The number one thing that most repeat travelers to Cuba will tell you keeps them coming back is the beaches. I’ve seen a lot of beaches in my life, some crappy (Lake Erie, sorry fellow Canadians), some okay (Pacific coast of Costa Rica), some good (Riviera Maya, Mexico) and some great (Barbados and Antigua) but for sheer abundance of pristine, untouched, relatively undeveloped seashore, there is little that compares to Cuba. Much of this is due to the American embargo that has kept its closest neighbours out for almost 60 years and until the last 30 years kept development to a minimum. The good news is that the Cuban government has been vociferously dedicated to maintaining its delicate ecosystems (something that the rest of the world could and should have adopted), recognizing the balance that exists in nature so that many of the beaches look and feel as they did a half century ago. I’m going to highlight the 5 best beaches I’ve visited in Cuba:
Playa Cazonal, Santiago de Cuba
This was my first Caribbean beach (and first non-U.S international trip) over 20 years ago when true Cuban tourism was in its infancy. Located on the southeast part of the island between Santiago and Guantanamo, this beautiful beach had two unremarkable 3 star resorts (now one) along its length, the Club Carisol and Club Los Corales. It made its impact because 1) it was my first (and you always remember your first), 2) at the time it had a low-tech dolphin enclosure in the ocean where you could swim with them for $20.00 U.S. and 3) the emotional impact of watching my 69 year old dad (who had never ventured out of southern Ontario…this was a trip I bought my parents as a gift) stand in knee-high, crystal clear water and watch in wonder as the small fish swam in figure-eights in and around his legs. The beach? It ranks as an okay one.
Playa Guardalavaca, Holguin
An hour north of Holguin lies the village of Guardalavaca with a 2 kilometre long, wide, white sand beach. This was ‘boys week’ with my (at the time) 14-year-old son at the very popular 3 star Club Amigo Guardalavaca where Fidel was said to have taken a swim in one of their pools, something they are still very excited about. It is also said to be the beach where Columbus made landfall, thus the ship and statue embedded in the sand at the water’s edge.
The water is clear and blue and you can walk out for quite a distance before you will run into the seagrass, urchins and eventually a small reef, great for snorkelling. At the west end of the beach is a bar where you can grab a beer or rum with the friendly locals.
Playa Esmeralda, Holguin
Every beach in Cuba is public. Anyone can go on it anytime without recrimination…but the key is finding some of them. Some like Playa Esmeralda 5 kilomteres west of Guardalavaca is only accessible if you walk through either the Sol or Paradisus resorts fronting it and the security won’t let that happen (although there is a forest on the west side of the Sol resort that will get you on it if you’re determined). This sheltered beach is about a kilometre long but features a gorgeous reef at the east end with some of the best snorkelling I’ve done.
Playa Cayo Santa Maria
Cayo Santa Maria is an island off the coast of Cuba, accessible from the mainland by causeway and uninhabited by locals however you will find about a dozen resorts here because frankly, the beaches are stunning. The majority of the island is preserved wetlands and the resorts, all on the northern Atlantic coast have to follow strict guidelines in their construction and running. I had the distinct pleasure to inspect 9 of the resorts and therefore saw most of the beaches and if I had to make a choice, I would say I loved the beach at the Warwick resort as well as the Melia Buenavista. No matter which one you end up on, you’ll find a winner here.
Varadero is the original Cuban beach destination. Over 60 hotels and resorts populate the 21 kilometres of coastline featuring virtually unbroken wide white sand beaches and crystal clear azure waters that allow you to walk out seemingly forever without the pesky difficulties of seagrass or reefs. Varadero became a tourist hotspot in the late 1800’s and the likes of Al Capone and the Du Ponts enjoyed these same beaches until 1959 when the government closed up shop on the mansions and resorts here. Things opened up again in the 1980’s. The best beach area tends to be closer to the ‘old’ town, the section at the beginning of the peninsula however most of the hotels here are dated and run-down…but they’re cheap, so there’s that. I sent someone here this week for $578.00, flight, meals, drinks and taxes included!