All-inclusive resorts have commandeered most of the brochure-worthy beaches along Cuba’s north coast, but a handful of sandy spots around Havana retain a tangible local flavor.
One of the most notable is the elongated coastal strip east of Havana known as Playas del Este where an assortment of cheap two- and three-star hotels overlook low dunes, clusters of palm trees and a necklace of wide white-sand beaches.
Here are the best beaches in Havana.
Best beach for snorkeling
The beaches of Playas del Este start inauspiciously at Bacuranao, 18km (11 miles) east of Havana’s city center, a sheltered scimitar of sand separated from its eastern neighbors by the Tarará River and feeling a little isolated as a result. For snorkelers, this is the best spot along the east coast to dip beneath the waves. A couple of hundred meters offshore lies a coral reef and the wreck of an American cargo ship, the SS Olivette, that sank in 1918 en route from Key West, Florida, to Havana. You can swim safely in the protected bay.
The beach is flanked on one side by a military academy and on the other by the two-star Villa Bacuranao, and the weekend’s crowds are 99% Cuban. The fine but invariably grubby sand has been colloquially christened “Playa Basuranao” by locals, referencing the Spanish word for garbage (basura). For seekers of piña coladas and sun loungers, keep heading east to Playa Santa María del Mar.
Best beach for kitesurfing
Havana’s longest strip of beaches, an almost unbroken blond ribbon that stretches for 6km (3.7 miles), begins at Tarará, home to the Cuban capital’s second largest marina and a favored spot for kitesurfers, courtesy of its stiff offshore winds. Inquire with operator Havana Kiteboarding Club, based in Cayo Guillermo, about lessons and board rental. If you have your own board (or can procure one), you can launch right off the main beach.
Tarará was part of a planned resort town conceived and built in the 1940s that has gone through various incarnations in the years since. Che Guevara once came here to recover from an acute asthma attack, and in the 1980s, victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster convalesced at the site. These days, the art deco-style bungalows and empty streets retain a lost, semi-abandoned air.
Tarará has two beaches, a sheltered arc on a spit at the mouth of a river and a windier strip on an eastern headland. You’ll see palapas (thatch umbrellas) and palm trees but few other facilities, save for the marina and a sporadically open kitesurfing school.
With a separate entry road to the rest of Playas del Este, both beaches are usually fairly quiet and frequented mainly by Cubans and independent kitesurfers.
The marina organizes all number of water activities, including fishing trips, scuba diving and catamaran cruises with clients normally being bused in directly from central Havana.
Playa Santa María del Mar
Best beach for water activities
Most foreign day-trippers who come to Playas del Este head directly to Santa María del Mar, which sits conveniently at the end of the bus line (T3 from Parque Central). The beach fronts a trio of unremarkable hotels – Villa Los Pinos, Marazul and the Atlántico – and is the best place in the area to procure water toys to drag into the generally calm seas. Several punto nauticas (watersport points) rent out pedal boats, banana boats, kayaks, snorkel gear and four-person catamarans. You can paddle along the shore and into the shallow Laguna Itabo to a lakeside bar. Sun loungers are available on the beach for a small cost, and itinerant “salespeople” do the rounds plugging everything from Che Guevara coins to coconuts.
The playa gets busy – and noisy (you’d better like reggaeton) – on weekends. This being a largely Cuban enclave, you’re just as likely to see people dancing as sunbathing. The food, cooked up in several palapa-style restaurants, is mostly meh, but the cocktails are powerful and the outdoor atmosphere suitably gregarious, especially on the beach’s main hotspot in front of the Hotel Atlántico.
Playa Boca Ciega
Best beach for LGBTQI+ visitors
Heading east from Santa María del Mar, you’ll wander (without realizing it) onto Playa Boca Ciega, long considered Havana's unofficial gay beach, although it’s popular with people of all persuasions, including families and tourists from the nearby Bravo Arenal hotel. Boca Ciega is backed by a small mangrove-fringed lagoon and cut in two by the mouth of the narrow Río Itabo. A road bridge, damaged in a storm several years ago, has yet to be repaired, so be prepared to wade across. Guarded by dunes and with fewer services than Santa María del Mar, the beach is quieter and cleaner than its neighbors.
Best beach for local life
At the eastern extremity of Playas del Este lies Guanabo, a small Cuban beach town within Havana's city limits, which, despite its slightly ramshackle appearance, retains a relaxed vibe and a smattering of decent casas particulares (homestays). If you’re traveling on a budget and aren’t over-enamored with the area’s mediocre hotels, Guanabo is a reasonable place to stay.
The beach is stonier and less manicured than those farther west, but it has plenty of white sand and an ebullient local mood on the weekends. Most of the town’s businesses line one main street, Avenida 5ta, but this isn’t Coney Island. Low-rise buildings are made of wood and concrete, entertainment is mostly home-made, and the favored method of transportation is horse and cart.
Best beach for sporting activities
Ironically, the municipality of Playa (which means beach), 15km (9 miles) west of Havana’s city center, has no proper beaches, save for the small but fastidiously raked scoop of sand at Club Habana. This multifarious establishment, housed in an eclectic 1928 mansion in the sub-district of Flores, occupies the premises of the erstwhile Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, a snooty place that once denied entry to the then-president of Cuba Fulgencio Batista on the pretext he was part Black.
These days the place is a little less aloof and a popular hangout for diplomats, Cuban VIPs and the odd nostalgia-craving tourist. The club maintains a clean, sheltered private beach studded with palm trees, palapas and a neat line of sun loungers. Meanwhile, the interior of the building, with its smoking room and restaurant, retains the slightly stuffy atmosphere of an old gentlemen’s club. Outdoor areas play to a sporty theme: you’ll find beach volleyball, a 25m (82ft) lap pool, tennis courts and a health club. Not surprisingly, there’s no free sun lounging here – a day pass will set you back the equivalent of US$30.
The rest of Playa’s long coastline is mostly rocky, made up of sharp, inaccessible diente de perro (dog’s teeth).
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