Many describe Cuban beaches as beautiful, crystalline and postcard-perfect. Most of those who say so are indeed right, but most are referring to the heavily-photographed and massively popular (despite the hordes of tourists and over 60 resorts) Varadero, or even, the quieter Guardalavaca in Holguin, a province in Cuba’s eastern end. For sure these two beaches are amazing, I don´t mean to besmirch them in the least, they´re famous and popular for a reason after all, but nothing, not even the more remote and increasingly popular beaches of Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo in the Jardines del Rey archipelago can compare to the out-of-this-world, secluded and untouched beauty of Cayo Largo and its beaches, especially the fiercely protected Playa Paraiso, where no manmade structure is allowed to be built and where the glimmering, warm waters, gently lap on finely-ground white sands that stay magically cool throughout all seasons. That, and the fact that it has been the only Cuban beach to be ranked third and fourth on TripAdvisor’s list of Top 25 Beaches in the World, for three years running, make it the most special. Its beauty has remained somewhat of a secret to most tourists, even when it gains more recognition than ever in recent times, when it seems nothing can knock it out of the world’s top 5. And no hordes of tourists are rushing in yet. Not like in Varadero or Cuba’s northern keys at least.
In this post, and drawing on personal experience, I explore the reasons behind Playa Paraiso being picked one of the world’s most seductive, pristine beaches of unparalleled beauty. It also happens to be one of the few beaches in Cuba where you can go nude. It’s not officially a nudist beach nor is nudism openly encouraged but the fact that you’ll seldom see anyone within an ample radio means utmost privacy to enjoy nature as you naturally came into the world. Now, what could feel purer?
Sweet childhood memories and a dream honeymoon location
I first visited Cayo Largo aged nine, along with my parents and my two-year-old sister. At the time Cubans weren´t really allowed to stay at hotels, least of all make the journey to Cayo Largo on a yacht, yet my father happened to work in the tourism industry and we weren´t actually staying at a resort, ours was a brief day visit - one I never ever forgot. The occasion was to spend the best part of a day with a Canadian friend of my dad who had brought his young family to this paradisiacal enclave, by then even less developed than now. My dad’s friend had two kids, a girl one year younger than me and a boy a year older. At the time I didn´t utter a word of English but that never stopped me from having fun with the Canadian siblings, splashing about in the shallow water and playing in the sand. For a short a stay as that was, the image of absolute paradise and remoteness was forever engraved in my heart and soul.
One of my most vivid memories is sailing along Cayo Largo’s patchy coastal waters on a yacht, spotting the tiny little keys and moss-covered rocky headlands, admiring the changing hues of the sea within inches of my fingertips; from emerald greens to light baby blues, bright turquoise shades and glimmering transparent pools in rocky nooks lapped by gentle waves or flat. I remember thinking it was the most beautiful place on earth, a parallel universe unlike anything else in the world I had hoped to see. And I had been to other stunning Cuban beaches like Varadero and Cayo Coco’s, and I had watched Blue Lagoon, well, parts of it anyway, and actually thought this was a much more fascinating island. This was something else, this was palpable paradise, at least to me.
I went back a decade-and-a-half later, on the occasion of my short four-day honeymoon, having specifically chosen Cayo Largo as the dreamiest enclave I had ever come across and the most apt place in which to celebrate love. Timeless and unchanged, except for perhaps a few more hotels dotting its coast, (the total is still less than 10 on a 24km stretch of beaches!) I found it the same I had left it 15 years earlier, when I had vowed I would come back.
Getting there from mainland Cuba
The second time I lay my eyes on the unblemished beauty of Playa Paraiso, I had reached Cayo Largo on a small plane, part of the Gaviota fleet (now renamed AeroGaviota), departing from Havana’s second, smaller airport of Playa Baracoa. I say Havana’s second airport as that is how many people still refer to it, even when now that part of Havana has been allocated to the province of Artemisa.
It’s no short journey, in fact it takes as long to get here from Havana as it is to get to the province of Santiago in Cuba’s eastern end, proving once again that Cuba is no small island. Many people underestimate its length, forgetting that it is the Caribbean’s largest by far, with an expansion of land that almost doubles that of the next biggest one (Hispaniola, split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Still, the flight is a pleasant 45-minute journey that can be somewhat jumpy depending on the winds (it’s a small aircraft after all).
