Just a short drive from Cuba’s bustling capital lie white sands, palm trees and beautiful coral reefs. The beaches east of Cojímar town, famed for its Hemingway connection, are collectively known as the Playas del Este. Hugging the Atlantic coast, three swathes of fine sand form a long golden stretch that vanishes in the summer beneath the crush of weekending Habaneros and tourists.
There’s not a whole lot to distinguish between the beaches, although as a general rule the sand is better towards the western end of the stretch. All beaches offer watersports, a party atmosphere for those who want it, or simply the chance to relax and enjoy a rum cocktail in the Cuban sunshine. Here is our guide to the best beaches near Havana.
A short hop from downtown Havana, the white sands of Playa Bacuranao stretch around a peaceful cove, with colourful reefs just offshore and an 18th-century Spanish galleon buried beneath the waves calling out to be explored by Scuba divers. It is also popular with kite-surfers. The Villa Bacuranao resort at the far end of the beach offers somewhat basic accommodation, but is not without its charms.
Because of its proximity to Havana, Playa Santa María del Mar, usually just called Santa María, is the busiest and trendiest of the eastern beaches, with boombox reggaeton, watersports and beautiful bodies on sun loungers. It extends for about 4km from the foot of Santa María Loma, a hill to the south of the Río Itabo, with the bulk of hotels dotted around the main Avenida de las Terrazas, just behind the beach. Arguably the most attractive of the beaches, with golden sands backed by grassland and a few palm trees, it’s also the most touristy and can feel a bit artificial. The beach has plenty of sun loungers and is patrolled by eager beach masseurs, and there are various activities on offer – though sadly you’ll see more empty beer cans than fish if you go snorkelling.
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A bridge across the Río Itabo connects Santa María to Playa Boca Ciega, also known as Playa Mi Cayito. A paucity of public facilities make this the least user-friendly of all the beaches. However, the beautiful sherbet-yellow beach is open to all, and the waters around the estuary mouth are usually quite busy and cheerful, with kids and adults paddling and wading in the river currents. Further west, towards Santa María, the beach is popular with the gay community.
Far more pleasant than Playa Boca Ciega is laidback Playa Guanabo, roughly 2.5km to the east, where the sun-faded wooden houses and jaunty seaside atmosphere go a long way to compensate for the slightly poor brownish-sand beach. With fewer crowds and no big hotels, it feels much more authentic than Santa María, especially towards the east end of town where tourism has hardly penetrated at all. While not idyllic, it still has its charms: palm trees offer welcome shade, and if you’re not bothered about the odd bit of seaweed, this is a refreshingly unaffected spot to hang out.
Avenida 5ta, the appealing main street, has a clutch of cafés and shops, including a convertible-peso shopping precinct selling sweets, toys and sportswear, while around the side streets and near the beach are a couple of excellent paladars (privately run restaurants located in the owner’s homes).