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Varadero

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Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Varadero each year, lured mainly by the white sandy beaches, which span a total length of over 18 kilometres. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the development of the local tourist industry has transformed the urban landscape, though a few old wooden houses and streets have survived unchanged.

Located on the Península de Hicacos, in the province of Matanzas, Varadero is a long, thin strip of land that juts into the sea. The beaches are magnificent, and Cubans rightly claim that they are the loveliest in the country. The calm, clear waters range in colour from turquoise to deep blue, with a million and one shades in between. The average temperature in Varadero is 25o C, and the ocean, warm year-round, is perfect for swimming and water sports.

By 1555, the name Hicacos already appeared on Spanish maps. In 1587, the Spanish began working the salt mines in Las Salinas, which can still be visited (see p 151), and a small number of their slaves began living on the peninsula. It wasn't until much later, between 1872 and 1878, that the area's first landowners took up stockbreeding. At the same time, Habaneros began vacationing in Varadero, which was part of Cárdenas in those days. Sailboats and then steamers carried passengers from Cárdenas to Varadero, an area surrounded by uninviting swampland. The "historians" of Cárdenas are proud to point out that Varadero was the first place where lightweight bathing suits were worn. Music and cultural activities have added to the holiday atmosphere.In 1929, the wealthy French-born American industrialist Pierre Samuel DuPont purchased 512 hectare of land in Varadero. His presence here would forever mark the area. Between 1928 and 1929, for over a million dollars, he built himself a superb residence known as the Mansión xanadu, now Varadero's main tourist attraction. This majestic, Spanish colonial-style mansion, with its carved wooden balconies and windows, is reminiscent of an Andalusian palace. It stands on the San Bernardino butte, the highest point on the north coast of Varadero. The Mansión xanadu, as it was named by its owner, is a veritable jewel. Many Hollywood stars stayed here in the 1950s; Cary Grant, Esther Williams and Ava Gardner all visited Varadero regularly when it was still a little-known paradise with long, unspoiled beaches. Golf, deep-sea fishing, regattas... DuPont set the whole peninsula astir. He sold off pieces of his land to wealthy Americans and made numerous donations to fund the construction of a church and the upkeep of a parochial school. He had to abandon his domain at the age of 85, when Cuba nationalized his property and transformed it into the Las Américas restaurant.

A walk along Avenida Primera is the best way to tour the town; go early in the morning, in the late afternoon or on a cloudy day, when the sun isn't that strong. On your way back, take Avenida Playa, which runs along the north shore of Varadero. The Iglesia Católica de Santa Elvira (Avenida Primera no. 4604, at the corner of Calle 47) is a simple yet beautiful little church, whose ceiling is made of caoba (mahogany). The sandy stones used to build the church are so soft that nails can easily be driven into them. The Museo Municipal (free admission; Mon to Sat 9am to 6pm; at the corner of Calle 57 and the waterfront, (61-3189) occupies one of the most beautiful wooden houses in

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