Domestic flights to Cayo Largo have a daily frequency, and you can only make the journey from Havana (Artemisa, to be more precise). No direct international flights from the UK land here, which means you must be in Cuba before you can get to Cayo Largo. There are however some charter flights linking Milan, Miami, Canada and Argentina to Cayo Largo. Flights to Cayo Largo from Havana are priced at around £100 each way but you may get them cheaper when booking them as part of a package through a tour operator. It is this added cost to a Cuba holiday that deters many travellers from making the journey here, and one of the reasons this part of the country remains so uncrowded and pristine.
In theory Cayo Largo could be reached by boat but there are no established nautical journeys for tourists. The only boats sailing here are ferries taking Cuban hotel workers between mainland, Cayo Largo and Isla de la Juventud. At present tourists can only get to Cayo Largo by taking a flight from the capital.
Cayo Largo del Sur, a deserted island
Cayo Largo (full name Cayo Largo del Sur) is an uninhabited island, no one permanently lives here. There are no houses, no families native to Cayo Largo, no population. Even the workers at hotels either live in nearby Isla de la Juventud or in Cuban mainland and take 20-day shifts to juggle their work with their home life in other shores. There is a little town at the heart of Cayo Largo, surrounded by blocks of flats and bungalows where hotel workers sleep and even a small primary school for workers’ children (though I’m not sure how that works if they only stay here on 20-day spells). There’s also a small museum, a bar, bowling alley, a disco, souvenir shops, a medical clinic, diving centre, turtle farm, the marina and the Avalon fishing club.
This key’s name comes from its narrow, elongated shape (Cayo Largo means Long Key) and it’s a limestone island, formed from the remains of marine organisms, the very same that built magnificent coral reefs you can dive through on an excursion. The fragile marine ecosystem that thrives here enjoys pristine conditions due to the local conservational efforts and the limited number of tourists at any one time.
Cayo Largo’s northern half lies in a state of complete wilderness. Vast, dense jungle lies unexplored for the most part and no developments are to happen here in the foreseeable future. It’s all mangroves and salt pans and the beaches aren’t as beautiful as the southern ones, where all the hotels and resorts are. The water on the island’s northern coast is cloudy which makes it far less attractive to potential visitors and tourists.
Playa Paraiso - a true paradise
With its wild-looking beauty, floury white sands gently kissed by a foamy surf of crystalline waters and vast glistening pool formations in the sand with varying hues from emerald to light blues, Playa Paraiso is true heaven on earth.
No resort built on it, not a single one
Guaranteeing an immaculate state of preservation that has earned the beach its high ranking on the world’s top five beaches means strict measures and these measures, in the case of Playa Paraiso also ensure that no hotel development of any kind is ever to be built on it, safeguarding its fragile ecosystem from the dangers of mass human interference and commercialisation.
Playa Paraiso is home to nothing but a small wooden bar (well removed from the shoreline) serving beverages and light snacks and a few scattered umbrellas at its main entrance (where the hotels’ shuttle train service drop you). For miles and miles on either side of this entrance you won’t find anything but wide expanses of sand, fringed by untouched vegetation and not an umbrella in sight. Not one. I promise!
I expect it will remain this way for the foreseeable future so that many more generations can enjoy its untarnished beauty.
The sand is sparkling white, ultra-fine and packed hard at the shore so that it feels like softest of carpets. It remains cool even at the peak of summer, so no burning feet wherever you go and however long you walk for! This peculiarity is due to the subsoil’s karstic layer, which stops the sunrays from changing the chemical composition of the sand. This applies to all the beaches in Cayo Largo, beautifully carpeted with sand as fine and cool as you’ll ever get.
