An April 2007 trip
to Varadero by MichaelJM
Quote: We ate as much as we could—too much—on this all inclusive holiday in Cuba.
Varadero is around 140km from Havana and it is the tourist capital of Cuba . It forms part of the Cuban archipelago, the largest of the thousand-plus islands and so it’s surrounded by water with the Atlantic Ocean to the North and the bay of Cardenas to the south. For sun and sands, it’s just ideal. Of course it is much different than Havana, but still Valadero and the nearby town of Matanzas (the capital of Matanzas province) retain the typical Cuban culture—no worries, no hurries. People seem to be "chilling" on all street corners and although they’re not a wealthy people they always seem to be smiling.
Music and dance is never very far away and overall there were high levels of contentment. We had great plans to do a bit of sightseeing whilst in Varadero, but at the end of the stay we hadn’t ventured off the island. Despite being in a resort, the Cuban culture still seemed strong and unshakable. We loved the gentle feel of the place and it certainly left us with a feeling that Cuba is a place to return to and explore in more detail. That, I think speaks for itself.
Banking is a bit of a problem in Varadero as we were told there is only one bank with an ATM. If you have currency or travelers checks, then a couple more banks can handle the conversion to pesos, but I reckon the rate is much better if you deal directly with the bank. For convenience, however, most large hotels or resort centers have independent money changing bureaus in them. I think the trick is to prepare well in advance and remember that too much money will result in a hasty conversion back into euros or dollars at the airport, where the rate can only be described as abysmal. Avoid that at all costs.
You should also remember that if a stranger speaks to you in Cuba they are not necessarily out to con you. Keep on your guard, but be prepared to engage in dialogue. Many, we found, were just keen to pass the time of day with you. But if you’re tempted to consider exchanging money on the street (we were only approached once whilst in Varadero – several times in Havana) think twice. It is illegal and the trade may not be in convertible pesos.
Haggling is possible on market stalls, but often prices are set and therefore non-negotiable. It’s always best to have a go they can only say no to our efforts to bargain and then you can pay the full asking price or decline with no loss of face.
Other forms of transport are all similarly priced at around 10 pesos and it really depends on what experience you fancy. The petite, nippy, and noisy coco-taxis roar along the front and if you want to experience the Cuban Tuk-tuk and feel the wind whipping around your face, then these small yellow 2-person vulnerable chariots are the ones for you. If you’re after comfort and speed then the boring option is the modern taxi. These are straightforward and efficient but not exciting or Cuban. We actually preferred calling a classic Cuban car for our lift home and the white 1949 Chevrolet looked quite special as the driver opened the rear door for us. We leapt into the back—it really was that roomy—but soon regretted that as the springs in the rear seat were seriously "unsprung". Still, once we’d adapted, it still felt luxurious despite they fact that its internal features were fading fast. The gear stick was held in place by a chunk of wood and none of the window openers were present, but it was an experience to savor.
Other options to travel are the small horse and carriage, just like the one we’d traveled on in Havana, or a horse and carriage which seemed to operate more like a bus service with seating for 10-12 people.
Of course, you can always hire bicycles, motorbikes, or cars, all easily rented from the main street in Varadero.
My second course was a much better and refreshing plate of tuna served with a tossed salad, complete with some olives, and extra ones from my wife’s seafood salad. It was a truly amazing combination of flavors that more than compensated for the soup. Once again, I started off with the white wine, as at the Gourmet restaurant, but without strange looks this time when I changed to the red after my first glass. It’s a 2005 red wine crammed with complimentary flavors and a superb bouquet. I reckon it must be exclusive for this restaurant and I was pleased to be able to help them clear any of their excessive stock by consuming a few glasses. Anyway, I digress, the only way to slow the pace of this meal, as there was no pause between transferring away one course and brining in the next, is to delay finishing the course. We did this with ease and dallied over our second course as it was not served hot and we truly were not in a hurry.
The tall thatched roof of this semi-open-air restaurant gave a real rustic feel and surprisingly, although the seafood restaurant is only just tucked away from the main thoroughfare, we noticed very little passing ‘traffic’. Indeed, the walkways around the restaurant are bordered by lush vegetation, emphasising the rustic feel of the place.
