The Other Varadero

by - 3:00 PM

Varadero, Cuba, is known for one thing: its beach. It's about 12 kilometers long, the sand is a beautiful shade of broken white and you can walk into the ocean for up to 60 meters without the water ever reaching higher than just up to your hips. Needless to say, the place attracts tourists like crazy. The Cuban government wasn't born yesterday, so they built big all-inclusive hotels along what's called the Most Beautiful Beach in the World. After two decades of this, the peninsula of Varadero has turned into one big strip of hotels. Early in February, I was staying at one of those places, sulking over the fact that I was stuck in this overly touristy place after my trips to the Yumuri Valley and Havana. I only had one full day left in Cuba and was not looking forward to spending it on the hotel grounds. I'd already been to Varadero's center and thought there was nothing new for me to explore within 10 miles of my hotel. I was wrong.

Early in the morning of our day in Cuba, my parents and I walked to the bus stop of the Hop On Hop Off bus. Our plan was to see where it would take us and visit the far end of the Varadero peninsula.
The bus had just left when we arrived at the bus stop, but stopped literally in the middle of the roundabout when the driver saw us coming. We paid 5 CUC per person for a day-ticket. Even though we had no idea what we were going to do and where we'd end up, it was nice to know we could take the bus back to our hotel at any time.

The bus first took us to the center of Varadero, then turned around to follow the Autopista Sur to the other end of the peninsula. I'd more or less insisted on sitting on the upper deck of this open-top double-decker, where the sun quickly burned me to a crisp. I can't even say it was worth it, because there wasn't much to see. Hotels, trees, beach. Then I spotted a sign telling me there was an old cave just off the road that could be visited for 5 CUC. We remained seated though, as we thought the entrance fee was a little high.
A few minutes later we saw another sign. 'Muslims Trail - The Other Varadero' it said. This sparked my interest, but we still remained seated: there wasn't a bus stop in sight. We eventually got off when the 'Giant Cactus' stop was announced. It sounded funny, so we decided to check this Giant Cactus out. After a short walk, we arrived at a gate with a sign next to it: 'Giant Cactus - The Other Varadero'. We stepped through the gate and were soon greeted by a park employee. Bienvenido al otro Varadero!

'The Other Varadero' turned out to be a hidden gem. Most tourists staying in Varadero barely leave their hotel and have no idea this actually exists. It's made up out of three minuscule nature preserves, carefully tucked away between the highrise hotels and crowded beach. The cave and Muslims Trail were two of these preserves, the Giant Cactus the third. There's an individual entrance fee for every single one of these areas. It's not cheap, but believe me when I say it's worth it. You're not just far away from the Cuban illusion that the all-inclusive hotels provide, you also get the chance to discover a unique little part of the country by yourself, without tour guides and other tourists. That's right up my and my parents' alley, so we happily paid the park employee the entrance fee and followed the path to the Giant Cactus.

The Cubans weren't exaggerating when they called their cactus Giant Cactus. It was huge. Seriously huge. At over 8 meters tall, it was an impressive sight. I couldn't quite believe this cactus was already around when pirates still roamed the Caribbean. That awesome piece of nature made me appreciate Varadero a whole lot more. It also made me want to see more of el otro Varadero. After a short discussion, my parents and I decided to skip the cave because of the high entrance fee, and walk the Muslims Trail instead. I was very excited about this trail. I thought Muslims weren't really a thing on the island of Cuba, at least not a big enough thing to get their own trail, so I couldn't see what this place was all about.

After a fifteen-minute walk and another entrance fee later, we were at the start of the Muslims Trail - which had very little to do with people who pray to Allah, as it turned out. The leaflet we received upon entering told us that Cuban smugglers from centuries ago were called Muslims. They'd had their hideouts here in Varadero, so they could overlook as much of the ocean as possible and see the Spanish Armada coming. But that wasn't all this little leaflet with a map of the trail told us. As we started walking, we came across stones with numbers on them. The corresponding number on the paper gave information on the flora, fauna and history of the area. The English was very weird and at times unclear, but I loved the effort that was put into it. Once you'd gotten the hang of the peculiar use of the language, it was very interesting and informational.

Within minutes we were far away from the Autopista Sur and in the middle of a subtropical jungle. I loved every second of it. The trail was uneven and scattered across the forest floor were the most intriguing sandstone formations I'd ever seen. I saw caves, rock formations, trees growing on top of all of it. I even saw a 2000-year-old grave in one of the caves. As I was walking, I felt like I was going back in time to when Muslims had used this trail and no one had the idea of destroying the peninsula with countless hotels.

My sandals and feet became a sandy shade of brown when I neared the end of the trail. I could hear the Autopista Sur again when the trail split in two. I took the right path into the mangrove, where I hopped, skipped and jumped my way from stone to stone until I reached a small lake. Tiny fish came swimming right up to me. I fell in love with that place. I loved Cuba already. I'd snorkeled at Playa El Coral, seen the countryside in the Yumuri Valley and walked the streets of Havana. But even though I'd enjoyed all of that a lot, I loved exploring this little bit of Cuban nature by myself even more.

I'd lost all track of time and most of my sense of direction when I finally reached the end of the Muslims trail. The exit was literally a small opening in the solid wall of shrub by the side of the Autopista Sur. I came scrambling out of it with dirty feet, scratched legs and a huge smile on my face. I thought Varadero's peninsula had nothing to offer but hotels and souvenir stalls. But that's the Varadero that was carefully constructed for tourists. El otro Varadero is, like the name says, different. It's calm, quiet and a place you definitely need to see if you're every in the area. I promise it's more than worth your time!

x Envy

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2 Fellow Ramblers

  1. Sounds perfect!
    I had a smile on my face as I reached the end of your post :) Sounds like a hidden slice of paradise.
    Cora |

    1. A very well hidden slice of paradise! People were literally meters away from the cactus, just casually burning to a crisp on the beach, without ever knowing that this was right behind them.


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