If there’s a word that symbolizes Cuban tourism for Canadians, it’s Varadero. A place where the sun shines on sparkling blue swimming pools, the streets are lined with tourist shops, and the rum flows like water, every day of the week – and that probably explains why until now, I’ve been one of the few Canadians who hasn’t visited Varadero.
Other parts of Cuba always seemed more interesting, and still do. But when a great deal popped up this month, just as the winter gloom began to settle on Toronto, I gave in. I was going to Varadero, to stay in an all-inclusive resort and lie by the pool and drink free beer and rum like every other Canadian. And after three days, I can say it’s pretty much the way I envisioned it – and not.
If you’ve been in a Cuban all-inclusive, you pretty much picture life for most tourists in Varadero: a decent but not fancy room in one of the hotel’s several wings, pools in all directions, boring meals in an anonymous-looking dining hall, and a busy bar off the main lobby where everyone lines up for the free booze.
Across the street lies the famous, endless white-sand beach that draws people to this spit of land. And the main street that runs all the way down the lengthy peninsula that is Varadero is indeed a world-class collection of tourist shops, flea markets, clubs and restaurants. But for all that, something very Cuban shines through if you stray even a few yards from the main drag and really look at the town.
I’m the kind of person who looks down the back streets wherever I go, and on my first walk in Varadero, it didn’t take me long to veer off the tourist track and take a peek at how the other half lives. What I found was a little bit of the real Cuba.
There were the brightly painted little cement-block houses with signs out from that read “rent rooms” — casas particulares, in Cuban. There were the little paladares, restaurants set up in private homes where the lady of the house does the cooking. There were the little back gardens and the porches with a wooden rocking chair where people sat and sipped a cerveza as the world passed by.
There were the political signs, posted on schools and municipal buildings and monuments and little sign boards, with their pictures of the heroes of the revolution and quotations exhorting the people to uphold their philosophy.
And here and there, the other thing that is definitively Cuban: projects that were obviously once built with great ambition and good intention but now deserted and falling to pieces. The most touching: a children’s amusement park that now sat silent and empty, with weeds growing up around the fading fun rides, the brightly painted carousel horses left suspended in mid-stride.
Coming out, I saw the other iconic Cuban sight: a man half-hidden under the hood of his 60-year-old American car, trying to make it run for another day with that unique combination of resourcefulness and ingenuity that marks the Cuban people.
On the way back, I caught a ride in one of Varadero’s famous yellow, lemon-looking three-wheel scooters, Cuba’s answer to the tuk-tuk (might as well have the true Varadero experience). We wove past vintage convertibles and station wagons shined up for use as taxi cabs, horse carriages for those who preferred a different kind of nostalgia, and the inevitable Ladas, roaring like Mack trucks and belching smoke.
As we neared the hotel, rock music blared from a bar called The Beatles, and tourists carrying towels came walking from the beach. And then I was back in all-inclusive land, with the free booze and the sky-blue pools and the salsa show at 9:30. But never mind – tomorrow I’m off to Havana, to roam the historic streets and have a drink in one of Hemingway’s old haunts and see some music in the city’s annual jazz festival. Stay tuned.