Varadero: Life’s A Beach
Having spent four days embracing all that the enchanting city of Havana has to offer, by the fifth day we are made up of 30% culture and 70% rum. It’s time to redress the balance a little: we clearly need more rum.
The journey time by coach to Varadero, our next destination in Cuba, is around two hours – just long enough to decompress from the hectic pace of Havana and the exhausting business of sightseeing, take a deep breath aaaaaand relaxxxxx in preparation for our luxurious (ahem!) all-inclusive surroundings.
Varadero is a popular beach resort in the Matanzas province along the coast from the capital, boasting it’s own international airport (each of the 15 provinces in Cuba has one), over 60 hotels and 20km of white sandy beaches, which run along the skinny Hicacos peninsula, facing the Gulf Of Mexico.
Seeing as the hotels are all-inclusive, which basically gives the green light for gluttony, the peninsula is the only thing that is skinny. I’ve never been a huge fan of the all-inclusive, for that precise reason: if you weren’t huge when you walked in, you will be by the time you leave. The Buffet Mentality encourages ordinary human beings to consume extraordinary amounts. It’s the nature of the beast. And by the end of the holiday, you’ll be a beast alright.
“Hotel Bella Costa!” cries the holiday rep as the coach comes to a halt, rousing me from my daydream. I look out the window. Really? Perhaps we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere as we appear to have pulled up outside Nelson Mandela House. It’s raining hard and the building – which resembles a concrete block of council flats more suited to South East London than a sandy beach resort – is seriously lacking in kerb appeal. Sceptically, we grab our luggage and head inside.
If you’ve ever stayed at an all-inclusive resort, you’ll understand what I mean when I describe it as large-scale factory farming: upon check-in you’re “tagged” with a plastic wristband for identification purposes, in much the same way as a battery chicken. This is to ensure the
poultry guests aren’t tempted to stray into neighbouring farms. Next you’re led to your room; an identikit holding pen where you’ll sleep and rest between feeds. Those who have been in the compound for a while already will giggle and point at the newbies, commenting on their “chicken-white skin” in stage whispers. Then the fattening up process begins: long periods spent pecking at unlimited buffets, beaks in troughs, interspersed with hours spent slowly rotating on sunbeds, basting at regular intervals with an SPF30 marinade.
Chicks consume the cheap spirits on offer until adequately slaughtered, followed by roasting until golden in the midday sun. Cocks strut along the beach in too-tight shorts, feathers puffed up in a public display of masculinity. Once the two week period is up the spent carcasses are routinely discarded and plastic wristbands removed, ready for a fresh influx of virgin-skinned chickens, delivered by coach straight onto the all-inclusive conveyor belt. And so it continues…
When you’ve just spent several days in the wonderfully chaotic city of Havana, free as a…bird, coming into such a sterile, structured environment can be a shock to the system. Hotels in Cuba are measured on a different scale to their smart European counterparts, so a 4-star in Varadero would probably be a strong two elsewhere. Having got our hopes up on the journey, we’re mildly disappointed by our room upon entry, with it’s curtains coming off the runners and mould in the bathroom.
However, after a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep, we awake to a glorious day, the rain replaced by wall-to-wall sunshine and the bluest of skies. The view from the balcony is breathtaking: as we’re five floors up and in the middle of the peninsula we can see the sea and gorgeous white sandy beaches on either side. Maybe being incarcerated in all-inclusive isn’t so bad after all. This is what we came for!
Breakfast is an all-out banquet: you can have anything from omelettes to pancakes to beef casserole or ice cream should the mood take you, then it’s time to plot up with your full belly on the beach and catch some rays. As well as chunky Americans and desiccated German sun worshippers with skin like leather, there are a disproportionate amount of Canadians and also plenty of Eastern Europeans and Russians for the men’s viewing pleasure. The latter are Andy’s eye-candy: he dons dark glasses and casually eyes souped-up young Serbs with bolt-on breasts and butt cheeks that could crack walnuts. All this sunbathing is thirsty work though, and by 10am hot-under-the-collar holidaymakers are glancing restlessly at their watches, wondering who’ll be first to kick off the cocktail runs and give everyone else the guilt-free go-ahead.
The rum is free-flowing and plentiful, with fellow inmates carefully carrying a steady stream of mojitos, daiquiris, Cuba libres and pina coladas in little plastic cups across the hot sand. The Yanks have clearly done this before: no thimble-sized plastic cups for these dudes, oh no – they’ve bought their own vast plastic drinks receptacles from home, some the size of small barrels, smiling smugly as they supervise the cocktail-making process. “Fill her up, bartender!” they bellow as half a bottle of Havana Club goes into their supersize travel cup. Hmm. Must remember that for next time.
