Five centuries ago, as he set foot in Bariay's sands, Christopher Columbus proclaimed that Cuba was the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen. Surely, after months of sailing to an uncertain destination and under the menace of pirates, even a desert would seem lovely; but, in this case, the great navigator did not exaggerate one bit: the beauty of Cuba's coastline is irrefutable.
Many consider the island's beaches a paradise on earth, but other wonders embellish its coastlines: picturesque anglers' towns. I am not talking about big seaside urban centers like Havana, Matanzas or Cienfuegos; nor popular beach resorts like Varadero and Guardalavaca...
Instead I am drawn to the raw charms and stunning landscapes of tiny towns with a story to tell; for instance: Santa Cruz del Sur, devastated by an inlet in 1932, Baracoa, founded by Diego Velazquez in 1511 or Manzanillo where a popular belief states that if you eat the local grey mullet (head and all) you will never want to leave... These are the kind of towns I'm talking about, with a pervading sea salt aroma that hasn't corroded their lively spirit.
Seven underrated wonders of the Cuban coast
Among the many wonders of Cuba's coast, here is my personal list of what I believe to be the top seven destinations:
Cortes, the forgotten bay
Renowned for its tranquil cove, Cortes is 140 km from Havana, near Cuba's westernmost point. It only comprises two main streets and barely one building with multiple floors: everybody here lives at sea and most fishermen run a black market with a wide selection of fresh lobster that is not open to everyone. Its nature, on the other hand, is free for everyone to see.
With an impressive seaside flora and fauna, this community bewitches you and makes you feel at home thanks to the people's courteous nature, honoring the the cove's name ("Cortes" translates as "courteous"). Locals get around in "aranas" (spiders) which are rustic carts pulled by horses, whilst bayside carpenters and small boats swarm the beach's seaweed-filled waters. Spending half a day in Cortes bay is worth it if you happen to visit Pinar del Rio and wish to explore beyond cigar factories and the rolling hills known as "mogotes".
Following Hemingway's path in Cojimar
As you cross Havana's bay, you will find Cojimar, a fishermen's town famous for once being home to Ernest Hemingway, who found in its people and traditions, the inspiration to write his masterpiece "The Old Man and the Sea". As a matter of fact, the tavern called "Las Terrazas" still displays the table where Hemingway used to sit and write line after line between rum shots and spoonfuls of "caldereta" (a seafood soup).
Although contamination has ruined Cojimar's beach, the sea breeze is still fantastic. It's nice to simply stroll down its streets, admire its large fortified tower, walk through the bridge that rises above the Cojimar river and stop right at the point where it meets the sea in order to see boats make their way out, later returning with freshly caught produce destined to become the ingredients of a tasty "ceviche".
Isabela de Sagua, the Venice of Cuba
The Venice of Cuba used to be famous for its formerly prosperous port. Today, its main attraction is the cuisine: this is a place for fine dining. From delicious lobster to the most exquisite oysters in all of Cuba, the town's gastronomy is what has kept Isabel de Sagua alive after many hard blows, including the closure of factories and emigration.
"Paladares" (privately-owned Cuban restaurants) like "Vista al Mar", "Cayo Casa Blanca" or "Miramar" have come to rescue the region's cuisine, where the star dish is a tasty paella - as simple as it is gourmet. Fresh ingredients, attentive service and low prices make the 70-kilometer ride from Santa Clara worthwhile, knowing a delightful menu of fish fillets, seafood soups and oyster cocktails good enough to wake the dead, await you.
Caibarien, the White Village
Caibarien re-emerged as the threshold of Villa Clara's northern keys, which are popular for their unspoiled paradisiacal beaches; but the town in itself attracts lovers of heritage and tradition. Caibarien, the birthplace of famous local celebrities like musician Manuel Corona and artist Leopoldo Romanach, is home to the ancient sugar cane factory "La Reforma", which houses a Railway and Sugar Cane museums respectively.
A giant stone crab guards the entrance to "Villa Blanca" (White Village) where one of the highlights is the gazebo in its central park, famous for hosting a local municipal band of musicians playing traditional songs. Thanks to the recent touristic boom, Caibarien had a "malecon" (seawall) built not too long ago while many visitors are also interested in visiting "Palmar de Aranas", considered the largest palm tree forest in the island. The lavish resorts located in the offshore keys of Santa Maria, Ensenachos and Conuco are widely popular among sun-seekers.
Nuevitas Sea Port
Nuevitas, Puerto de Mar (Sea Port), is an important Cuban district dating from the 16th century. Some believe Columbus himself sighted the port during his first trip, although he disembarked further east. In 1801, an English community that came from Florida and New Orleans settled in the outskirts of Nuevitas.
Aside from its history, Nuevitas is well known for its "ballenatos" (a term that translates as "whale calfs") and in this case is used to give name to three islets named after these enormous sea creatures due to their shape, which, seen from afar, resemble whale calves emerging from the water. Although small, the "ballenatos" are inhabited by hundreds of iguanas and by the Anoris Ballenatus, a peculiar endemic lizard. The town itself stands out for its eclectic architecture, with an abundance of columns, balustrades and colorful stained-glass windows.
Puerto Padre, the Blue Village
Also known as "Villa Azul" (Blue Village) and "Villa de los Molinos" (Mill Village) Puerto Padre stands out for its sea, its refreshing breeze and its...travesties. The blue village is the hometown of Emiliano Salvador, eminent Cuban jazz musician who dedicated his birthplace several songs. From the seawall, you can observe a peculiar freshwater well amidst the sea, and constructions like the "La Loma" Fortress and the Covarrubias Hotel.
The Blue Village preserves an innocent, untouched allure, although ports like Carupano expect to receive cruise ships in the near future.
Gibara, the capital of Low-Budget Cinema
Considered Cuba's best kept secret, Gibara is an enchanting village that low-budget cinema lovers have made their domain. Each year, the "Poor Cinema Festival" (Festival de Cine Pobre) gathers thousands of directors who come to exhibit their creations and feel the good vibe of a town where they say Isadora Duncan had once danced naked. Gibara never sleeps during the Festival. During the daytime, the town is filled with art exhibitions, street theatre and creative workshops, where even children film their own documentaries. When the sun goes down, locals dress up for concerts, play at rustic amusement parks, go to open-air exhibitions, or simply stroll down the street greeting neighbors and visitors.
Among this "forgotten" town's many attractions, you can find the long breakwater in its bay, the Panadernos Cave and the "Tanque Azul de Caletones", an overflown cave ideal for scuba diving, where experienced locals dive with well-trained lungs as their only equipment.