Varadero’s beaches have long been Cuba’s premier tourist attraction and they still remain an essential destination on any Cuba traveller’s bucket list, despite the increase in new options when it comes to other tourist attractions such as hiking, urban tours and eco-tourism.
Powdery soft white sands and crystalline waters that remain as attractive as ever despite their exploitation by a growing number beachfront hotels, make of this resort a place to take time to enjoy and get to know. How to make it here from Havana? I’ll proceed to explain.
Varadero is relatively close to Havana, just 134 kilometres away through the Via Blanca road. Such a distance can be travelled in a little over an hour, though on the way you may find a stop or two desirable. There’s no rush, after all you’re on holiday, and the beach isn’t going anywhere.
How to get there?
Renting a car or hiring a taxi?
There are multiple options of transport when it comes to travelling to Varadero from Havana: you can rent a car and drive yourself there, hire a taxi or hop on an air-conditioned coach run by the Via Azul company. If you want to down the renting a car route you best get in touch with either of these trio of companies: REX, Cubacar and Havanautos, all of which take bookings for several days charging a daily fare plus an initial deposit for insurance and additional fees for delays or vehicle damage. This option, for some travellers, comes with the added stress of driving (on Cuban roads! Not as easy as it sounds) and taking care of the car.
On the other hand, if you hire a taxi or private car with driver, you can forget all about driving, following directions, stopping to fill the tank or looking after the vehicle, and you can concentrate on doing nothing but enjoying the scenery. Fares for hired taxis oscillate between 100 and 150 CUC, as taxi drivers, whether private or state-owned, will inevitably charge you as if it were a roundtrip journey. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can enquire about hiring a taxi in the lobby, where you’ll usually find representative from various taxi agencies, and, if you’re staying in a casa particular, owners can usually point you to private taxi drivers doing that sort of journey. If you go for this option, make sure you like the car as more often than not, casa owners will recommend the driver that pays them the highest commission.
In any case, my own advice is that you go for neither of these options and choose to ride on a bus instead. Not only will it turn out far cheaper but the journey will be more leisurely and scenic, with various stops for snacks, refreshments and picture-taking.
Coach buses - the cheapest, smoothest and most trouble-free option
The cheapest option, yet still reasonably comfortable, is to book a seat in one of the Via Azul coaches, which you can also do from your hotel.
There are four daily coaches making the Havana-Varadero journey, departing from Via Azul’s main station (and headquarters) on 26th Avenue (Avenida 26), just in front of the old Zoo. Tickets cost just 10 CUC per person, with daily trips at 6:00, 8:00, 13:00 and 17:30.
Buses are modern, air-conditioned and comfortable but the journey lasts three hours as they make various stops for snacks and photo ops. The first stop is in Jibacoa, just before reaching "Penon del Fraile". As you descend the bus you’ll be led to a Cuban-style ranchon (rustic outdoor restaurant) where the best thing is the coffee. But more interesting still is the next and longest stop at one of Cuba’s most impressive engineering wonders: the imposing Bacunayagua bridge.
A natural frontier standing between Havana and Varadero, this enormous feat of engineering inaugurated in 1959, stands 110 metres tall over the lush Yumuri Valley. From its lookout, the views to take in are breath-taking, as your eyes pan from leafy hills and cliffs to the nearby sea.
But going back to my initial point of making the journey via coach bus; if you are already staying in a Havana hotel you can also ask your tour operator or enquire at the hotel’s tour desk because other coach buses by different companies (like Havanatur) also make the journey to Varadero, picking up passengers at various city hotels. This option is also safe and cheap.
What to see along the way? Where to stop?
The City of Bridges, the Athens of Cuba, the cradle of Cuban baseball…Matanzas is certainly known for quite a few things, historically, naturally and culturally; even when, for some, it only stands as the city that gives way to Varadero. To continue the journey there’s two possible options: we either turn at the "Viaducto de Matanzas"; with its seawall fronting the splendid bay, or we cross the old Calixto Garcia bridge on Tirry street – all iron and old stories.
Matanzas’ seawall promenade doesn’t have the history nor the buzzing atmosphere of Havana’s Malecon, but it is relaxing, soothingly peaceful and the cooling sea breeze makes the heat all the more bearable. You´ll find joggers, fishermen and couples in love, as well as locals enjoying street parties, either here or at the folkloric "El Tenis" beach.
Crossing over the Tirry bridge is like walking on a symbol of the city, as iconic as the "Teatro Sauto" or the Bellamar Caves. This bridge replaced the old Bailen bridge, which was destroyed by the overflowing spates of the San Juan river. The Irving iron grid pattern of its floor allows you to look at the flowing current beneath your feet as you walk on.
When it comes to landscapes and cityscapes, the journey loses some of its appeal from this point onwards, except for the crossing of the Canimar river, with the Morrillo on the river mouth and a possible stop at the Saturno Caves, on your way to Matanzas´ international airport "Juan Gualberto Gomez". The road towards Cuba´s most famous beach town is flanked by agave plants and the northern coast, bristled by reefs and with a surf that makes swimming here a dangerous and unadvisable activity.
After passing the "Boca de Camarioca" village comes the toll stop – if you go on a rented car you´ll pay 1 CUC, if you´re travelling in a taxi or coach bus, no need to fork out any cash – and then…voila! You´re almost there!
Onwards to Varadero, a short and pleasant journey
Varadero has many attractive tourist activities and recreational options, but no one can ignore the biggest attraction of all: its long, sun-kissed white sands and its bluest than blue, crystalline waters. Accommodations options are many and varied, from renting an entire house to an endless selection of all-inclusive hotels and resorts, ranging in star category from three to five-stars.
In my opinion, hotels are the best choice for a destination like this, especially for the added all-inclusive perks, the long list of facilities, the preferential treatment and the modern comforts. For now, the travelling part is over and now it´s time to lay back, take it easy and bask in the beauty of the glorious beaches. I gave you the tips to getting here, how you enjoy and make the most of this blessed destination is on you!