When reading a tourism brochure or browsing through a travel website that advertises Cuba’s diverse attractions, it is almost impossible to miss the enthusiastic recommendations referring to the white sands of Varadero or the tranquil beaches of the island’s keys. Though the frequent slogans of “Visit paradise in Varadero” or “Enjoy the pristine waters of Cayo Santa Maria” are certainly not overrated, Cuba is filled with many other beautiful water-related destinations that remain undiscovered to most visitors.
Several of these beaches, considered hidden treasures of the island’s lesser-known eastern region, could rival with Cuba’s renowned beach hubs of Varadero and the keys. The serenity and almost untouched beauty of these shorelines make them a heaven on earth for those who would like to avoid big crowds and enjoy close contact with nature.
As most people are unfamiliar with them due to the lack of media attention they receive (in some cases infrastructure in tourism facilities still needs much improvement), this blog will transport curious readers to the beautiful beaches of Eastern Cuba.
Chilling in Camaguey: Santa Lucia and Cayo Sabinal
A first stop in the quest for Eastern Cuba’s beast beaches has to be made in Camaguey. The charming “City of Tinajones” counts with two absolute gems: Santa Lucia beach and Cayo Sabinal.
With 20 km of golden sand, Santa Lucia beach is situated 112 km northeast of Camaguey, competing with Varadero as Cuba's longest. In addition to its pristine waters and fine sands, Santa Lucia is home to one of the Caribbean’s most spectacular dive sites. If bathing peacefully in the turquoise waters gets a little tedious, diving in the north coast's best and most accessible coral reef, which lies just a few kilometres offshore, is an amazing and unforgettable experience.
This reef is the longest of its kind in the western hemisphere. The hollows and branches of these coral formations provide a wondrous habitat for a surprisingly rich diversity of marine life as well as the site of many sunken ships dating from the 19th century.
Those who are interested in dipping into Santa Lucia’s coral reef can visit the Shark's Friends Cuba International Scuba-Diving Centre. Run by internationally qualified specialists, the centre offers excursions to shipwrecks such as "El Nuevo Mortera" and "Nuestra Senora Virgen de Altagracia", as well as the famous show with hand-fed bull sharks which is one of the greatest highlights of diving in Cuba.
Just a catamaran ride away from Santa Lucia beach, Cayo Sabinal is another jewel. Once a refuge for pirates, like many other islets in the Cuban archipelago, it has several miles of intimate beaches, tucked into nooks along a pristine coastline filled with wildflowers and animals. Along with the undisturbed nature, Cayo Sabinal stands as a testament to the island’s pirate history, with the ruins of San Hilario Fort (built in 1831) and the Colon (Columbus) Lighthouse (built in 1848), which warns sailors of dangers in the area.
Though slated for development, Cayo Sabinal, 22km to the north of Nuevitas port, is still virgin territory in part. The 30km-long coral key with marshes is favoured by flamingos and iguanas. The land cover is mainly flat and covered with marshland and lagoons. The fauna consists of tree rats, wild boar, the “cobos sea snail” (queen conch) and a large variety of butterflies.
Pristine wonders in Holguin: Guardalavaca, Esmeralda and Pesquero
The crystal-clear waters and white sands of Holguin’s northern coast are without a doubt the reasons this province is filled with excellent beaches. From the fairly popular Guardalavaca to the lavish seclusion of Playa Pesquero and the wild natural beauty of Playa Esmeralda, Holguin is one of the country’s preferred beach hubs.
Draped along a succession of idyllic beaches backed by verdant hills, Guardalavaca is Holguin’s most renowned beach. Described by Cristopher Columbus as “the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen”, this stretch of beach also boasts sheltered turquoise coral reefs teeming with aquatic action, making it a paradise for beach bums and nature lovers alike.
In the early 20th century, this region was a rural village and important cattle-rearing area (Guardalavaca means “shelter the cow”). The tourism boom moved into first gear in the late 1970s and local economy hasn't looked back since. Relaxing is the best way to take in the beauty of this beach, which is ideal for fun marine action including windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, boat rides, snorkelling and scuba diving. As Holguin’s most renowned beach destination, Guardalavaca is often teeming with foreign visitors and locals alike during summer time.
Set amidst a nature reserve named Bay of Naranjo, Playa Esmeralda is middle ground between the much-trodden Guardalavaca and the high-end Playa Pesquero. This beach is ideal for scuba diving fans and nature lovers. After unwinding in the sea, enjoying the beauty of the nature reserve is a fantastic option.
Offering 30 kilometres of coastline with archaeological sites, saves and virgin keys, Bay of Naranjo Nature Reserve is an attraction in itself. Guests can visit the bay’s aquarium, set in the middle of the Sea and only accessible through vessels. Well-trained dolphins offer incredible shows where they flaunt their skills and also swim with visitors who can pay to pet them, swim with them and even ride above them and be thrown playfully into the water by these incredibly sweet and intelligent creatures.
Finally, Playa Pesquero, also located in the vicinity of Bay of Naranjo is Holguin’s most secluded and tranquil beach. Boasting a five-star resort, one of the biggest and most luxurious in the island, Playa Pesquero is the ideal sun and sand setting for those who seek nothing but utter relaxation amidst breath-taking nature. Divided into lush bungalows, the hotel was built to reflect the cultural traditions of the region, including elements of the sugar cane industry as well as the old railway network.
Natural gems in Santiago de Cuba: Baconao and Bucanero
Though not usually considered as a prime destination in sun and sand sector, Santiago de Cuba’s coast comprises surprisingly dazzling swimming sites. Santiago’s coast is wild, very warm and apparently untouched, dotted with enticing coves that feature beaches of pebbles or sand as well as backdrops of peaks covered with lush vegetation. Amongst these treasures Baconao and Bucanero beaches are two of the best options.
Baconao beach is situated in a Biosphere Reserve of the same name. This area features hillocks, large sandy areas, ridges, drops and impressive walls. In addition, the enormous natural park boasts an area called Valley of Prehistory, which contains life-size statues of prehistoric animals and men. Baconao is an ideal setting for snorkelling, scuba diving (starting with beginners courses), windsurfing, kayaks, sailing, pedal boating, fresh water sports fishing, horseback riding on mountain paths, boating, as well as swimming.
The Sigua, Daiquiri, Cazonal, Bucanero and Sierra Mar diving areas extend for many miles along the coast, summing up a total of 73 scuba diving sites. Diving in Baconao is a true treat as visibility is excellent thanks to the clean and clear waters where visitors can gaze at beautiful marine life as well as sunken ships, including several from the Spanish Fleet that ships of the US Navy defeated and sank off Santiago de Cuba in 1898, during the Spanish-Cuba-American War.
Also part of this beautiful reserve, Bucanero beach is located at just 25 minutes away from Santiago’s centre. This magnificent golden sand beach backed by limestone cliffs offers a particularly attractive environment, with the Caribbean Sea on one side, historically known as “The Pirates’ Sea” and the exuberant mountains from the Sierra Maestra Chain on the other side. In addition to lying peacefully in the sands of Bucanero beach, adventurous visitors can sign up for excursions including horse rides, visits to the ruins of French coffee plantations and tours around colonial mansions.
When beaches are concerned, Cuba offers a wide plethora of settings. Whether you seek peace and calm in a fine-sand beach or adventure amidst stunning dive sites, the island’s pristine sun and sand destinations are willing to please.