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The rarely told story of Varadero

Varadero is Cuba's main and largest tourist beach resort. Founded in the 19th century; the city is located on the Hicacos peninsula, just a few kilometres from Havana. It stands out for the unparalleled beauty of its beach, the warmth of its people, and for its culture, heritage and the safety of its tranquil and laidback streets; all of which are features that no tourist visiting Cuba should overlook. For these reasons and many others, in Varadero; a paradisiacal spot which never fails to win over the hearts of those who visit it, you'll come across much more than just a sunny beach setting. To this date the resort has many secrets and curiosities unknown to most of its regular visitors, and to its dwellers as well. Moreover; it boasts many sites to visit, thus ensuring a pleasant stay packed with novelties for all ages.

The rarely told story of Varadero

About 44% of Cuba’s foreign visitors in 2014, were welcomed to Varadero, which is regarded as the island’s main tourist-beach magnet. However, few people know about the resort’s curiosities and peculiar stories.

Above all other things, the resort; located on Cuba’s northern coast, in the Hicacos peninsula, owes its success to its exceptionally stunning strip of beach, with its colour having inspired famous French dressmaker Christian Dior to create the so-called "Azul Varadero" (Varadero Blue) colour, very fashionable all over the world in the 1950s.

Azul Varadero

I can furthermore tell you - and I really know what I’m saying here as I’ve devoted more than twenty years of my life to study this beach town’s history - is that for more than 100 years, it’s been visited by various kings, princes, and other royal celebrities. Heads of state and heads of government from several countries, celebrities from the world of showbiz, poets, artists and writers; have done so as well. All of them; without exception, have been moved by the resort’s natural charm, which has earned its reputation as “la playa más linda del mundo” (“the world’s most beautiful beach”), as it’s often referred to by Cubans.

Varadero’s unknown or rarely told stories

Varadero's unknown or rarely told stories

The first documented news that made reference to the presence of holidaymakers on the Hicacos peninsula date back to the 1840s. During this time, Artillery Lieutenant Bernardo Carrillo de Albornoz; who lived in Havana, had bought most of the estates existing in the current territory of Varadero and Cardenas (the neighbouring city) from their original owners who date back to before 1763. Descendants of his later built a small hamlet consisting of "bohios" (typical dirt-floor peasant huts made with planks from the wood of royal palms) and wooden houses with roofs made of guano (the dried leaves of the royal palm) or Spanish tiles.

Cardenas

According to my findings after delving into old documents, other hamlets followed this one, but they were wiped out by tropical hurricanes. Finally, in 1881, and due to the interest of proprietors from Cardenas city (part of the Hicacos peninsula) a society was created for the acquisition of land in it. The society’s aim was to take the required measures to legitimately found a hamlet which would be named Varadero and would serve as a beach resort.

The name of this new hamlet reminded its early inhabitants of the time in which the Hicacos peninsula, was just a place in which vessels transporting salt, wood, charcoal, fish and other similar products, were careened on its beaches. This was done with the purpose of repairing them, as well as to protect them from the frequent hurricanes and tropical storms affecting this area of Cuba’s north coast during the second half of each year.

On 5 December 1887, the ten members of the aforementioned society succeeded in getting the approval for the formation of the new hamlet from the mayor of Cardenas; the municipality to which the resort still belongs. Thus the foundation of Varadero was officially established.

The arrival of the Duponts and the Silvas

The arrival of the Duponts and the Silvas

American magnate Mr. Irene Dupont de Nemours, arrived in Varadero in 1926, and soon became the resort’s main owner. This millionaire acquired numerous plots of land in the Hicacos peninsula at the ridiculous price of just 4 cents per square metre. Those plots of land currently extend from 54th St. to the Xanadu Mansion; the magnificent building which from 1930 served as his temporary residence.

You might like to know that at the same time, Cuban entrepreneur and businessman Eugenio Silva also acquired properties in the peninsula. This retired Colonel from the Cuban National Army, along with Dupont and other local owners, undertook a campaign to promote Varadero’s paradisiacal attributes in Cuba and beyond. Thus, they were responsible for developing tourism in the resort, which would soon be visited by the likes of Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gabriela Mistral and other outstanding poets and writers.

Varadero became one of the main tourist resorts in the country

It is also known that Hollywood actress and sex symbol of the 1930s, Ann Sheridan, spent a few days in Varadero, studying the script for a film she’d be starring in at the time.

During the late 1940s and the 1950s, Varadero became one of the main tourist resorts in the country. Soon its fame, preceded by that of its most prominent hotels and lodges, nightspots and shops; reached the world’s most unforeseen corners.

