Being the Tourist in Varadero

By Pedro Pablo Morejon

HAVANA TIMES – Over 40 years old and, like most Cubans, I didn’t know what Varadero, the tourist cays and other places were like, which are so greatly advertised by travel agencies both in Cuba and around the world.

I’ve only been to the Hotel Los Jazmines de Viñales, twice, once for the honeymoon the first time I got married, and to the Hotel Pinar del Rio because a friend managed to “get me in”. All of this happened in the 2000s and it took a lot of sacrifice of saving up and giving up certain comforts.

I found the slogan “See Cuba first and then go abroad” offensive or, in the best of cases, like a bad joke.

What Cuban on the island can go on a luxury trip in their own country? Very few. That’s also only now, because we know that up until some years ago Cubans were banned from visiting these places, just because we were Cuban citizens.

The majority would have to leave Cuba, become an emigrant to do this, because that’s the only way they’d have the means to be able to pay to stay at a hotel or rental home in Varadero.

A three-day visit is around 30,000 pesos in Cuban pesos, which is impossible for your regular Cuban who would have to set aside all of their monthly wage as savings to be able to enjoy this moment once a year.

I thought about all of this as we boarded the Transtur bus heading to a hotel in Varadero, which obviously neither my companion or myself had to pay for. Someone abroad had invited us to have a vacation.

I told myself: “Enjoy these three days, don’t get caught up with the situation, forget everything, enjoy it.” So, that’s what I tried to do.

Although, I was already a little concerned. Reviews on Tripadvisor about hotels in Varadero didn’t set my expectations very high. They spoke about poor service, facilities in a mediocre state, discrimination against nationals, dirty swimming pools and rooms, poor quality food, etc.

But I guessed these reviews had been left by two kinds of people: Well-to-do foreigners, who are used to traveling to tourist destinations all over the world and therefore are more exquisite and demanding in terms of taste; or by us Cubans who have the tendency to exaggerate or be upset when we sacrifice so much for a service that doesn’t live up to our expectations.

Plus, the important thing was not to go hungry, enjoy the time with my company, the beach and relax, even if it were a campsite. It was going to be good, a paradise compared to our harsh daily reality. A man who almost always sees the glass half-empty, I’m usually quite conformist in these situations.

It was a pleasant journey, especially after Havana and when we joined the Via Blanca, a highway in good condition. We stopped at a place after Santa Cruz del Norte called Peñón del Fraile. To the north, there’s the town and coast; to the south, some small mountains. A beautiful and welcoming landscape.

We resumed our journey half an hour later, we still had a 93 km stretch left to reach our destination. We had an incredible view on our journey to Matanzas, full of greens, the sea, cliffs and other geographical accidents.

The city of Matanzas soon appeared. We saw the super tanker oil depot from afar. Passengers stood up and took photos, we all remembered the explosions that shook the country just a few months ago. I remembered those poor young men who lost their lives after that deadly fire.

Matanzas was really beautiful when we arrived, maybe it’s the clean bay that gives it this look, maybe if it was a city without sea it would pretty regular like so many others, but the truth is that it looks amazing hugging the bay.

Despite poverty and the natural decline of Cuban towns, Matanzas has an urban, cosmopolitan, modern feel, I don’t know how to explain it… It’s the exact opposite of Pinar del Rio which, despite being a city I love, gives you the feeling you’re still in the countryside. Although the road we were driving along only gave us the most attractive part of the city, it must be hiding its garbage under the bed like all the others.

We were 36 kms away from our destination still and as we drew nearer, the excitement of discovering something wonderful and unknown grew.

A few minutes later and we arrived at a control point, then we saw Varadero and its hotels, some of which were still under construction. Hotels are constantly being built. We reached ours after almost six hours.

It was 3 PM, we checked in at the reception, got our wristband and we entered our room at 4 PM. It was a little difficult to get in, guajiro through and through, it took me a while to open the door with the card. I was just about to do something foolish and go down to the reception to complain that the card wasn’t working. Luckily, we managed to get in and I had to lift the door a little from the inside to get the lock to close properly.

It was a pretty room, nothing luxurious, there’s not a lot of light at night. It had air conditioning. The towels were slightly dirty, a small one and an almost unnoticeable stain on one of the sheets, which is the bedcover. They change them quite regularly luckily, if you ask.