I’d opted for fillet of sea bream for my main course and I was well pleased with it. Although the fish was hot, the accompanying vegetables were almost cold, and we decided that must be normal if not a wee bit strange. For once, I enjoyed a well-filleted piece of fish and didn’t encounter a single bone.
The presentation of my wife’s seafood risotto was good, but she did remark that she wasn’t sure how much seafood was in the dish. In fairness, she said ‘there’s no sea food in here, oh no there’s a small piece of shrimp amongst the rice.’ Perhaps the risotto isn’t the best thing to try for a seafood dish!!
The chocolate pudding was very pleasant and it had a kind of fizz of flavours. After we’d devoured it the waiter asked if we wanted more. We nearly resisted, but one extra little bit can’t hurt, can it? We relaxed with a coffee after a satisfying dinner, ignoring the soup, before heading off to the Piano Bar for good music and a cocktail or two.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 1, 2007
I started off with a fragrant, medium-sweet, white wine and the waitress looked a bit confused when I suggested that I have a red wine to follow. However, she obliged willingly when I’d consumed the white. The red was by far the better and was full-bodied and fruity, a perfect accompaniment for the mixed meat and seafood platter. Perhaps it was a bit over overstated, as the fish element of this dish was a single large and tasty shrimp, but perhaps suggesting the need to redefine what is meant by seafood platter. In fairness, the whole meal was a bit on the minimalist side—nouvelle cuisine it would have once been called—but the beef and lamb were excellently prepared, although I have to say I wasn’t really struck by the vegetables.
The sweet was extremely disappointing but consistent with the minimalist theme. We were presented with a single profiterole in the centre of a white plate. Now, bearing in mind that I am usually able to devour four or five if these little beauties, I was a wee bit disappointed. No matter, we did enjoy the meal, the ambience of the restaurant was good, the service very efficient and friendly and there was an ample flow of red and white wine. Apparently, the restaurant serves 20 litres a day of red and 20 litres a day of white wine. With three a la carte restaurants, that’s 120 litres a day, 840 a week, and a massive 33600 a year.
Coffee wasn’t served here but that wasn’t too big a deal as we we’re only a stone's throw away from the Piano Bar or a nearby snack bar. We were ready to go until a passing, but fairly aggressive, tropical storm interrupted our journey. For about five minutes, the clouds discharged vast quantities of water onto the paths at Oasis Panorama 1920, and we sheltered in the foyer of the restaurant. Then as fast as it had arrived, it cleared and we could wend our way for our post-meal coffee.
The choice at breakfast was immense with freshly-prepared eggs whilst you wait, fried, scrambles omelette or made into a pancake. A whole host of other concoctions; breads and croissants, biscuits, and cakes abound alongside cereals, fruits, and various compotes. Freshly-made coffee was always on hand and a never-ending supply of cold fruit juice was on tap. No need not to start the day off well.
Evening meals here were not particularly stylish with everything available as a running buffet. We like to be waited on for our evening meal, so it just felt a bit if a chore to assemble our starter and then return to the main grills to help ourselves to the main course.
The food was a never-ending supply, although occasionally we needed to wait for stocks to be replenished. The wine flowed like water, with waiters generously filling glasses when they were less than half empty. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual to return from the buffet to find our wine glasses had been filled.
Puddings at this restaurant were less than ordinary, many looking uninviting, still it was all edible and I guess this recounted experience is not dissimilar to that of holiday-makers in other all-inclusive holiday resorts.
During the daytime, one of the a la carte restaurants changes its persona and becomes a pizza place. We tried it once, just because we could, and although we enjoyed the crispy base, the cheese and tomato topping, the base for all the pizzas, was not a gourmet delight.
There are three or four snack bars around the resort, all offering similar fare: burgers, hot dogs, cheese and ham toasties, and the like. Portions were always generous and prepared as ordered, so they were hot and tasty.
