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Discovering Baracoa’s Playa Maguana - an idyllic beach in the midst of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Discovering Baracoa and getting around its living myths, legends and mysteries are certainly worth the trip to this somewhat undiscovered destination in Cuba. The place itself is no longer off-limits to outsiders, as the construction of a road finally links it to the rest of the island, but many of its aspects lie shrouded in mystery, making it one of Baracoa's most powerful draws. Yet, there is another compelling attraction - its dreamy, secluded beach. Here we sing its praises.

Discovering Baracoa’s Playa Maguana - an idyllic beach in the midst of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Found some 20 km north of Baracoa and accessed via a rough, bumpy road, Playa Maguana had for long remained a well-kept secret and natural attraction enjoyed only by locals and thus far removed from the throngs of tourists that destinations like Varadero or Guardalavaca enjoy. Nowadays, as the city has opened up to tourism in recent years, there is a slight presence of international visitor; the cat’s definitely out of the bag with this gem, but the numbers are nowhere near enough to consider this a crowded beach or a tourist hotspot.

This is one factor (its seclusion that plays enormously in its favour, as the lack of crowds and the U-shaped isolation of this cove makes it indeed an idyllic paradise setting in which to lose oneself). But it also helps that to get there you have to travel around 45 minutes (the journey can take up to an hour, depending on the vehicle used to get there) from the heart of Baracoa through an unkempt, rugged and cracked road with more bumps than plains. This means that not all those who visit Baracoa have the time to spare for a cooling stop at the beach or simply don’t fancy an-hour-long bumpy ride. If you’re wondering why a 20-kilometre trip can take up to an hour when normally such a distance could be easily covered in under half the time, that’s only because you have not seen the road’s extremely rough conditions. The journey to Playa Maguana is an experience in itself - albeit not necessarily a positive one, it highly depends on the traveller's sense of adventurer!

Playa Maguana

If reading the above hasn’t yet convinced you of making a stop in Playa Maguana during your discovery of Baracoa, then let me tell you more about what you can look forward to in this heavenly stretch of soft sands lapped by the most crystalline of turquoise waters. Baracoa is already quite off-the-beaten-path compared to other must-see Cuban destinations, so why indeed make it this far out here? Just for a short stint at the beach? Doesn’t Cuba have enough of them? What if I’ve already enjoyed the likes of Varadero or the keys? Surely I don’t need any more beachscapes? Well, you might, especially if want to experience a beach that is drastically different to the others just mentioned.

Why make the effort to visit Playa Maguana?

Is it worth it, you ask? Well, it depends, of course, on whether you really can afford the time it takes to travel to and from the beach (plus the time you’ll be relaxing here) or if you have an already jam-packed itinerary that means sacrificing seeing or enjoying other things in your bucket list. It also depends on whether (or if) you enjoy beaches at all, perhaps you’re not that much bothered about beaches in general but the allure of discovering a little-trodden beachscape entices you. Or the opportunity of mingling with locals instead of tourists adds value to your experience. In either case, Playa Maguana certainly delivers.

And, if you were looking for a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether to make the effort to travel out here, my reply is - as you were probably expecting - most definitely! Let me elaborate on the reasons below.

The Location

This exotic enclave of rare beauty lies in a privileged location in an area known as "Cuchillas del Toa", a declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserve home to the widest biological diversity in the Antilles and a singular habitat to hundreds of endemic species, close to a thousand of them (a total of 928 have been reported). Flora and fauna are incredibly abundant in this region, and the area´s protected status helps look after many of its endangered species, such as the Cuban solenodon (locally known as “almiqui” and classified as “among the rarest animals on earth”), the West Indian manatee and the “caguarero” sparrow hawk (“gavilan caguarero”) also known as Cuban kite, a bird so rare that over the last 40 years it has only been spotted a handful of times. You could get lucky here!