But I have to say, the bed was huge. There was a dresser in front, a small fridge, a sofa on the side. A simple balcony with two chairs that offered a pleasant view from the third floor, although ours didn’t overlook the sea.

The bathroom is made up of two rooms, one with a large mirror and sink, two soaps and small bottles of shampoo, the other has the toilet and bathtub – the latter doesn’t work -, the shower had cold and hot water. 

I was comfortable, it wasn’t bad, at least for me and like I said, I’m not that demanding, maybe because I wasn’t paying for it out of my own pocket.

We went down to the dining hall at night, I can’t say it was a restaurant, and it was the only thing around. There were very few foreigners, you can pick them out because most of them are extremely white, coming from western Europe, Russia or Canada.

You can’t mistake a Cuban, our appearance gives us away no matter how white we might be. The ratio was probably one foreigner to every 30 Cubans.

There were a variety of options for dinner, it was like a buffet the whole time and it wasn’t very well-prepared, any Cuban woman could cook better than these chefs, but it was acceptable. At least for me. I concentrated on eating lots of protein, all of the meat available. Minced beef, pollo ripiado, pork. Like I said, it wasn’t very well-prepared. In the morning, there were lots of boiled eggs, I’d eat up to five. I was the only one. Yes, I know, I’m a strange guy, who doesn’t drink alcoholic drinks or soda. I wasn’t interested in the swimming pool either. Plus, I was the only person to visit the hotel gym and stick to their exercise regime. I know, I’m strange but I enjoyed it in my own way.

I’d saved my best expectations for the beach. I’d dreamt about being there for years, before this paradise of a clean sea, blue-green water with its white and fine sand. But I have to be honest, it didn’t exceed my expectations, it didn’t even meet them. It’s a beautiful beach but it seems that the recession in tourism recently has meant that they aren’t cleaning it very regularly. In short, it’s a beautiful beach that is overrated by ads.

However, to be fair, it was like this where I was, and considering the beath stretches over 20 kms long on the northern side, it could be different.

We weren’t so lucky though and found red flags on the first day, as a sign for bathers not to go into the water. The sea was a little rough, although the waves didn’t look so big. People contemplated it from their sun loungers, some people enjoyed the late afternoon sun. A few people dared to go for a dip on the shore.

I said to my partner, come on ignore the flags and follow me. She went with me although she was reluctant to disobey the rules. We were almost waist-deep in the water when we heard a whistle. A man was heading towards us. I got out to meet him. He identified himself as the lifeguard.

“You can’t bathe.”

“Why?”

“Can’t you see the red flags?”

“And?” I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t understand.”

“Look how the sea is asere, if a child drowns here, I’m responsible.”

“But I’m an adult and we aren’t with children. Why do you have to protect me? Am I not responsible for myself? Plus, if I’m paying for a service, why can’t I enjoy it freely and responsibly?”

“The problem is if you go far out and something happens, I’m the one they’re going to hold accountable.”

“I understand but we’re not going to go far out, only up to there,” I pointed to a rock.

“Ok, but don’t go so far.”

A while later, they took down the flags and people were able to bathe in the water worry-free. The sea still had waves half-a-meter high.

Three days sped by like that and we were already getting ready to leave. I was happy, despite some little details. When we arrived back, we got off the bus, picked up our suitcases and somebody mumbled: “Back to reality,” as if they were reading my thoughts exactly.

Read more from the diary of Pedro Pablo Morejon here.



Pedro Morejón

I am a man who fights for his goals, who assumes the consequences of his actions, who does not stop at obstacles. I could say that adversity has always been an inseparable companion, I have never had anything easy, but in some sense, it has benefited my character. I value what is in disuse, such as honesty, justice, honor. For a long time, I was tied to ideas and false paradigms that suffocated me, but little by little I managed to free myself and grow by myself. Today I am the one who dictates my morale, and I defend my freedom against wind and tide. I also build that freedom by writing, because being a writer defines me.

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One thought on “Being the Tourist in Varadero

  • Interesting article, Pedro. As a Canadian visiting Cuba, I have a much different perspective. Everybody I speak to who has been to Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica says the beaches in Varadero are the best. The water is warm and transparent and there’a hardly any sea weed.

    On my last trip I noticed many Cubans at the resorts with their children. I also noticed Cuban families in the restaurants with grandparents, parents and children. Almost everyone has a smartphone.

    I have been to Cuba over 10 times and each trip was unique and special. I made so many friends that I hope to see again.

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