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8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Varadero

One of the largest beach resorts in the Caribbean, Varadero is Cuba's most popular tourist destination. Sprawling languorously along the Peninsula de Hicacos, a sleek finger of land off Cuba's north coast, this famous strip boasts a sublimely beautiful 20-kilometer beach overlooked by more than 50 all-inclusive resorts. Once over the drawbridge that separates Varadero from the mainland, travelers leave the culturally rich colonial side of Cuba behind and succumb to a sybaritic world of sun, sand, and sea.

Along Varadero's seductive stretch of palm-fringed sand, water sports are a prime draw. Crystal clear seas in striking hues of blue provide the perfect playground for SCUBA diving, sailing, snorkeling, and swimming. Those who can bare to leave the beach will find other things to see and do, such as crystal-encrusted caves, lush parks, and close-up dolphin encounters.

1 Varadero Beach

Varadero Beach
Varadero Beach
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Spanning 20 kilometers along the sleek Peninsula de Hicacos, this blonde-bombshell of a beach is one of the Caribbean's best. Palapas sprout from its flour-soft sands, palms rustle overhead, and the shoreline slopes seductively into a silky blue sea. Presiding over all this natural beauty are more than 50 all-inclusive resorts, which lure package tourists from all over the world - especially Canada and Europe. But there's plenty of space for everyone. Beach lovers can partake in all the usual water sports here from snorkeling and swimming to kayaking and sailing.

2 Saturno Cave

Saturno Cave
Saturno Cave
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Near Varadero's airport, a path through the scrub descends to Saturno Cave (Cueva Saturno), the star feature of a complex cave system. This hauntingly beautiful cenote or subterranean swimming hole offers a refreshing respite from the sun-baked beach. Stalactites drip from the roof of the cave, and stalagmites rise from the water's depths. Tourists come here to swim in the pool's azure-hued freshwater, dive off the crystallized columns, and admire the impressive rock formations. Aqua shoes and a snorkel and mask are handy accessories on a visit here.

3 Parque Josone

Parque Josone
Parque Josone
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Parque Josone is a peaceful oasis in the heart of Varadero. Built in the 1940s, it was originally the property of factory owner Jose Uturrio who is thought to have built the mansion here for his wife Onelia. Paths meander around flower-flecked gardens, fountains gurgle, and an ornamental bridge traverses a small lake where ducks bob contentedly. Tourists come here to paddle or glide around the lake on rowboats or relax in the shade of the poinciana and palm trees. The former main residence on the grounds is now a restaurant, as is the guesthouse, which makes for a pleasant afternoon or evening excursion in Varadero. A swimming pool lies at the park's south end.

4 Mansión Xanadú

Mansión Xanadú
Mansión Xanadú Barbara Walsh
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Built in 1929, this palatial villa was once owned by Alfred Irenee Dupont de Nemours, a wealthy American entrepreneur. After the revolution, Dupont fled the country, and the villa became the property of the Cuban government. Constructed with Italian marble, rich woods, and thermal insulated ceramic tiles, the Mansión Xanadu was an incredibly lavish retreat back in its heyday. Today, the mansion is a luxury hotel and golf clubhouse. Non-guests can stop by here soak up the spectacular sea views from the second floor and enjoy a meal at the restaurant. On display are some of the original furnishings, information on Dupont, and a series of old photographs.

5 Parque Ecológico Varahicacos (Varadero Ecological Park)

Parque Ecológico Varahicacos (Varadero Ecological Park)
Parque Ecológico Varahicacos (Varadero Ecological Park) Pato Novoa
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Parque Ecológico Varahicacos (Varadero Ecological Park), at the far end of the Hicacos Peninsula, is about as back to nature as tourists can go on this resort-riddled peninsula. This protected area is a nature reserve with a pleasant beach; a variety of plant species such as cactus and orchids; a bird-rich lagoon once used to mine salt; and a diversity of birds, insects, and lizards. Narrow hiking trails wind through the preserve, but visitors should note that the ground is rocky and can be challenging for small children and those who are unsure on their feet. Sturdy hiking shoes are recommended as is insect repellent.

Budding paleontologists will love the two bat-inhabited limestone caves here, Cueva de Ambrosio and Cueva de Musulmanes, which contain rock paintings and aboriginal fossils. Guides are on hand to give tours and help interpret the pictographs.

6 Delfinario

Delfinario
Delfinario Alec Meer
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At Delfinario, animal lovers can kiss, cuddle, and commune with dolphins. The experience begins with a show followed by an optional dolphin encounter in an enclosed saltwater lagoon. One by one, paying guests meet their new marine playmates, pat them, swim through the water with them, and participate in fun tricks with these playful creatures. The experience is captured on video and photos, which guests have the option of purchasing at the end of the show.

7 Cayo Piedra Underwater Park

Cayo Piedra Underwater Park
Cayo Piedra Underwater Park
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Northeast of Varadero is a popular diving and snorkeling area called Cayo Piedra Underwater Park. Military equipment and a variety of vessels, including yachts, a missile-launching boat, and an airplane were deliberately sunk in the late 1990s to create an artificial reef. Large schools of multi-hued fish dart in and out among the rusted hulls, and divers and snorkelers can also spot turtles, sharks, and crustaceans.

8 Varadero Museum

At the Museo de Varadero visitors can wander back through the peninsula's history in a pleasant seaside setting. The museum is housed in a 1920s beach house designed by architect Leopoldo Abreu. The design, with the surrounding balconies and wood veranda, is a typical example of beach houses from that time period. It was renovated extensively in the early 1980s.

The museum contains a sprinkling of exhibits such as stuffed animals, period furniture, and the remains of a small two-headed shark. Some of the old photos on display show Varadero in the 1940s and 1950s.

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