The two-headed baby shark was certainly intriguing, as was the 2,500-year-old skeleton of a young Indian man unearthed in a local cave. But of all the fascinating historic exhibits in Varadero’s Municipal Museum, a brightly coloured former beach house, nothing matches the awe-inspiring view from the second floor balcony.
The white sand beach with clear turquoise water – so calm barely a ripple can be detected – stretches as far as the eye can see. This is the reason Varadero is one of the top vacation spots in the Caribbean, and this particular section of the 21 km-long beach is one of the finest. Who would’ve thought to bring a swimsuit on a trip into town?
No wonder more than one million visitors, mostly Canadian and European, flock here every year. Many arrive on all-inclusive package trips and stay at one of about 40 hotels spread out along the narrow Peninsula of Hicacos. Among the attractions (aside from the beach) are an ecological reserve, caves, dolphin encounters to the east, the town centre and handicraft markets to the west, and the amusement park and Plaza America, the largest shopping complex in Varadero, somewhere in the middle.
Attracting the West ¦ The former Villa Xanadu, at about the midway point, is often described as a “must-see” site. The villa’s original owner was American industrialist Irenée Dupont, who accumulated his wealth during WWI by selling dynamite to Germany. Dupont purchased a chunk of the Hicacos peninsula, and in 1929 built this green-roofed, Spanish colonial-style mansion with carved wooden balconies, which overlooks the coast on one side and a nine-hole golf course on the other.
Many Hollywood stars including Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, and Esther William were guests here in the 1950’s. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, Dupont fled, and the government turned the house into the elegant Las Americas restaurant, which specializes in French cuisine. Visitors are welcome to wander around inside but be prepared to do so in semi-darkness. Cuba conserves electricity and if no one’s around the lights are usually off.
Exploring the peninsula has become easier ever since a hop-on, hop-off double-decker shuttle bus was introduced a few years ago. I It’s a reliable and economical way to get around. The fare is 5.00CUC ($6.39CDN) and the bus operates on a daily basis.
I began my tour in the west end at a mansion called “Casa de Al.” “We don’t know for sure if Al Capone lived here, but that’s the legend,” explained a waiter who was setting tables for lunch (the menu listed “sopa mafiosa,” and “vendetta with shrimps” among the specials!). Unfortunately the restaurant has closed since my visit, though you can still see the beachside house from the road.
Although Capone’s exact home address while in Cuba is uncertain, the presence of gangsters during those early days is fairly well documented. My guide Jorge Diaz knew all about it. “In the 50’s, mafia from the U.S. paved the way to build hotels and casinos. They expected it might turn into a tropical Las Vegas.”
But there is no sign of Vegas-style glitz and glamour on Avenida Primera today, where horse-drawn carriages share the road with scooters, old-model cars and three-wheeled yellow coco-taxis. Business is brisk for the vendor at a roadside stall selling “rasco rasco,” fresh orange juice in crushed ice served in a paper cup, for one peso (about 10 cents).
Rooted in history ¦ Of all the sites along the peninsula, the most historic can be found within the Ambrosio Cave. In 1961 two Cuban archaeologists discovered nearly 50 drawings made by the Siboney Indians dating back 2,500 years. Biologist Carlos Perez leads our small group on an informative tour through the bat-filled cave using a flashlight to illuminate our path and the primitive wall etchings. They include a drawing of a turtle, a snail, a bird, and concentric circles that may have been a type of solar calendar.
Twelve years ago this cave was nearly destroyed by developers. As you walk around, note the numerous holes which have been drilled into the ground. A businessman had apparently planned to fill them with explosives and blow up part of the cave to build a restaurant in this historic spot. “A crazy idea,” says Perez, who credits government officials and environmentalists for putting a stop to that plan. The Siboney Indians have disappeared, but their ancient art lives on.