With a name translating as ‘massacres,’ Matanzas province conceals an appropriately tumultuous past beneath its modern-day reputation for glam all-inclusive holidays. In the 17th century pillaging pirates ravaged the region’s prized north coast, while three centuries later, more invaders grappled ashore in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) under the dreamy notion that they were about to liberate the nation.
The Bahía de Cochinos attracts more divers than mercenaries these days, while sunbathers rather than pirates invade the northern beaches of Varadero, the vast Caribbean resort and lucrative economic ‘cash cow’ that stretches 20km along the sandy Península de Hicacos.
Providing a weird juxtaposition is the scruffy city of Matanzas, the music-rich provincial capital that has gifted the world with rumba, danzón, countless grand neoclassical buildings and Santería (the province is the veritable cradle of Afro-Cuban religion). Tourists may be scant here outside of Varadero, but soulful, only-in-Cuba experiences are surprisingly abundant.
Much like a beloved but long-forgotten antique being polished back to its former glory, Matanzas is showing breathtaking signs of reclaiming its erstwhile place at the helm of Cuban culture. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it developed a gigantic literary and musical heritage, and was regularly touted as the ‘Athens of Cuba.’ Undeniably, its battle-scarred buildings and cars belching out asphyxiating diesel fumes now leave it a shadow of its former self and a long way from the vacation glitter of Varadero.
Varadero, located on the sinuous 20km-long Hicacos peninsula, stands at the vanguard of Cuba’s most important industry – tourism. As the largest resort in the Caribbean, it guards a huge, unsubtle and constantly evolving stash of hotels (over 50), shops, water activities and poolside entertainment; though its trump card is its beach, an uninterrupted 20km stretch of blond sand that is undoubtedly one of the Caribbean’s best. But, while this large, tourist-friendly mega-resort may be essential to the Cuban economy, it offers little in the way of unique Cuban experiences. For these you’ll need to escape the wristband wearing crowds from Canada and Europe and dip into the readily accessible hinterland for nearby ‘reality checks’ in Matanzas, Cárdenas or Bahía de Cochinos.
Most Varadero tourists buy their vacation packages overseas (you need to book in advance to get the best rates) and are content to idle for a week or two enjoying the all-inclusiveness of their resort (and why not?). However, if you’re touring Cuba independently, and want to alternate your esoteric rambles with some less stressful beach life, Varadero can provide a few nights of well-earned sloth after a dusty spell on the road. For spur-of-the-moment stop-offs there are plenty of economical hotels and casas particulares in Varadero town at the western end of the peninsula that are baggable on the spot.
The Varadero Beach Tour is a handy open-top double-decker tourist bus with 45 hop-on/hop-off stops linking all the resorts and shopping malls along the entire length of the peninsula. An interesting opportunity to see the length and breadth of this amazing tourism project/cash cow.
Next stage: In and around Matanzas city.