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Off the Beaten Track: Varahicacos Nature Reserve

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Photography by Caroline Bergeron

Mention the word Varadero and Canadians immediately conjure up images of white sand beaches (21 km to be precise!), bottomless drinks, and parties long into the night. Since the early 1990s—and the collapse of Soviet subsidies to Cuba--the Hicacos Peninsula has very quickly transformed itself into a cheap all-inclusive vacation destination. It is so popular with Canadians that it there is actually a consulate office on site. To date, there are more than 50 resorts and hotels crowding the shores with several more under construction as I write this article—Memories, Melia, Sandals, Iberostar, all the biggies.

Backwater Review, Giant Cactus
Giant Cactus, Varahicacos Nature Reserve

But if tourists and resorts turn you off, do not despair. Varahicacos Nature Reserve might just rescue you from the lull of your all-you-can-eat buffet. Established in 1974 as an ecological preserve, the short stretch of protected land is ensconced in the northeastern reach of the Hicacos Peninsula and contains hiking trails through virgin forests, lagoons, and cave complexes.

Just off the beach, for a measly 2 CUC, you can visit the Patriarcha—a giant cactus which predates the arrival of Columbus. Tourists and locals alike have vandalized the ancient succulent with carvings and professions of love. But this does not denigrate the marvel as much as it celebrates the plant’s quest for survival.

A little further down the autopista, an additional 5CUC will allow you to walk the Sendero de Musulmanes. The trail, little more than a kilometre, winds through scrub forest over salt deposits and caves. It passes a tropical lagoon and offers up two caverns for the more courageous traveler. The Cueva de Ambrosia is large and easily accessible, if you are willing to crouch. Inside, bats abound, but so do pictograms, light pools from surface shafts, and hidden alcoves. The Cueva de Musulmanes, although smaller, provides intimate contact with an ancient burial site. Human remains, dating back 2500 years, are exposed to the elements and to intrepid tourists in a way you could not imagine back home.

Backwater Review, Varahicacos
Cueva de Ambrosia

Throw in exotic birds, innumerable lizards scattering before you like fish off the prow of your boat, and the heat of a tropical sun, and you might just imagine yourself an adventurer of old.

If you ask my two teen-aged children (hardened Smartphone users and social media junkies), they might tell you that this was a highlight of their Cuban adventure--perhaps more even more than their trip to Havana!

This is El otro Varadero at its best.

Tips: The Great Cactus is easily accessible from the beach between the Memories and El Patriarca resorts. Entrance to the Sendero de Musulmanes is right on Autopista Sur. You can use the tourist bus run by Gaviota which stops at all the resorts and sites on the Hicacos Peninsula, or take a taxi. Bring water and toliet paper (as always in Cuba). Wear sturdy shoes (not sandals) with thick soles; the terrain is rough and the salt deposits are sharp.

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