beach kid_cartwheel_cayococo_4709Cuba Tourist Board

By Merle Rosenstein

Cuba welcomed a record 945,000 Canadian sun seekers in 2010. With many must-do activities across the island, it’s clear why Canadians love Cuba. And after touring historical buildings in Old Havana, sampling cigars along the Route of Tobacco, and hiking in the forests of Pinar del Rio, sun worshippers head for Cuba’s beautiful beaches. Like Cuban dance and music styles, beaches across the island are many and varied. So let’s take a tour of some of Cuba’s hottest sun spots beginning with the best known – Varadero.

Cuba’s premier beach destination, Varadero or Playa Azul in Matanzas province is 134 kilometres from Havana. This 21-kilometre strip of sparkling white sand on the Hicacos Peninsula juts out into the crystal clear Atlantic. A string of hotels backs onto the flat expanse of beach, and bars and other amenities are within shouting distance.

But Varadero is not just a place to chill in the sand. Visitors to Varadero can jump on jet skis at the marina on the Bay of Cardenas, dive among shipwrecks and tropical fish in Cayo Piedra Underwater Park, or play a round of golf at the Varadero Golf Club with its intricate system of lagoons. Centre Plaza América, an international convention centre, has shopping malls, restaurants and amusement centres. Adventure seekers won’t want to miss Bellamar Cave, deep in the cliff overlooking Matanzas Bay, one of the Caribbean’s largest and most beautiful underground formations.
For the young and young at heart, cabarets, variety shows and live music make night time in Varadero something to savour.

007-Gualavacaplaya1Cuba Tourist Board
Holguin, a rugged mountainous region in northeastern Cuba, boasts 350 kilometres of coastline and 41 white-sand beaches. The many species of plants and trees and wide variety of fish and birds make Holguin attractive for ecotourism. Best beaches include Guardalavaca, Playa Esmeralda and Cayo Saetia.

Guardalavaca Beach: Guardalavaca Beach faces the Atlantic Ocean 54 kilometres northeast of Holguin Province, with 1.5 kilometres of powdery white sand surrounded by lush vegetation. The clear waters and coral reefs support many species of marine life such as barracuda, swordfish, peacock fish and Spanish mackerel. Excellent underwater visibility allows for top-notch diving and exploration of underwater caves.

Playa Esmeralda: Surrounded by cliffs and an abundance of plant life, the crescent-shaped Playa Esmeralda frames deep green waters and has thick coral reefs. This 900-metre long beach, five kilometres east of Guardalavaca is perfect for water play such as diving, snorkelling, windsurfing, catamaran sailing or sailboarding. An aquarium in nearby Bahia de Naranjo Natural Reserve offers swimming with dolphins.

Cayo Saetia: Situated on Nipe Bay, the tiny island of Cayo Saetia extends 42 kilometres across 12 small beaches. With a high concentration of forest, the secluded beaches support a wide array of wildlife. Unique to this island are brown rock formations scattered along the shore. This wilderness area is home to native and exotic animals such as wild boars, buffalos, ostriches, peacocks, zebras, antelopes, cane rats, wild bulls and tocororo birds.

Cayo Largo del Sur
Cayo Largo del Sur, one of the largest of 300 cayos and islets of the Los Canarreos Archipelago, lies on the Caribbean Sea, 177 kilometres south of Havana. Strips of virgin beach with sun-bleached sand and warm crystal clear water extend for 27 kilometres. This tranquil island gives off a laid-back vibe and is clothing optional. Iguanas, chelonian, pelicans and herons make their homes on Cayo Largo. A 35-kilometre coral reef is home to black coral and underwater enthusiasts appreciate more than 30 diving sites and an international diving centre.

Jardines del Rey
These tiny islands off the Atlantic coast of Cuba, 177 kilometres from Havana, inspired Ernest Hemingway’s well-known novels Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea. The islands of Jardines del Rey are a nature-lover’s paradise and are home to flamingos and roseate spoonbills. A 27-kilometre causeway links the islands to the mainland province of Ciego de Avila, Cuba’s agricultural district. A 402-kilometre coral reef, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef, makes the islands of Jardines del Rey ideal for snorkelling and diving. Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are two hot spots.

Cayo Coco: Cayo Coco, a 22-kilometre stretch of beach, boasts mangroves and more than 200 species of birds. 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, queen angelfish, anemones and spiny lobster.

Cayo Guillermo: Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time on Cayo Guillermo during the Second World War, fishing in the crystal clear waters in his boat Pilar. This 13.2 square-kilometre island boasts three and a half kilometres of beaches and the tallest sand dunes in the Caribbean Islands.

CAYO LAS BRUJASNolitoCuba Tourist Board
Cayos of Villa Clara
The Cayos of Villa Clara lie 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.

Cayo Santa Maria: The newest beach destination in Cuba is 13 kilometres long and up to two kilometres wide, with plenty of open beach for visitors to explore. Part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Cayo Santa Maria has no permanent residents and remains a charming island paradise with clean white sandy beaches, shallow clear water, stunning natural scenery and an abundance of diverse wildlife. Birds on the island include anhingas, seagulls, flamingos, woodpeckers, hawks and the tocororo, the national bird of Cuba. The little island is also home to numerous species of reptiles.

On Cayo Santa Maria, outdoor enthusiasts can snorkel, dive to find an amazing variety of fish lurking in the coral formations or go hiking. Other active pursuits are windsurfing, swimming, sailing, deep-sea fishing, speed boat racing and water-skiing. And history buffs enjoy exploring the ancient caves.

Puebla La Estrella is an outdoor shopping, dining and amusement centre next to Barcelo Cayo Santa Maria. The Puebla, operated by Gaviota, has nine restaurants, four bars, a bowling alley, coffee shops, a spa, a cigar shop, a gym and a disco. The restaurants offer fine dining in an elegant atmosphere. Special spa packages are available for couples. At the Bar Literario, live music is played every night. A shuttle takes visitors to and from their hotels.   

Las Brujas: This tiny islet treasure boasts exquisite white sand and warm azure water. Bridges built over 1.6 kilometres of beach are there to allow animals free movement and to protect the environment.