Playa Maguana is part of Cuchillas del Toa´s protected landscape, an eco-reserve described by UNESCO as:

One of the principal centers of biodiversity and endemism in Cuba and the insular Caribbean with rainy mountain forests, cloud forests and xerophytic matorral to complex coastal vegetation with mangroves and coral reefs.”

The beach strip´s width oscillates between 15 and 20 metres, wedged between lush, dense vegetation and tranquil crystalline waters, with cream-coloured fine sands and a stunning coral barrier found some two hundred metres off the coast.

The coral reefs

If the mention of coral reefs sparks up your interest, then you´ll be glad to know that you can get direct access to them via this beach, that is if you´re fit enough to swim the 180 metres ´distance from the shoreline. If you do, the underwater sights are nothing short of breath-taking (and yes, you´ll more likely be holding your breath anyway) unless you packed your snorkelling gear. The swimming to the coral barrier reef is hard work but doable, as many past swimmers attest in online portals like TripAdvisor.

If you plan to do on some proper scuba diving gear then you´re best asking around in the city of Baracoa, as this beach doesn´t offer water sports and there are no diving centre to be found anywhere in its vicinity.

The Seclusion

Stretching for over two kilometres, Playa Maguana’s cove shape means that it feels all the more intimate and magic, and as long as you don’t visit on a weekend (when you are more likely to encounter crowds of locals, though certainly not always - especially not during Cuban “winter” season when it will be still reasonably balmy by most tourists’ standards but not for the locals used to summer temperatures hitting the 30-degree Celsius mark and above) you’ll have the beach mostly to yourself with the addition of the odd tourist couple or small group scattered here or there. Still, there’s enough space to spread out which means that for the most part, you’ll feel truly alone in paradise.

The Vegetation

Now, if there´s something that makes Maguana beach all the more special, is the fact that it is shrouded in abundant, vividly green vegetation, with leafy coconut trees that gently sway in the breeze. This is unadulterated paradise at its purest and lushest.

And it’s not just coconut trees that perfectly and naturally adorn the postcard-perfect beauty of this beach. Wild vegetation also consists of some very rare plants, dubbed “botanic jewels” by UNESCO and recognised as the two most primitive species found in this biosphere reserve, namely those belonging to the Podocarpus and Dracaena genus.

In the distance your eyes can dart between the picturesque mountains and the lush tropical forests that back the beachscape, offering a harmonious contrast with the bright blue skies, the glistening waters (teeming with fish) and creamy-hued sands. It all makes for a picture you won´t forget.

The development (or lack thereof)

Many argue that the biggest appeal of this beach, beyond its intrinsic natural beauty and the haven-like layout, with coves that cocoon it away from the rest of the world, is the utter lack of development, which could, conversely, also be seen as its weakness. But fear not, despite the lack of hotels and restaurants onsite (or nearby) in this remote beach, a couple of places offer food and refreshments, meaning there´s no risk of going hungry or thirsty.

Food and drinks

Just a couple of years ago you wouldn´t have found anything on Playa Maguana beyond a shabby shack selling coconut drinks and some snacks. After the recent spike in foreign visitors, however, the number of establishments offering food and drinks has grown, but still there´s no more than two makeshift restaurants and bars dotting the place, and most tourists are glad of the additions, giving them more choice and variety when it comes to enjoying a romantic meal not just by the beach, but right on it.

Beyond the freshly cracked coconuts, whose water you can sip through a straw, you can now enjoy a variety of cocktails at the two onsite bars. Right at the end of the beach, there´s a little blue house called Cafeteria Victor, serving generous food portions of freshly caught and grilled seafood accompanied by tasty rum concoctions, all very reasonably priced. Grilled lobster? They´ll serve it. A succulent snapper? That´s their speciality!

