Varadero’s beach strip stretches 21 kilometers along the Hicacos Peninsula into the Atlantic Ocean, and has been a highly desirable vacation spot since the 1920s.
First to realize its potential was US chemical magnate Irénée Dupont in 1920’s. The US mafia, artists, writers, and film stars soon followed in his wake.
Today, there are more than 60 hotels and dozens of private B&Bs, plus a flashy new marina. The smartest hotels are closer to the tip, whereas the B&Bs and smaller hotels are clustered together in the small town at the western end of the peninsula.
Most visitors to Varadero come to sunbathe and swim, but there are plenty of water sports and land-based activities.
On land, golfers can try their swing at the only 18-hole golf course on the island.
For those curious about Varadero’s early origins, head to the Cueva de Ambrosio to see indigenous rock art, or get in quick to see the pretty Varadero Museum – it’s slated for demolition – to see antique wooden architecture.
But if you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, go skydiving to get an aerial view of the sea below.
In the water, snorkel the reefs by taking a catamaran seafari out to Cayo Blanco, or learn how to kite surf in the shallows.
Banana boats, pedalos and sail boats are available at many hotels. Diving is better elsewhere on the island.
Matanzas, founded in 1693, was christened the Athens of Cuba for its rich artistic life.
Neglected for years by visitors and authorities, Matanzas is the birthplace of rumba – a dynamic, sexually charged courtship dance (the guaguancó) accompanied by percussion-drive rhythm, which began life in the warehouses of Matanzas port. Look out for local performances.
The central Sala de Conciertos José White has been beautifully restored, and hosts classical music and native danzón dance events.
The sumptuous 19th-century marble interiors of the Sauto Theater will soon be open to the public again following restoration.
The outstanding Pharmacy Museum preserves the antique ambience and vessels of an 1882 French-founded pharmacy.
Workshop Ediciones Vigía publishes exquisite, unique hand-crafted and designed books of stories and poems.
Next door, on Plaza de la Vigía, an art gallery showcases contemporary artists’ work.
Northwest of town, perched on hilltop plateau, is the restored Ermita de Monserrate church with its panoramic views of the lush Yumurí Valley.
Head northeast to see the 18th-century San Severino Castle, which houses a small Slavery Museum.
Southeast of Matanzas are the Cuevas de Bellamar, where visitors can explore 1km of underground tunnels.
Just east of the city is the River Canímar, where boat trips take visitors to explore upriver and see a slice of Cuban countryside.
Havana’s sister cabaret, Tropicana Matanzas, is also close by.
North of Matanzas is the Yumurí Valley. Most visitors glimpse it from the lookout point where you can also see a 110m-high bridge – Puente Bacunayagua – spanning the valley.
Another way to experience the green valley is to take the Hershey train from Matanzas back to Havana – Cuba’s only electric train was established by the US chocolate mogul Milton S. Hershey.
Explore these four National Parks for keen hikers and trekkers in Cuba. Discover waterfalls, wildlife and ancient caves in off-the-beaten-track forests.
Swap the photogenic streetscapes of Havana for tiki bars and palm-fringed shorelines with our local insider’s favorite day trips.