Cuba has three types of beaches: great beaches, effectively reserved for Western tourists; great beaches where Cubans and tourists can go; and some pretty dodgy beaches.
When Fidel Castro opened Cuba up to tourism in the early ’90s he became concerned that Westerners would pollute Cubana and vice-versa. So he decreed that some resorts and beaches would in effect be foreigner-only – usually those in front of tourist hotels. Many of these have become tourist ghettos – you might as well not be in Cuba. There are, though, good beaches where Cubans and travellers can mix – just. Here is your guide to some of the good, the great and the don’t bother with…
Playas del Este – Havana’s riviera
To the east of Havana on the north coast, a 15 minute drive from central Havana on a reasonable dual-carriageway, lie 10 miles of white beaches, the Playas del Este: Havana’s riviera.
The Playas del Este resorts are still little more than villages and are far more basic than the main tourist beach resort of Varadero (of which more later). They are also largely undiscovered by Westerners who tend to be packaged off to Varadero. Cubans have access to the Playas, though this can be limited by the police.
The Playas closeness to Havana makes them ideal for combined Havana and beach holidays. You can stay in Havana and easily get to the beaches, or stay in the cleaner air of the beaches and quickly get into Havana. Cab fares to and from Havana are around $12-16. If you are driving yourself, the road-signs are at best confusing and at worst non-existent.
The main towns are Guanabo, Playa Santa Maria del Mar, Playa El Megano, Santa Maria Loma, Playa Bacuranao and Playa Tarara.
Playa Santa Maria del Mar is one of the best spots. It’s a $12 ride from Havana Centro or Vieja, add $2-3 from Havana Vedado or Miramar, and a $16 ride from the airport – airport cabs may try and charge more so ask for the ride to be metered.
The beach is wide, long and sandy and there are fair water sports facilities as well as deep-sea fishing, though diving is limited. The waters of the north coast tend to be more surfy than the south and the sea is reasonably safe, though take local advice.
At weekends Cubans throng the beach, playing volley-ball and dancing Salsa to live bands. There are also a steady stream of chicas, though the police have clamped down (see Money – and holding on to it!)
You will know when you get to the main hotel, the Tropicoco, because it looks like a chemical weapons research facility. It’s a T-shaped, reinforced five-storey concrete building on the quiet road which runs along the beach – a classic piece of ’60s Soviet engineering, built for fraternal Eastern-bloc delegations and ‘Friendship Tours’ of trade-unionists. Maintenance is not all it might have been and the food is dire (don’t get conned into an all inclusive package or the $26 full-board and free drinks deal).
But Tropicoco is fairly cheap and above all the rooms are comfortable, with cable TV. Tropicoco is bookable through packages, or on a hotel-only basis through Cuba-specialist agents. Typical rates are around $30pn single including (basic) breakfast or $45pn double. You should be able to get this down to $30pn double with group bookings or for a week’s stay.
Hotel Atlantico a few hundred yards to the west is right on the beach, has better food and rooms, but tends to be full of tour groups. Rooms from $40-$80.
If the beach in front of the hotels gets crowded, walk a few hundred yards in either direction and you should have plenty of sand to yourself. There is a moderately good beach bar and restaurant on the beach (don’t use the hotel’s own). A small tourist supermarket opposite the hotel is relatively well-stocked. The Chinese on the main coast road above the hotel ($3 taxi ride) is surprisingly good – about $10 a head. There are several other slightly smarter hotels at Santa Maria. A club 200 metres east of the Tropicoco warms up around midnight. It often has live Salsa and plenty of Cubans go there, though you may find that most are after your dollars rather than your body – or even your mind.
Playa El Megano a mile closer to Havana has Villas Los Pinos, a small hotel with villas which can cost up to $300 a night for four-bedrooms. Guanabo, three miles further up the coast from Playa Santa Maria del Mar has a local farmer’s market at Avenida 5 and 494 where you can usually find fresh fruit.
