Christened “The King’s Garden” by Diego Velázquez in 1514 in honour of King Ferdinand of Spain, the northern cays, lying 30km off Ciego de Ávila’s coast and hemmed in by 400km of coral reef, are indisputably the dazzling jewels in the province’s crown: a rich tangle of mangroves, mahogany trees and lagoons iced by sugar sands and thick with pink flamingos, and a top diving location with an infrastructure to match.
Despite their auspicious naming in the sixteenth century, the numerous islets spanning the coastline from Ciego de Ávila to Camagüey remained uninhabited and relatively unexplored until as recently as the late 1980s. Until then, they had only been visited by colonial-era pirates and corsairs seeking a bolthole to stash their spoils; Ernest Hemingway, who sailed around them in the 1930s and 1940s; and former dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had a secret hideaway on tiny Cayo Media Luna, a mere pinprick on the map and now a favourite haunt for sunbathers and snorkellers.
The exclusivity of the northern cays was breached in 1988 by the construction of a 29km stone causeway (or pedraplén) across the Bahía de los Perros, connecting the Isla de Turiguanó peninsula to Cayo Coco. The delighted state began to create a tourist haven destined to be as sumptuous as Varadero, and so far two of the islands – Cayo Coco and smaller Cayo Guillermo – have been primed for luxury tourism, with a string of all-inclusive hotels planted along their northern shores. The causeway has had a negative environmental impact on the cays, however, disrupting the natural flow of water and impoverishing conditions for local wildlife. The two cays are themselves connected by another causeway, with an offshoot running east to the breakaway Cayo Paredón Grande, uninhabited but providing another beach option should you exhaust those on the main islets.