Many all-inclusive resorts here offer a free picnic service so that you can spend a day out in Playa Paraiso or Playa Sirena (a little more developed than Playa Paraiso but no hotels here either) and not have to spend an extra penny on food and drink. We asked for one of these packed lunches the afternoon prior to our planned excursion and they consisted of a couple of a small boxes containing a sandwich and a can of fizzy drink each. If you are still hungry beers at the ramshackle wooden bar in Playa Paraiso are priced at 1.50 CUC, cocktails go for 3 CUC, juices for 1 CUC and sandwiches 3.50 CUC (at the time of writing).
Where you can stay
Having no hotel on it doesn´t mean you´ll have wasted a 45-minute flight on “merely” combing one of the world´s best undeveloped beaches with nowhere to sleep afterwards.
All of Cayo Largo´s hotels and resorts are set overlooking the stretch of beaches that goes from Playa Lindamar to Playa Blanca. From east to west you have the Sol Cayo Largo first, followed by Sol Pelicano next door (both Melia properties), then Villa Lindamar, Villa Soledad, Villa Coral, Hotel Isla del Sur and Villa Marinera, adjacent to (and now part of) the Iberostar Playa Blanca, the very last one on the strip.
Playa Paraiso is found west of Sol Cayo Largo, a long walk. Playa Sirenas starts at the point where Playa Paraiso bends upwards, to the island´s north-west. To the east of the Iberostar Playa Blanca lie a few more utterly secluded beaches: Playa Los Cocos and Playa Tortuga. Both are vast expanses of virginal white sands, home to pelicans, iguanas, turtles, crabs, a variety of birds and even the odd tourist or two (most likely you won´t stumble upon any person at all!).
Only four new hotels have been built in Cayo Largo since my first visit in 1994, meaning that in the span of 15 years, tourism has grown so slow it´s almost imperceptible and the number of tourists is still insignificant when it comes to the miles and miles of empty, secluded beaches you´ll find. The newest hotels here are the 4-star Iberostar Playa Blanca (formerly known as Hotel Playa Blanca and Ole Playa Blanca) built in 2003, the 3-star Villa Lindamar built in 2009 and most recently the newly-reopened the 3-star plus Villa Iguana, which has been completely remodelled from scratch after being ruined in 2001 by Hurricane Michelle.
Most of the hotels are 3-star and only three (Sol Cayo Largo, Sol Pelicano and Iberostar Playa Blanca) describe themselves as 4-star so no real luxury here but that´s not what Cayo Largo is about. In fact, expecting luxury would be missing the point entirely, it´s about forgoing material things to feel as one with nature, at its purest and most untouched.
We stayed in a suite at the all-inclusive Sol Cayo Largo, directly overlooking the ocean from a private balcony and absolutely perfect in every way. There are three onsite restaurants, a “ranchon” by the beach specialising in Cuban food, an elegant a la carte and a buffet. While the food wasn´t always varied, there were plenty of options to keep our appetites satisfied. Then again, we´re not fussy eaters, and what could we possibly complained of at the heart of paradise? There was no room for disappointment here, but do come with lowered expectations regarding world-class facilities, except comfort and charm, not refined luxuries.
The sandy road leading you there – how to get to Playa Paraiso. There´s no direct route or local shuttle service taking you to Playa Paraiso. The little train departing from hotels takes you to Playa Sirena only, and from there you can choose to make the walk to Playa Paraiso yourself or enjoy this beach first before moving on to the other one the next day. Which is what we did.
After spending a day in Playa Sirena, we decided to rent a scooter the next day to make it to Playa Paraiso but also explore the town and nearby attractions. The road is sandy in places, rocky in others and definitely bumpy, especially on a scooter – you´ll feel every. The only asphalted bits are those in front of hotels and near “El Pueblo” (the town).
The journey is beautiful, amidst bushes, pine forests and sandy trails. It´s great to feel the salty breeze in your face and hair as you drive past. I highly recommend a scooter ride, quite an exhilarating experience in an otherwise undeveloped place. You could also rent a bicycle, but again depends on your fitness level how far you´re willing to go. It was our honeymoon, we decided to be a bit lazy and leave strenuous work for other adventures. So on the bike we went, and not regretted it for a second!