Playa Ancon, near Trinidad
Playa Ancon is a tourist-only beach on the south coast, but it has two big pluses: it is 6 kilometres of largely empty white sands; and it is near the historic town of Trinidad. The diving is also spectacular. You can get there by bus or train, but it will be slow – allow 5-6 hours. The 373 kilometre journey from Havana takes 3-4 hours by car. A taxi from Havana will cost you about $160.
Playa Ancon is 12 km south of Trinidad (see Cuba’s must-sees) on a narrow peninsula with the beach on one side and a swamp leading onto a large bay on the other.
The ugly Hotel Ancon is the largest hotel with rooms at about $50pn for a single and $65 for a double, the food is dire. The Hotel Costasur is better. It is smaller and has sea-front cabanas. The main hotel block is a typical ’60s-’70s Cuban effort and therefore no chocolate-box, so try and get a cabana if you can. Single rooms are around $30 and doubles $45pn. The cabanas which have a small sitting room tend to range from $45 to $55pn. There is a pool and the food is just about edible. Both hotels are bookable through packages, room-only through Cuba-specialist travel agencies or direct.
There are one or two cheaper hotels towards Trinidad and private-flats and houses in Trinidad itself. It is worth booking if you want the Costasur as it gets full. If you want a cabana, insist on it and do not let them bump you into a main block room when you get there – one of their favourite tricks. Phones are rudimentary.
The Costasur’s beach is nothing special, but a kilometre along towards the Ancon the white sands are almost deserted. Playa Ancon has good deep sea fishing, excellent diving and other water sports. The sea tends to be calmer than the northern coast, but there is usually a bit of surf and, as always, take local advice on swimming conditions and currents.
A new 4-star hotel, the Las Brisas, opened recently on Ancon Beach and is modelled on old Trinidad buildings. It is available on an all-inclusive basis and we have received good reports. Prices around $95 per person, all inclusive, with drinks – still quite steep for a hotel with regular power cuts and a frequent lack of hot water, but the breakfast is excellent and the food generally good. You should get a better deal here booking through an agent rather than as a walk-in.
Playa Ingles, between Trinidad and Cienfuegos
Between Trinidad and the under-rated town of Cienfuegos (see Cuba’s must-sees) there are a number of lovely, deserted beaches and some OK hotels. Playa Ingles, 26km west of Trinidad is often recommended, but just to the east, in front of the deserted Campismo Playa Ingles where you can park, are three or four lovely small, sandy bays only used by a handful of Cubans and the odd friendly dog.
You’ll need a hire car to enjoy this area, but the hotels are reasonable. Avoid the very packagey Hotels Faro Luna and Rancho Luna nearer to Cienefuegos – the best bet is the Villa Guajimico 42km west of Cienfuegos which is in a lovely spot on a forested inlet. It has cabanas for $35-55 depending on season and occupancy. The food is dire, so buy fruit and supplies in Trinidad or Cienfuegos and aim to eat out. Otherwise the Motel Yaguanabo is cheaper, but not so pleasantly situated by a bridge closer to Playa Ingles.
The coast south-east of Santiago-de-Cuba
In the far south-east of Cuba lies the country’s second city and old colonial capital – Santiago (see Cuba’s must-sees). There are a number of hotels and resorts along the coast, many of them either grim and run-down or grim and touristy. The best of the package-oriented resorts is the Club Bucanero 25km south-east of Santiago with all mod-cons for $60-120pn.
By far the best bet is the Villa Colibri, a 20 minute drive from Santiago on the Reserva El Indio nature reserve. There are two sections to the hotel: further from the beach are motel style buildings in woods; close to the small, sandy cove are cabanas with porches and rocking chairs – specify one of these when booking or on arrival. There is also a small pool by the shore. $30-50pn – the food is better than most, though overpriced.
Playa Giron is a small beach resort close to the Bay of Pigs. Giron is 191 km from Havana – about 3-4 hours by bus and around 2-3 hours by car. A taxi from Havana will cost you around $120. There is a small Bay of Pigs museum and the resort is half an hour’s drive from the interesting Boca de Guama swamps, but that’s about it. Anything else worth visiting is a good two hour drive.
