Fidel Castro stated that tourism would save socialism, and his vision is best represented by Varadero Beach, Cuba. This magnificent stretch of sand is 12 mi/19 km long and just 75 mi/120 km east of Havana. It spreads out on a peninsula on the northeastern coast and is both the best-known and most developed of Cuba's resort areas: About two-thirds of all hotel rooms in the country are here.
It offers dozens of hotels (many of them mediocre), plus nightclubs, cabarets, a golf course and a wide choice of restaurants (although few, if any, are remarkable). Some of the places are a few years beyond their glory days, but they're kept up well for the most part. Newer, all-inclusive resort hotels are continually being built, and they get better every year—the latest additions are truly deluxe, although service remains an issue. Most are east of the spread-out community of Varadero (which evolved in the mid-20th-century as a resort for the then rich and famous).
Most of the all-inclusive resorts are filled with fun-loving Canadians and Europeans. In general, the name-brand hotels don't quite live up to their sibling properties on other islands. Live entertainment is presented nightly.
The snorkeling and diving (including to sunken vessels and aircraft) are both reasonable near Varadero (the best reef is a mile/kilometer offshore), although there is much better diving elsewhere on the island. Those who don't want to get their feet wet can visit a dolphin aquarium or take boat tours that visit the reef.
We found the atmosphere at Varadero somewhat artificial: Its beach is spectacular but it feels sterile compared with much of Cuba, despite the fact that many Cubans (who were previously barred from Varadero) now vacation here. The same is true even if you stay in one of the modestly priced downtown hotels. Visitors seeking a more authentic experience can stay at casas particulares (private room rentals).
For a view into the real Cuba, the sleepy little town of Cardenas is only a few miles/kilometers away. You'll see horse-drawn carts and decrepit buildings and sometimes get a whiff of the foul smell of the local oil refineries. Nonetheless, Cardenas has one of the finest regional museums in Cuba, as well as a museum dedicated to Elian Gonzalez (the little boy plucked from the sea in 2000 and the source of a political and legal tussle between the U.S. and Cuba): Most tourists on organized day excursions gladly return to the resorts after a few hours.
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