Two Anecdotes

Having been unable to trace it back to its exact month and day, the first anecdote I found dates back to 1894, the year in which Varadero received the visit of eminent Cuban musician Rafael Diaz Albertini, after his magnificent concert in Cardenas. Albertini and his hosts disembarked at dawn, on the south coast of the Hicacos peninsula. To the east, the daybreak dyed the sky with vivid rose colours and upon facing the beach, the great artist exclaimed:

“Great God! What a sight! This is a piece of Eden!”

The captain of a Danish ship anchored in the Cárdenas harbour, played the leading role in the second anecdote. Admired by the luminosity of Varadero’s waters and by the whiteness of its sand, the experienced sailor took a fistful of sand, squeezed it and watched in awe as it slipped through his fingers. Then, after feeling its smoothness and the tininess of its grains, he turned to his guide and asked:

“How can you people grind, and get such fine and thin sand grains?” Then after being rectified by his guide, he stated that he had sailed the whole world, “and had never seen anything remotely similar in the minuteness of those grains nor comparable in the beauty of those waters and sand created by nature".

European royal family members in Varadero

Members of two European royal families are among the many Cuban and foreign celebrities that have visited the resort. One of these is King Leopold of Belgium; famous seashell and snail collector, who visited the Hicacos peninsula accompanied by his wife and the renowned Cuban scientist Dr. Carlos de la Torre y Huerta.

The other is Don Juan de Borbon y Battenberg; Count of Barcelona and father to Don Juan Carlos I, who became King of Spain in 1975. He travelled to Cuba accompanied by his wife Doña María de las Mercedes, daughter of Prince Don Carlos in December 1947. Upon their arrival in Havana’s Rancho Boyeros airport, they eluded the press and set out directly for Varadero. Once there they stayed in a mansion owned by the Countess of Revilla Camargo, who at the time was also entertaining the kings of Belgium.

During his stay in Varadero, Don Juan de Borbon, along with his wife, his hosts and other guests; participated in a variety of social activities and night fishing trips organised for his enjoyment aboard a boat put at his disposal by Mr. Gomez Mena.

In November 1999, fifty-two years after his parents’ visit to Cuba, and on the occasion of the Latin American Summit of Heads of State and Governments; King Juan Carlos I and his wife; Queen Sofia, received; to their surprise, from the hands of Cuban President Fidel Castro; various photographs of Don Juan de Borbon and his wife in the island.

Varadero’s present

Varadero's present

With 51 hotels and more than 20,000 rooms, Cuba’s main beach destination has received over one million foreign tourists every year since 2008. Canada, Germany and Russia comprise the leading tourist markets until now, while local tourism increased in 2014.

You’ll surely like to know that surveys conducted last year to assess Varadero’s guest satisfaction, revealed that 37.3 % of those surveyed said the treatment they received at this resort was superior to that in other similar destinations in the Caribbean; while 47.9 % regarded it as equal. So, the 85% of the guests interviewee were happy with the attention received.

You mustn’t overlook…

While you’re in Varadero, you mustn’t overlook a visit to the Varahicacos Nature Reserve. This reserve stands as a true paradise for nature lovers; who never fail to feel enraptured by the sight of an over 500-year-old cetaceous plant named El Patriarca (The Patriarch).

It’ll also be interesting and worthwhile for you to visit the Museo Municipal de Varadero (Varadero Municipality Museum), la Cueva de Ambrosio (Ambrosio’s Cave) or the Xanadu Mansion which is an architecture gem. You might also like to drop by the Retiro Josone Park, where you’re sure to enjoy a scenic stroll and relaxing day out.

For those of you who love handicrafts and souvenirs, I suggest you take your time to leisurely tour the many small markets and shops in downtown Varadero, and even haggle if need be with the merchants. You can also do parachuting, go scuba diving in the beautiful coral reefs, go fishing, or go on a boat or catamaran trip. In addition to all this you can also rent an old car or a horse-drawn carriage; exercise, or simply go for a walk on the sparkling white sands, in search of new attractions. On the way you’ll find many places where you can eat or drink, with prices ranging from 1 to 30 CUC per person.

The exceptional beauty of the resort’s beach, the warmth of its people, its culture, heritage, and the safe, relaxed appeal of its tranquil streets are; in my personal opinion, the main reasons that inspire so many tourists to repeat their visit to Varadero, where I can predict you’ll enjoy the most pleasant of stays in the island.

1You’ll find more details and curiosities in my book; Varadero: de caserio a centro turístico de relevancia nacional e internacional (1883 – 1958), (Varadero: From hamlet to tourist resort of national and international significance), published in Cuba in 2008, or in my blog "El Cardenense" in Blogspot.

Ernesto Alvarez

Ernesto Alvarez

Passionate Historian

Being the author of The History of Tourism in Varadero and a resident there, Ernesto hoards an...

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