Known for their stunning white sands and clear blue waters, Cuba's beaches are deliciously uncrowded and full of tranquility. Varadero and the islands of the Jardines del Rey archipelago are just a few essential stops on the long list of flawless turquoise-edged strands surrounding the island.
Cuba's beaches are open to all, though American travelers face a little more red tape when planning a trip. Not sure which of Cuba's beaches to head to first? Here’s the lowdown on the most heavenly beaches on the Caribbean’s biggest island.
Best beach for families and inclusive resort stays
Varadero is the quintessential Cuban beach resort, with warm, shallow waters in graduated shades of blue, palm-fringed sand dunes and a phenomenal array of local restaurants and all-inclusive accommodations. Geared toward beach holidays, the peninsula unfurls for 12 stunning miles, meaning there's room on the beach for, well, everyone. Considered among the best beach hubs in the Caribbean, Varadero is one of those places that lingers in your memory long after your vacation is over.
Best beach for shallow waters and powdery sands
Often referred to as Cuba’s most beautiful beach, Playa Pilar has all the trappings of paradise: powdery sand, warm crystal waters and more serenity than the beaches at its rowdier neighbor Cayo Coco. Pilar was a favorite hideaway for American writer Ernest Hemingway, and rumor has it he searched for WWII German U-boats in the area. That may be just one of the many tall tales told about Papa, but Pilar is definitely a beach where time seems to stop. As well as catching some sun, you can pass the time snorkeling, windsurfing, swimming or sailing to the nearby islet.
Best beach for a romantic escape
Yes, the road to Cayo Jutías is full of potholes, and your GPS might tell you it's an hour-long trip from Viñales when the journey actually takes two hours, but it's worth it. The beach is as stunning as you can imagine: aquamarine waves gently lapping at the shoreline, sun-soaked sands flanked by coconut trees and enough space to feel like you're on your own private island. Head to the western tip of the cay where giant starfish can be spotted in the crystal clear shallows. A few simple huts offer snacks and drinks.
Best beach for sunbathing in a secluded paradise
The impossibly white sand, the gemstone-blue belt of water around this narrow ribbon of land – Cayo Largo del Sur is called "Paradise Island” for a reason. Floating off the southern shore of Cuba's main island in the Jardines del Rey archipelago, this low-lying cay offers a heaven-on-earth feeling few places in the Caribbean can match.
The best beach here is Playa Paraíso, southeast of Playa Sirena and separated from Isla de la Juventud by 100km (62 miles) of sea. It's a secluded spot, with shallow shores protected from rough waves by an offshore coral reef. Hotels are not luxurious here, but the beach itself is breathtaking, and huts on the sand rent out equipment for kayaking and catamaran trips.
Best beach for day-tripping from Trinidad city
It might not have the bright turquoise tone of Cuba’s northern beaches, but Playa Ancón is one of the island’s most beautiful sand-and-sea escapes and definitely the best beach on the southern coastline. Boasting a dazzling arch of sand with palm trees and calm, clear waters, Ancón also has more than 20 diving close offshore – Cayo Blanco International Dive Center at the Hotel Club Amigo Ancón can arrange trips. It’s a popular beach stop while visiting the colonial village of Trinidad or French-inspired Cienfuegos.
Playa Larga and Playa Girón
Best beaches for quiet escapes and scuba diving
Facing the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), site of the infamous invasion attempt by US-backed Cuban exiles in 1961, Playa Larga is close to the wildlife-rich Ciénaga de Zapata swamplands. If you fancy swapping the beach resorts for a tucked-away, tranquil fishing village on a sandy shore, Playa Larga offers casas particulares (private homestays) right by the beach – just remember to bring mosquito repellent.
Head 40 minutes south along the bay and you can indulge all your snorkeling and diving whims on Playa Girón’s 300m (984ft) coral wall and nearby wrecks and cenotes (sinkholes). Arrange multiple dives on a full-day guided trip, snorkel at Punta Perdiz just a short drive north along the bay, or stopover at a local casa particular and enjoy the ocean views from a wooden rocking chair until the sun sets.
Best beach for snorkeling
One of Cuba’s most contrasting landscapes, the northern coast at Holguín has aquamarine shallows stretching as far as the eye can see and verdant hills lining the sandy shoreline. Guardalavaca is the name given to the strip of beaches comprising Playa Esmeralda, Playa Yuraguanal and Playa Pesquero – they’re all sublime. A handful of all-inclusive hotels dot the area, but beaches are public and popular among locals from May to September. Colorful coral reefs begin just 200m from the beach, so it's ideal for snorkeling, with great dive sites accessible by boat.
Playas de Este
Best beach escape near Havana
After exploring Havana's evocative colonial quarters, spending a day (or at least half of it) on the beach is the perfect way to rest both the bones and the senses. The multiple strands at Playas del Este are the closest beaches to Cuba’s capital – a 30-minute taxi ride leads to half a dozen delightful palm-fringed strips of sand. A number of beachfront mini-malls and private restaurants offer snacks and refreshments before you head back to Havana.