/ / / / / /

Appreciating Cuba's Clichés: Rampant Capitalism on Varadero's White Sand Beaches

Where: Cuba
February 24, 2011 at 10:48 AM | by | ()

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the island risks getting caught up in a hurricane of clichés. Thinking travelers aren’t generally fooled by the shiny veneer of places plugged in a Lonely Planet, but don’t discard Cuba’s clichés. They’re what make this intriguing country so exotic, so vibrant and so darned colorful. A Jaunted special secret correspondent discovers the best of each, all this week.

If you want to go to Cuba without going to Cuba, you have two choices: Guantánamo or Varadero. It's a toss-up for me; Guantánamo gets a bad press, it's true, but I suspect the north coast beach resort of Varadero only gets good write-ups because tourist dollars depend on it.

There's a rumor that Cubans are not allowed in Varadero, but that's not true. There are plenty of Cubans, serving the food and cleaning the rooms in the vast resort hotels plonked side by side along the skinny white sand peninsula that pokes out into the Atlantic like a knobbly twig. The issue is that ordinary Cubans can't afford to stay in the hotels there.

I did what you're not supposed to do, and stayed in a casa particular (guest house). You're not supposed to do it because casas particulares in Varadero are strictly only for Cubans, which is why they are located in the shabbier end of town. But I didn't know this when I arrived late on a cronky bus one evening and found there was no room at the inn. This was January—high season—and the Canadians and Eastern Europeans were out in force. In Cuba, if you speak a little Spanish and have a few Convertibles (the stronger of the country's two currencies, equivalent to a US dollar), you can always find a way.

There's a $5 open-top tourist bus that trundles up and down the peninsula's only road, stopping at all the hotels because there's nothing else to see. You can't even see the ocean, because there are too many hotels in the way.

I confess I'm not one for beach holidays and have never done an all-inclusive vacation package, so I don't know if this is normal, but all the guests were wearing mint green or baby pink hospital bracelets. At first I suspected they were medical tourists, come for a boob job or a face lift (some of them really didn't look real). But then I understood. They'd jiggle the bracelets at the waiter and out would pop a 'free' plastic cup of watery Tango with a miniature cocktail umbrella bobbing listlessly at the top.

I, of course, didn't have a hospital bracelet, but I'd rather drink a gallon of sea water than that small cup of chemical cocktail.

Varadero is the exception that proves the rule in Cuba. The shops are a little better stocked and a lot more over-priced. If you pay the all-inclusive rate, you can eat beef, and other food that isn't rice, beans and pork. The buildings are new and shiny, ugly hotels, not beautiful and old, crumbling mansions.

And as for Cuban principles of equality, fraternity and socialism...nada. In Varadero it's rampant, sunburned and rather tipsy capitalism that reigns supreme.

Archived Comments:

I'm confused

So... you say in one breath that Cubans don't stay in Varadero because they can't afford it. You brag in the next breath about what a rebel you are for staying in Varadero casas because they're only for CUBANS?!? How could anyone miss a contradiction like that? Yes, Cubans most certainly do vacation in Varadero, which is why those Cuban only casas exist. Sometimes it's a reward for work service, sometimes they have some money from relatives, but you will find plenty of Cubans vacationing there if you look for them.

Re: I'm confused

I'm no rebel and I wasn't bragging! I was just homeless for the night until someone with a casa took pity on me. I meant that most Cubans can't afford to stay at the big hotels that take up most of the Varadero peninsula. Of course they can stay in casas in the main town. Perhaps I didn't explain that properly - thanks for pointing it out. I understand they mostly go in summer, when it's too hot and humid for foreigners.