All castaway islands are hard to reach by definition and Cuba’s Cayo Levisa is a true castaway isle. One of hundreds of tropical fragments washed by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, its pristine beaches are only accessed by a little boat that trundles slowly back and forth across the shallow straits just twice a day. That also means that the island always feels empty, and if you stay overnight at the one resort on the island, you can take a morning walk along acres of fine white sand without glancing another living soul aside from the odd crab, sand piper or negrito bird combing the shore.
I’ve had the privilege to visit some amazing beaches, but Cayo Levisa is one of those rare untouched paradises that give you a glimpse of the Caribbean’s timeless beauty before development and tourism took hold.
From west to east, Cuba is around the same length as Italy, which equates to some long journeys by road if you want to explore the country’s beautiful coastline. To reach Cayo Levisa, I travelled west from Havana and stayed in the enchanting country town of Vinales in Pinar del Rio province before joining a bus for a bumpy two-hour journey to the unimposing dock at Palma Rubia on Cuba’s northern coast.
Setting off at 10:30am, the boat’s unhurried pace gave me a chance to take in the scenery.
On the mainland low verdant hills gave way to thick mangroves, and around 20 minutes into the boat ride, the curving green-tufted shapes of Cuba’s cayos slowly came into view.
Anchored into the southern shallows by mangrove roots, each is ringed in a gleaming halo of pearly beaches. Only one stretch of sand has been developed for visitors by the Cayo Levisa hotel, which is the only place to stay for miles around.
Arriving at the little jetty, I trod the wooden boards across the water to the elevated walkways that criss-cross the mangroves.
The little Club Buceo dive boat sat at the dock waiting to take scuba divers out the area’s thriving coral reefs that are said to be some of the most impressive in the Caribbean. In the wooden shack beside the jetty, qualified PADI Open Water divers can arrange to join the day’s diving expedition led by an expert Dive Master, and tanks and scuba gear are all available to hire.
As I followed the walkways through the undergrowth, it was clear that the island belonged to the animals. I stopped to watch a group of crabs gathered on a sandy bank between the finger-like mangrove tendrils and considered that, especially with the change in tide, the interior would be almost impenetrable without the network of footbridges built on stilts.
Emerging from the thicket onto the south side of the island I reached a series of stilted and thatched low-rise communal buildings sympathetic to the natural surroundings and belonging to the Cayo Levisa hotel.
Just beyond, the magnificent curve of main beach came into view – postcard-perfect with mature swaying palms, mounds of creamy sand, and azure and turquoise-hued seas as far as the eye could see.
A man sat in the shade hiring out snorkelling gear for a few pounds, so I grabbed a mask and snorkel and wasted no time wading into the warm calm ocean. A slight wind stirred the surface and below the visibility was poor, but the waves were small, and I swam for almost half an hour parallel to the seemingly-endless beach.
I was sharing the shore with a handful of other visitors stretched out on sunloungers, huddled in cushioned cabanas or leaping around playing volleyball. Most people don’t stray from the main stretch, so if you take the nature trails through the undergrowth or simply walk along the coast, you’ll find completely-deserted desert island beaches.
After a long swim I spotted a couple of Cubans pushing a wheel-barrow full of coconuts along the wet sand and seized the opportunity to purchase a huge fresh coconut, machete-opened in front of me and handed over with a dainty little straw. Finding a palm-shaded spot to myself, I revelled in my new utopia – fierce sun, salty hair, the soothing rhythm of the waves and cool coconut water in my throat.
Dozing off after a buffet lunch at the beachside eatery, I awoke to find a cheeky little negrito bird perched on top of my coconut and pecking at the exposed white flesh. Unstartled, he continued eating as if to remind me that everything on this island belongs to nature and I was just a guest.
One of the easiest ways to get to Cayo Levisa is to book a day tour with government tourism agency Cubatur, which has offices in Havana and Vinales. Visitors booking the return package from Vinales get full day access to the resort’s beach cabanas with cushions, sunloungers, changing facilities, and lunch, as well as transfers to and from the island via a minibus and the boat. But staying overnight on the island at the low-key Cayo Levisa hotel is highly recommended for the full castaway experience. For guests booking a stay at the resort, the ferry transfer is included.