By Merle Rosenstein
With more than 300 beaches along 588 kilometres of Cuba’s coast, sun worshipers seek destinations with solid reputations. Cuba’s premier beach resort Varadero, with 21 kilometres of sparkling white sand, brings vacationers back time and time again. A string of hotels backs onto the flat expanse of beach. At night, sun kissed Canadians can mingle with locals in town at cabarets and listen to live music. Another popular vacation destination, Holguin, boasts 350 kilometres of coastline and 41 white sand beaches such as Guardalavaca, Playa Esmeralda and Cayo Saetia. Clear waters and coral reefs support many species of marine life.
Cuba’s newest beach destination is a tiny island in the Jardines del Rey or ‘King’s Gardens’ archipelago, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The Jardines del Rey is a cluster of islands stretching 200 kilometres in the larger archipelago of Sabana-Camaguey. The Jardines del Rey escaped colonization due to the distance from mainland Cuba. None of the islands have permanent residents keeping them in their natural state for tourists. Ernest Hemingway is reported to have sailed his yacht, Pilar, is these waters searching for German submarines during the Second World War. In his novel Islands in the Stream, the main character Thomas Hudson, a famous painter, looks for survivors of a sunken German U-boat in the Jardines del Rey archipelago after the massacre of a village. A shoot-out near Cayo Guillermo leaves the Germans and Hudson dead.
A number of small islands make up the Jardines del Rey including Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Coco, Cayo Judas, Cayo Romano, Cayo Paredon Grande, Cayo Megano Grande, Cayo Eusebio, Cayo Cruz, Cayo Guajaba and Cayo Sabinal. Of all of the islands, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria are the most popular.
A 30-kilometre causeway connects Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo to the province of Ciego de Avila.
Cayo Coco, named for the roseate ibis, or ‘coco’ boasts a 21-kilometre stretch of fine white sand framed by mangroves and other vegetation. Cayo Coco harbours over 200 species of birds and Cuba’s largest flamingo colony. Four diving centres and 20 diving sites provide ample opportunity for divers to view many varieties of sea life such as parrotfish, grunts, yellowtail snappers and queen angelfish.
Cuba Tourist BoardCayo Guillermo
West of Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo’s five kilometres of immaculate, silky sand invite quiet contemplation. Cayo Guillermo is also known to have the highest sand dune in the Caribbean at 15 metres. Ernest Hemingway is said to have spent time fishing and boating in this spot. Playa Pilar, about seven kilometres west of the Cayo Guillermo’s resort area, has a clothing optional beach. Lovers of extreme sports will want to try kitesurfing at Cayo Guillermo. Some travellers bring their own equipment while others can rent equipment and take a lesson on the beach.
Cayo Santa Maria
Cayo Santa Maria lies off the northern coast of Villa Clara Province with more than 17 kilometres of untouched beach property, newly opened to tourists. Most popular among these beaches are Cayo Santa Maria and Las Brujas. ‘El Pedraplen’, a 48-kilometre causeway, joins Cayo Santa Maria, Las Brujas and Ensenachos Cayos to the mainland.
On Cayo Santa Maria, outdoor enthusiasts can snorkel or dive to find an amazing variety of fish lurking in the coral formations, or go hiking on the islands of Majá, Fragoso, Cobos, Las Brujas, Ensenachos, Español de Adentro, Francés and Las Picúas. Other active pursuits are windsurfing, swimming, sailing, deep-sea fishing, speed boat racing and water-skiing. And history buffs will enjoy exploring the ancient caves. A clothing optional beach is located at the west end of the Sol Cayo Santa Maria Hotel.
Puebla Estrella, an open air shopping and entertainment complex between the Barcelo Cayo Santa Maria and the Memories Paraiso Beach Resort houses a bowling alley, several bars, a number of restaurants, a disco, spa and nightclub. Puebla Las Dunas opened in summer 2011 and includes a nightclub, bars, restaurants, shops and a bowling alley.
Cuba Tourist BoardA Dolphinarium, the largest in Latin America, with shows and dolphin encounters is located near Cayo Ensenachos, a few kilometres from Cayo Santa Maria. There are six pools for dolphins, an aquarium and lobster breeding farm, a dolphin entertainment area with 260 seats and an area for sea lions.
Cayo Las Brujas
Cayo Las Brujas is the first island off the causeway connecting to Caibairen on the mainland. This tiny islet has exquisite white sand and warm azure water. Bridges built over the 1.6 kilometres of beach are raised to allow animals free movement and to protect the environment.
Day Trips & Excursions
Santa Clara - Best known as the city where Dictator Batista surrendered to Ché Guevara in 1958, Santa Clara has many interesting sites. Parque Leoncio Vidal is named after Leoncio Vidal, a colonel in the national independence army, who died in battle in 1896. It’s encircled by pedestrian-only streets perfect for strolling. Bull fights, plays and games are held here. The Museum of Decorative Art, across from Parque Videl, houses furniture and art dating back to the 18th century. The Ernesto Ché Guevara Memorial Museum houses the remains of Ché Guevara and his comrades who were killed in Bolivia. The Provincial Museum of History gives details of the takeover of the city of Santa Clara in 1959.
Ciego de Avila City - The character of the provincial capital is defined largely by its architecture: unique portals, arches, roof tiles and neoclassical columns. Independence Avenue is the heart of the city, where attractions include the Principal Theatre, House of Culture, “Raùl Martinez” Art Gallery, Josè Marti Park and San Eugenio de Palma church, named after the city’s patron saint. Both Ciego de Avila and Moron played key roles during the wars of independence.
Moròn - You know you’ve arrived at Moròn when you see the bronze statue of a rooster perched at the city’s entrance. Other distinctive features include Casa de la Trova, a place to enjoy local music; and the train station with its unusual architecture. History buffs head to the Moròn Museum and travel the one-kilometre road to Jùcaro, a World heritage Site by UNESCO.
More information on the Jardines del Rey archipelago can be found at www.gocuba.ca