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Lonely Planet Writer

Ditch the crowds: Cuba’s top five alternative beach stays

Beautiful beaches are as iconic as cocktails in the Caribbean, but in Cuba only a handful of coastal destinations are well known. If crowded resort-lounging in Varadero isn’t your thing, there are plenty of equally stunning, secluded sandy strands for independent travelers. Often, these lesser-known beaches will reveal a dose of the real Cuba. Occasionally just lazing on the beach might give a glimpse of the island's interesting past, too. Here's our pick of the gems just waiting to be discovered.

Cayo Guillermo, Ciego de Ávila Province

A favored fishing spot of Hemingway’s, this sand-rimmed key seduces visitors today with beaches pretty enough to grace the front pages of tourist brochures. The most outstanding strand, Playa Pilar, has powder-puff white sand bolstered by extensive dunes and is a short bus ride from the Guillermo hotel strip.

Where to stay and eat: Iberostar Daiquiri is the best hotel; chow down on fresh fish at gorgeously positioned Ranchón Playa Pilar, which will be nigh-on your number one lunch out in Cuba.

What to do: Most people are here for swimming and sun-bathing, but other activities abound: flamingo-watching in the mangroves, fishing trips to make you feel like a latter-day Hemingway (it was a favorite sport of his) and, at Playa Pilar, a variety of local boat trips. Cayo Guillermo is also one of only a few locations in Cuba where visitors can partake in the recent craze for kite-surfing.

Tourist brochure? No, just Hemingway's favourite fishing spot, Cayo Guillermo. Image by Eric Bas / CC BY 2.0
Tourist brochure? No, just Hemingway's favorite fishing spot, Cayo Guillermo. Image by Eric Bas / CC BY 2.0

Bahía de Cochinos, Matanzas Province

It’s tough to resist a beach vacation in the location that was the epicenter of some of the most infamous episodes of the Cold War: the Bay of Pigs, as it is known in English. These days the area is better known for some of Cuba’s best diving, which focuses on a 300-meter coral wall so close to shore that you can swim out to it. The best sand is Playa Larga – a thin, shimmering stretch near the village of Caletón.

Where to stay and eat: Bed down in one of the memorable casas particulares (private rooms) in Playa Larga for an insight into Cuban life. From the rear of balmy beachfront getaway El Caribeño you can virtually vault into the sea.  On the same road, Hostal Enrique serves some of the area’s best food on a roof terrace with beach views.

What to do: Diving is the most renowned recreation: get equipped at Hotel Playa Girón’s International Scuba Center. Visit the Museo de Playa Girón to learn more about the Bay of Pigs’ history, and then jump on a tour to Ciénaga de Zapata, a swamp home to the island’s premier bird-watching sites.

Forget the historical controversy: Cuba's Bay of Pigs is now a legendary dive spot. Image by Holger Leue / Lonely Planet Images
Forget the historical controversy: Cuba's Bay of Pigs is now a legendary dive spot. Image by Holger Leue / Lonely Planet Images

Península de Guanahacabibes, Pinar del Río Province

The isolated western tip of Cuba is the antithesis of Varadero: 60km of green nothingness cocooned by beaches that dazzle those intrepid enough to find a way out here. The pale sweep of sand at María La Gorda, in fact, almost gets overlooked entirely by its handful of visiting tourists, who mostly come to sample the incredible diving just offshore. Some sporadic sharp rock between sand and surf might deter some from swimming, but the beach itself is pristine.

Where to stay and eat: Hotel María La Gorda backs the beach and is the only place to stay for miles around. Both the hotel’s beach bar (during the day) and its beach-facing restaurant (during the evening) are vista-rich places for refreshments.

What to do: From Hotel María La Gorda’s Diving Center you can explore 50-plus dive sites submerged around reefs off the coast. If you come between June and August, try turtle-watching on the peninsula’s southern beaches, where green turtles arrive to nest: it’s one of the world’s key turtle breeding sites.

Sweet Maria! 50-plus fabled dive sites and turtle-watching have pulling power at Maria La Gorda. Image by Wolfgang Poelzer / WaterFrame / Getty
Sweet Maria! 50-plus fabled dive sites and turtle-watching have pulling power at Maria La Gorda. Image by Wolfgang Poelzer / WaterFrame / Getty

Gibara, Holguín Province

This idyllic fishing town is an undeniable break from the tourist trail, populated by largely dilapidated colonial villas on a stretch of coast locals prefer to keep secret. The best beach here is Playa Caletones, a wild comma of sand 17km west of town.  The bumpy access road takes you past one of Cuba’s only wind farms and several fresh-water swimming holes.

Where to stay and eat: Wonderful Restaurante La Esperanza could qualify as Cuba’s most scenic beach bar, with an upstairs terrace serving huge plates of whatever the fishermen have caught that day. If you want to stay here, the owners can offer one of their simple rooms.

What to do: Chilling and swimming is the order of the day in this off-the-beaten-track destination, not just in the sea, but also in the several freshwater swimming holes. Enquire at Restaurante La Esperanza to find out about some of Cuba’s most interesting cave diving just beyond the beach.

Fishing boats and dilapidated colonial villas are the only things populating off-the-beaten-track Gibara. Image by Richard Weil / CC BY-SA 2.0
Fishing boats and dilapidated colonial villas are the only things populating off-the-beaten-track Gibara. Image by Richard Weil / CC BY-SA 2.0

Playa Ancón, Sancti Spíritus Province

Sancti Spíritus Province is best known for the colonial jewel of Trinidad, but only 12km southwest of town, a shimmering ribbon of sand tempts plenty away from the Unesco-listed city. Playa Ancón is good for swimming, although sunbathing too long might catch the attention of the local sand fleas who are particularly voracious at sunrise and sunset.

Where to stay and eat: Brisas Trinidad del Mar offers a prime beach location directly by Playa Ancón. A worthwhile 2km jaunt north of the beach, Grill Caribe specializes in seafood. For something more local and low-key, head to the seaside village of La Boca, a few clicks up the coast from Ancón, where you’ll find about a dozen lovely casas particulares.

What to do: Playa Ancón has a marina where you can organize local fishing trips and sailing trips to the way-off-shore archipelago paradise of the Jardines de la Reina.

Playa Ancón: just a stone's throw from the glittering Unesco town of Trinidad. Image by sputnik / CC BY 2.0
Playa Ancón: just a stone's throw from the glittering Unesco town of Trinidad. Image by sputnik / CC BY 2.0

Not satisfied? Other beach paradises

  1. For one of Cuba’s most upmarket beach experiences, head to Hotel Playa Pesquero with a birds-eye view over idyllic Playa Pesquero beach, in Holguín Province.
  2. At Hotel Cayo Levisa, on the beguiling key of the same name in Pinar del Río Province, you can unwind on a dinky beach-flanked island. Once the afternoon boat of day-trippers has departed, it becomes the exclusive paradise of hotel guests.

This article was refreshed in July 2017.