Fast food has its place and, unfortunately, I can be a glutton for it on holiday. The all inclusive snack bars were, therefore, my holiday lunchtime treat, but for a great salad we used the buffet at El Haberno; make them up yourself with plenty of dressing to taste and maybe just a few french fries!
The restaurant was at the far end of the resort and, although nothing special, it was smaller and had full waiter service. We were escorted to our table for two, and then invited to make our selection of antipasto, a great variety ranging from stuffed red peppers, ham, pasta, rice, salads, and one of my favorites, olives and jalapeno peppers. By the time we had returned to our table, the waiter was offering us water and red wine. I was a bit dismayed that he’d used the smaller glass for wine, but I soon remedied that by consuming the water and transferring my wine to the larger glass, far better for swirling and, of course, much better when it came to replenishing the glass.
The wine here was far nicer than that of the basic restaurant and, although a very young and immature wine, it was quite fruity and responded well to a little chewing.
Our second course was delightfully cooked spaghetti in a tomato and aubergine sauce with lashings of Parmesan cheese to taste. We were managing well twisting the spaghetti and had finished 50% of the dish before the waiter realised that we were lacking a spoon and, guess what, he managed to top up our wine at the same time. This all-inclusive malarkey really isn’t too bad.
The main course was allegedly chicken in Marsala sauce, my wife had opted for pork rolled around spinach, and I have to say both were a bit disappointing, being a little overcooked with undercooked vegetables and an ample serving of rice, but it was piping hot and perfectly edible. The tiramisu that followed was a real apology for a sweet, tasting and indeed looking nothing like a tiramisu. In fact, I have no recall of any taste associated with the pudding.
A small and incredibly strong espresso coffee completed the meal, alongside yet another top up of red wine. You certainly wouldn’t want to be teetotaler on a fully inclusive holiday! Overall, the appearance and setting of Mama Mia’s was conducive to fine eating but, unfortunately, the meal didn’t fully match up to the appearance and ambience of the restaurant. Don’t knock it though, as we were being served, and it was a real pleasant place to eat, with none of the clatter and franticness that seems to accompany a meal in the resort’s general restaurant.
The meal was service with no rush and we did spend a reasonable one and half hours on this dining experience before returning to the Piano Bar for a café latte and a few rum chasers.
This fully air conditioned bus, a step up from the community bus we’d seen for locals, followed in the wake of the tourist bus and didn’t do badly for customers, delivering us efficiency to the site of Varadero’s downtown market, apparently the high spot for the visitors to Varadero town. We disembarked and continued to walk a step or two away from the market before deciding that there was little else to be seen.
We returned to the market where there must have been at least fifty stalls selling a whole range of Cuban memorabilia, including the classic Che T-shirt, we later get a couple of these from a government shop for nine pesos each rather than the ten pesos at the market, which just goes to show that markets aren’t always cheapest.
There were cigar boxes by the score, straw hats, baseball caps, Cuban figurines, carved wooden cars, jewelery at reasonable prices, musical instruments, leather works, and a multitude of ornate accessories making use of shells (fairly tacky I felt).
Typically, music was playing and the bustle of the market gave the place a real sense of importance. There was a large open-air café with a small memorial to Cuba’s hero, Josef Marti.
From the marker, we set off at a saunter down Main Street where the streets have been named after numbers! So, conventionally, Varadero was built on the block basis and we walked up to about forty. At many parts we could see the sea on both sides from the main street, this bright turquoise showing the white beaches off to perfection. We couldn’t resist a wander to the beach—all beaches in Cuba are in the public domain—to once again appreciate the bobbing white foam on the top of the vibrant blue waves.
Back to the main street, where there were the odd shop or two, a number of restaurants and cafes, and a couple of smaller markets. It’s worth saving your shopping for these small markets, as they are a few pesos cheaper than the main one. We finally succumbed and bought a couple of Cuban figures. I’m sure I’ll regret the purchase when we get home, but at ten peso a pair, I’m sure they’ll give value as decorative pieces for a couple of years.
Varadero didn't have a particular charm about it, and without tourism would have been a small Cuban village with little or no attraction to it, but we did love pottering around the markets.