The Villa Playa Giron hotel consists of two long, utilitarian blocks surrounded by a strung out series of concrete bungalows and a handful of manky coconut palms set in a large, rutted, grass field by a rocky beach. Cross Butlins with Stalag 15, plonk it in the Caribbean and you begin to get the flavour. The room are around $25pn single and $35pn double. The grim bungalows are about $40pn and the buffet food is to match. The clientele are mainly on packages.
The beach itself is mediocre, though there are some better small coves further along the coast. The main beach is also protected by the ugliest concrete sea-wall south of Blackpool. There is, though, reasonable diving: apparently the big attraction is a blind fish which lives in underwater caves. Just as well they can’t see the surroundings.
Around a third of visitors to Cuba go on a package to Varadero, the Magaluf of the Caribbean. Unfortunately it has been turned into a tourist ghetto. Varadero is the Caribbean’s largest resort complex with a check-point at the entrance to make life difficult for Cubans getting into the 20 kilometre-long, thin spit of pure white beaches which stretches into the Straits of Florida. There are around 25 huge hotels in Varadero to and from which charters ferry about 500,000 tourists a year. Varadero has its own airport and is about 100 km or a 2 hour drive from Havana. There are slow buses, or a taxi is about $100.
Varadero was developed as long ago as 1872. But boom-time came in Cuba’s roaring ’30s when the American chemical heiress, Irenee Dupont, built an estate complete with a mansion, airstrip and yacht harbour. Other wealthy Americans followed, including Al Capone. In the ’50s Ava Gardner and Cary Grant sunned themselves on Varadero’s white beaches.
Immediately after the revolution all of Cuba’s beaches were declared public. But in the interests of ensuring that the foreigners are not pestered by the locals, and the locals are not polluted by the foreigners, Cubans are now kept away from the beaches in front of the big hotels.
Pretty much the whole length of Varadero has been developed. It is package-holiday heaven. You can snorkel at Varadero, or go out to sea and kill big fish, scuba dive or go yachting, party on the Discoteca El Galeon or even sky-dive out of an old Soviet-built Antonov bi-plane – jumping out may be less hazardous than going up in the first place. Hotels organise volley-ball, five-a-side football, tennis tournaments and Salsa dancing classes.
The beaches are great and the mainly Western-managed hotels are fine. But you might as well be anywhere. Probably the best bet is the the Hotel Sol Palmeras, one of a number of Cuban hotels run by the Spanish Sol Melia group and the first joint venture between a Western hotel group and the state tourism company, part of Cuba’s strategy to replace Soviet roubles with capitalist dollars. It is permanently thronged with Spanish, Italian and German tourists but has one big upside: bungalows several hundred metres from the main hotel, set in coconut groves just off the beach. These are not cheap at around $200pn, but the setting is lovely and the part of the beach they are on is relatively quiet. If you go for a bungalow, insist on one near the beach and away from the main hotel. Some are at the back on a road. If you stay at the Sol Palmeras you can also use facilities at the neighbouring Sol Melia hotels, including some half-way decent but quite pricey restaurants.
But the final downside for Varadero is Cuba’s oil industry situated a few kilometres outside the town. This has lacked investment and sulphurous smells periodically waft over to Varadero. Varadero is also quite a way from Havana and 2-3 hours from other places worth seeing. The nearby town of Cardenas has a certain run-down charm, but not much else.
Oh yes, there is also the three storey former Dupont mansion, originally called Xanadu, which stands on a bluff overlooking the ocean just along from the Melia hotels. With its white walls and green pan-tiled roof it looks like a swollen version of the faux-Mediterranean villas put up in English south-coast sea-side dormitories in the ’30s, except that Xanadu has a nine-hole golf course and the library has been turned into a restaurant called Las Americas. Do not be tempted. The food is truly awful and massively over-priced.