Facilities

Apart from a few thatched umbrellas here and there, there are not many facilities to be found in Playa Maguana. Forget about sun loungers too. The cafe Victor I mentioned above does offer a few beach chairs, but beyond that, there´s little else in the form of facilities. Mind you, this might change over time as more and more foreigners venture to this hard-to-reach beauty. The reward might be more development to cater to international crowds in the near future. The downside? Most of the people that want to escape here precisely want to avoid any form of development. So, perhaps, not a lot will change after all. Add to the fact that the beach is part of a protected area, and I can´t see a lot of changes happening.

Avoiding hassle

Now we turn our attention to a not-so-positive factor that has started plaguing even an enclave as remote as this. The tourist interest in the beach has also attracted the attention of local hawkers trying to sell their wares, crafts and food to visitors. Understandably, they are trying to directly benefit from their community´s tourist visits and will come up to offer their goods. A simple but firm “No, thank you” will keep them at bay if you don´t want to engage.

Regardless, this beach remains firmly off the tourist trail, even when it has started to welcome foreign visitors, it´s nowhere near “infested” by them and on most days, you´ll hardly encounter another soul. Even if you do, walking north will take you to completely isolated stretches where it will be just you and your companions, if you brought any along.

Top tips

Come here only if you really want to and have the time. This place is to be enjoyed at ease and at a calm pace if possible. If you’re really stretched for time, maybe skipping it won´t be such a bad idea, because no one wants to come here feeling rushed and only have half an hour to spend soaking it all in. You might leave even more frustrated than you arrived, wishing you could have lingered a little longer. It´s a great escape for a break in the midst of a busy travel itinerary, but the visit is more rewarding the more time you can spend, at least half a day, or enough to allow you to enjoy a cocktail or two, a tasty lunch or a romantic sunset meal by the beach.

The journey

Arranging travel here is not a straightforward business as there are no official day excursions from Baracoa and more likely than not you´ll have to negotiate a fee with a local driver for a drop-off and pick-up (usually 20 CUC for a return fare). It’s a good idea to negotiate an all-day fee with the taxi (if you can stay that long) or hire a local to drive you there if you rented your own car (finding your way on your own is very tricky so I wouldn’t recommend it).

There’s also the fact that not just any vehicle is fit for the journey, as the path winds through the mountains in a rocky road known as “Viaducto de la Farola”. You can also hire a bike in the town for 1.50 CUC per hour and make the journey here cycling (though you should mind the warning about the long, hot and bumpy trip there) or take a tourist bus that costs just 4 CUC per person but means an early morning rise as departure is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. and the return time is 5 p.m.

However hard or excruciating it may be, the journey does offer its rewards with scenic views, like that of the Toa river’s delta (teeming with birdlife) and spotting the Humboldt National Park a bit further along (another UNESCO-listed gem). On your way, you’ll come across 11 cantilever bridges and a vantage point from which you can enjoy magnificent views of the southern coast. Its found on a 600-metre-elevation above sea level and is a great stop for picture-taking.

It´s an uncomfortably bumpy and steamy ride, so be prepared for that, dress lightly and just keep your eye on the prize, it will all be worth it as soon as you descend on the beach and sink your toes in the velvety soft sands. This is a real Caribbean beach, far removed from any kind of adulteration. Enjoy its purity in all its glory.

Is lingering an option?

You can stay at the beach as long as you want, but if you’re thinking of a nearby hotel to crash on…there isn’t any. That is not to say, however, that there isn’t any kind of accommodation to be found in the beach’s vicinity, as long as you don’t mind a rustic, no-frills base.

Where to stay

If you don’t fancy the long and bumpy ride back to the city of Baracoa at the end of the day you can crash in one of the comfortable Villa Maguana cabins. These rather rustic, wooden cabins are perfectly positioned just metres from the beach, backed by dense vegetation in the form of mountains and tropical jungle. Facilities are basic but cover all of the essentials, with in-room amenities including air-conditioning, private en-suite bathroom, mini bar, satellite TV, telephone and terrace or balcony. There are just four of these two-story villas, each split into four individual rooms. Set overlooking the beach, if nothing else, the location simply can’t be rivalled.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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