experienced in South and Central America, and that’s fending off some serious competition from Colombia and Brazil. It’s just more suited to our taste here. Strong, full of flavor and rarely thin and watered down. Like elsewhere in South and Central America you’ll rarely find anything beyond an espresso or coffee with milk but ask for an ‘Americano’ here and you’ll be sharply met with a ‘We only have Cubano’.
The beach itself is a top 3 contender. Powdery white sand and that typical palette of bright blues leading out to rich deep blue on the horizon; it’s ridiculously punctuated by the contrast of the white sails of a yacht or two and the rich blue of the sky. Thankfully there’s a generous array of thatch umbrellas out to escape the harsh Caribbean sun, you simply pay for chairs if you wish to use them. The Portuguese man-of-wars are unfortunately the one thing to look out for here and we came across only one washed up into a bubbling blue heap on the beach.
Havana is a short stop on our way our to the Caymans to complete the establishment of our tax evasion programme. It’ll be nice to briefly see Zoe and Victor who organised everything for us on this trip. And to thank them and to share in some Cuban hospitality and enjoy a hearty breakfast, despite the limited availability of some foods.