Its sister next door – Playa Sirena
We actually stumbled upon this beach first, as it’s the one where the hotel’s shuttle service drops you. If you want to get to Playa Paraiso directly you have to either walk from your hotel (if you´re fit for it, depending on how far your hotel is from it) or do as we did and explained above: rent a scooter or a car for a day. You could also ask a taxi outside your hotel to drop you and pick you up at a certain time. We found that hiring your own transport gives you more freedom and flexibility.
Playa Sirena is just as stunning as Playa Paraiso, the only snag is that it´s slightly more developed with far more tourist facilities, like umbrellas, sun loungers, a restaurant. There´s a scuba diving centre with scuba and snorkelling gear for hire, as well as a water sports cenre with equipment on rental; from hobby cats to kayaks, pedal boats and more. There´s far more to do on this beach than in Playa Paraiso, so easier to spend an entire day busy. But if you want quiet space alone you only have to walk a bit and you won´t find a soul, umbrella or sun lounger in sight. We did this and after less than ten minutes walking we felt we had the entire beach to ourselves. Just look at the photos and see for yourself.
Playa Sirena is famous for being Cayo Largo´s widest and most stable beach, even in the face of hurricanes, it has managed to better withstand the winds with the least amount of sand territory stolen. Conversely the Lindamar beach where most hotels are placed is the most volatile with the narrowest strip of sand, which frequently disappears after strong winds and high surf. We still enjoyed our hotel´s small fringe of sand, even when a single wave often made it disappear – it was mesmerising to watch, like the sea would want to envelop you whole (like a gently caress, not a fierce attempt at swallowing you, the waves aren´t that big or powerful).
Going back to Playa Sirena, it also stands as the only beach dotted with palm trees and it’s the flatter of all beaches in Cayo Largo because of its location, protected from winds and surf. It´s also home to a dolphin centre. Its lee side has tidal flats where large starfish gather (mainly in the summer months) creating an amazing spectacle to witness. You´re welcome to touch them but don´t be tempted to take one home. They´re fiercely protected and you could be fined. Alongside starfish this part of this beach is great for fish spotting without having to don snorkel gear – yes, that´s how see-through these waters are!
When you´ve had enough of the beach (if indeed that´s ever possible) it´s not like there aren´t other small discoveries to make in Cayo Largo, especially around the centre town with its quaint museum, few shops and most importantly, the turtle farm. Read on for my highlights on what else to do or see in Cayo Largo.
El Tortuguero – the turtle farm
Found at the heart of Cayo Largo´s town, the turtle farm often referred to as “tortuguero” but officially named “Granja Los Quelonios” is a fascinating place in which to get upclose with these fascinating sea creatures, learn about their protected habitat and even pet a few.
You´ll find quite a few varieties of endemic sea turtles here, from cute hatchlings to old veterans over 50 years old. Most of the ones on the pools here are rescued specimens that are eventually released back into the wild or vulnerable turtles that must be looked after.
The farm is part of a conservation programme to protect these endangered species where expects collect hundreds of eggs form the most vulnerable beaches and incubate them in the farm (as seen on the photograph) for about two months until they hatch. After the little turtles emerge from the eggs they are kept for a while in the pools under observation before being brought back to a safe beach.
The release of young turtles on the beach is a special event to which many tourists are invited to provided they cooperate, keep a safe distance, follow instructions and pay a small 3 CUC fee. But if you´re really lucky you may get to see turtles laying eggs on the beach, an even more special and delicate event that occurs at night. You have to be willing to stay up late, gently crawl close to the turtle´s nest and use a small flashlight to see the eggs falling down into the excavated hole in the sand.
We didn´t get to do either as it wasn´t egg-laying nor egg-hatching season but we have fond memories from the encounters cradling little turtles in the palms of our hands.
You´ll find Cayo Largo´s turtle farm as you enter the town from the main road. You turn left and after passing the clinic on the right and the Casa del Habano cigar shop on the right you´ll see the sign.
Horseback riding on the beach
This one activity we did in quite the haphazard way. We hadn´t planned to but as we returned from a day out exploring on our scooter we stumbled upon a little thatched roof hut where saddled horses tied to a pole were resting. Then I read the sign indicating you could hire them. I instantly decided I wanted a horseback tour, my husband never having ridden a horse was less enthusiastic on the idea but I managed to convince him, and in the end he was glad I did!