It’s not just Americans and Canadians who flock to Varadero – the beaches are also home to hundreds of pelicans, who dive-bomb into the sea to catch fish, completely unperturbed by the fact it’s full of squawking humans. They bob on the waves alongside adults and children, their long grey bills tucked against their bodies, beady eyes watching the proceedings, bemused.
In the evenings there are several à la carte restaurant options (Japanese, Cuban and Italian) if you should fancy a change from the free-for-all buffet, followed by a nightly show, which is actually pretty good. The staff are beyond polite and friendly, smiling sweetly as grasping guests gobble everything in sight in a bid to get their money’s worth.
After a few days, we’ve completely settled into the pace and routine and are feeling relaxed and happy, if a little bored at times. We decide to pay 135 CuCs each for a two-day excursion to three cities: Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara, leaving at 8am the following morning. There are 10 of us on the trip including an English family and the rest Germans.
We visit Cienfuegos town, El Nicho waterfalls and go on a hike through the forest before stopping for a very dubious-looking lunch. We order pina coladas to wash down some grey matter which we’re told are potatoes (I’m still not convinced).
We arrive in Trinidad several hours later; a quaint province with a village feel, like stepping back in time, with horse and cart instead of cars, uneven cobbled streets and colourful little terraced houses. It emerges that we will be split up and staying with families in their homes, rather than the hotel we were all expecting (and paid for?). Since 1997 the government has permitted Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes like a B&B, which gives them an extra income and provides travellers with cheaper, more authentic options than the big, government-owned hotels.
We disperse to our various casas particulares (private houses) to deposit our belongings and freshen up, before meeting for cocktails and dinner, which is another interesting experience. We are all served fish and chips, or should I say ‘chip’ as we are literally given one solitary little sliver of potato each, which has us all roaring with laughter, much to the confusion of the waiter.
Trying to find the right front door to our little casa again in the pitch darkness and after several cocktails is, however, no laughing matter and in the morning we’re all tired, having spent hours roaming the streets trying to find our respective beds for the night. Our casa owner, Dama, and her mother are very sweet; we communicate in stilted Spanglish and they serve us up omelettes before sending us on our way.
The weather refuses to play ball and the city tour is a total washout, resulting in hair plastered to heads and feet skidding out of flip-flops. We pile back onto the bus, which the driver has helpfully frozen to the the temperature of the Arctic Circle and we shiver and shake all the way to Santa Clara, to visit Che Guevara’s mausoleum. Satisfied that we’ve ticked some more culture boxes, it’s a relief to be back in the comfort of our hotel where the food is now looking particularly delicious and the bed exceptionally comfy.
We meet Italian Londoners Alex and his dad Raff, who we enjoy chatting to over a few cocktails. Alex fiddles with my iPhone, mumbling something about security settings and allowing cookies, and suddenly it leaps into life, pinging and dinging as hundreds of Whatsapps pour through. I squeal with delight and start uploading my photos to Insta with abandon. At several CuCs an hour, everyone is tapping furiously at their phones in the hotel lobby, not wanting to waste a moment.
Cardiff pensioners Jenny and Roger join in the fun the next day and suddenly we have a little crew; the British contingent commandeering the beach with our pumping Bose stereo and boisterous behaviour. I’m surprised there’s not a path in the sand from the beach to the bar, such is the number of trips we make.
Making friends makes all the difference and the best meal of the holiday comes the next day when we take a 1950s Buick to visit La Casa De Al: mobster Al Capone’s sumptuous villa right on the beach, now a luxurious restaurant.
As we dine on a lunch of fresh garlic lobster, sipping mojitos, the men puffing fat hand-rolled Cuban cigars as we look out at the perfect pelican-filled beach, we all agree that this is a special moment, one which will linger in our minds long after our tans have faded.
Barbacoa is another great restaurant, where we have delicious steaks (the chateaubriand is lip-smackingly good), as is El Toro. Eating out is top dollar in Cuba at around 25-30CuCs (a Cuc is a pound/dollar/euro) for a main course, which is why most people stick to the confines of their all-inclusive haven. You can take an open-top hop-on hop-off bus around the town for 5 CuCs a day and visit the museums, shopping mall and other tourist attractions, but apart from venturing out to switch up our dining options we don’t bother, preferring to remain reassuringly close to the beach and all-inclusive cocktail bars.
When it finally comes to time for us to leave for the airport, we’re not so much battery hens any more as Southern Fried Chicken: plump and juicy from all the food and drink; crispy-skinned from the intense Caribbean sun. We’re reluctant to leave as the receptionist snips off our wristbands and we’re ushered out of our comfy compound, blinking in the sunlight as our beady eyes adjust to the prospect of being cooped back up at work once more…