After helping us mount, the horse owner and guide led the way on his own horse, taking us past roads into hidden trails between the bushes, amidst wild, untamed vegetation that finally ended in the beach, which was a few feet down. We descended to the sand from a rocky cliff and going down such a steep incline gave me jitters, but the horses are experts climbers and they´ve done the route several times. They maneuvered the rocky descent masterfully – but, oh my husband´s face throughout was priceless! His horse went ahead, going down first, before everyone else´s horse, even the guide´s stayed behind mine. He went as pale as paper and I think he even closed his eyes at one point! It was quite a laugh for us (not for him though) but he now remembers the whole episode with a smile.
The sun began to set in the sky giving the most stunning hues. It was glorious. Once on the beach I felt confident to pick up the pace and galloped a bit. What an exhilarating experience that was… as the horse´s hooves splashed and sprayed water all around, my heart raced with the speed and the sights, the sun slowly sinking in the sea, turning everything into a surreal shade of orange, the transparent water spraying at my feet. Truly, one of the most memorable experiences of my life and one that I would repeat on a heartbeat.
Your best way around
Like I mentioned earlier, staying in Cayo Largo for longer than three days (and most likely you will be as few make the journey for a day trip) I highly recommend hiring a car or scooter to get around the island on your own and explore things at your pace. On the first day we reached Playa Sirena via the hotel’s shuttle bus but these run on certain times and don’t give you the freedom of stopping and wandering around. Also they don’t stop in the town or any other place of interest you may be interested in seeing.
Quick weather facts
The last time a hurricane hit Cayo Largo was in November 2001, when it was struck by Hurricane Michelle, but even then the place’s natural beauty wasn’t much affected. Manmade structures did suffer, most especially Villa Iguana, which had to be rebuilt entirely from scratch but for the most part it stayed as pristine as ever. It’s been 16 years since a hurricane last struck Cayo Largo though, so no visible trace of the damages stand today. Such a long time between hurricanes also tells you that Cayo Largo lies a bit outside the hurricane belt through which most hurricanes in Cuba pass. A hurricane here is a rare occurrence, possible but not very likely.
Cayo Largo spans 38 square kilometres in its widest part and 27 square kilometres in length, 25 of which are white sandy beaches, which help make the weather milder by avoiding excessive heat concentration in the island. Surrounded by bushy vegetation, so thick and abundant in its uninhabited north-eastern half that you could only get there on foot, as not even horses would be able to squeeze between the thorny bushes, large parts of it remain unexplored by humans.
Temperatures are the mildest and most pleasant in Cuba, hardly hovering about the 28-degree mark in summer and oscillating around 25 degrees Celsius the rest of the year. I went in early January and the weather was warm, never scorchingly hot and the sea pleasantly tepid even at dusk! I don’t think it gets more idyllic than this, but then again I thought the same thing when I went as a kid and made it here in the midst of July. Even at the peak of summer temperatures hardly reach the 30s. The average temperature throughout the year oscillate between 25 and 29 degrees Celsius, so you can never go wrong.
Cold fronts can happen during winter, along with some thundery storms, but these hardly ever last longer than a week and are often two to three-day cold spells. Rain is scarcer here than in the rest of Cuba with an average of just 40 rainy days per year. Easterly winds are predominant and refresh the air.
A final note on nudism
Nudism is widely tolerated in Cayo Largo but that’s not to say it’s encouraged. I’d only recommend to go nude on the periphery of the resorts (not on the beach stretches directly facing them so as not to offend other guests and families) and on the abundant desolate stretches that dot the island’s long southern coast. A rule of thumb is to walk along the beach, then walk some more, if you find yourself in a spot where you can’t see a resort on either side and all that stretches around you is metres of unwalked sands and tranquil blues, I’d say it’s safe to strip. On my honeymoon visit I only came across a lone middle-aged male nudist walking on the shore in Playa Sirena, but aside from him I didn’t spot a single other person, dressed or undressed, walking the beach at Playa Sirena or Playa Paraiso, as far as the eye could see. Like I said, utter paradise.