Conjure up an image of the perfect Caribbean beach and you’ll find Cuba‘s generous shoreline fits the description perfectly: stretches of powdery, bone-white sand – often freckled with shady palm trees – and limpid, turquoise waters. And with so much coastline there are beaches to suit all needs: great swathes of golden sand groomed by resorts promise days on end of utter luxury, offshore islands act as jumping off points for exploring a wealth of coral reefs, while hidden down jungle-choked dirt tracks are sandy slices of undiscovered paradise.
Playa Los Flamencos
With 22km of creamy-white sands and cerulean waters, Cayo Coco effortlessly draws holidaymakers to its shores. The best beaches are clustered on the north coast, dominated by the all-inclusive hotels whose tendrils are gradually spreading along the rest of the northern coastline. Cayo Coco’s big three beaches, home to the all-inclusives and packed with boisterous activities, hog the narrow easternmost peninsula jutting out of the cay’s north coast. For a pocket of tranquillity, escape the main beaches and head to Playa Los Flamencos. The beach offers 3km of fine sands and transparent waters where tangerine-coloured starfish float through the shallows. There’s also good snorkelling out to sea.
A more serene retreat than it’s rowdier neighbour Cayo Coco, tiny Cayo Guillermo boasts 4km of stunning near-deserted beaches. With such an abundance of largely untouched sand, there’s no shortage of options for a bit of solitude but one beach that shouldn’t be missed is gorgeous Playa Pilar. On the western tip of Cayo Guillermo, Playa Pilar is named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, Pilar, and was the author’s favourite hideaway in Cuba. With limpid clear shallows and squeaky-clean beaches, it is without doubt the top beach choice on Guillermo, if not in the entire cays.
Playa Perla Blanca
The northern cays, a network of small islets, interspersed by turquoise waters and mangrove colonies, form one of Cuba’s newest tourist resorts. The cays are linked to the mainland by an impressive 48km causeway making the trip here all part of the adventure. At the far end of the chain lies Cayo Santa María, home to Playa Perla Blanca, one of the most splendid beaches in the area. It’s charm lies in its remote, untouched feel: it’s accessible, yet it has no facilities and is a bit of a trek to get to. But the journey, a total of 52km from the mainland, is worth it: the sand is as fine as it gets in Cuba.
Varadero is undoubtedly the package holiday resort in Cuba and the glut of all-inclusive hotels, restaurants, and tour operators are all here for one reason: the beach – Cuba’s longest and one of the best in the Caribbean. It may be popular but thanks to its sheer size there’s enough space for everyone to indulge in a few days stress-free sloth. Stretching almost the entire length of a 25km peninsula that shoots out from the mainland, Varadero fits the classic Caribbean image: downy sand that forms a runway between palm trees along one edge and unruffled, sparkling waters along the other.
Playa Los Pinos
Astoundingly beautiful and yet still deserted, Cayo Sabinal is so paradisiacal it’s almost eerie. It’s remained untouched thanks to it’s geographical isolation: to get here you have to drive 7km down a very bumpy dirt track, some of which is a causeway, a journey that no public transport and very few cars bother to make. A number of beaches await you at the north side of the 30km-long coral key – the longest of which is Playa Los Pinos, a blindingly white beach that’s perfect for a few days of complete tranquillity. Here sugary sands stretch out to meet the transparent waters, while wild horses and deer roam through the woodland that borders the sand giving the beach an almost magical feel.
Playa Ancón is often touted as the best beach on Cuba’s south coast and it’s easy to see why: it’s one of the longest in the area and boasts a dazzling sweep of sand that arcs around glittering turquoise waters. The beach may have put the area on the tourist map, but it has managed to keep a natural feel, with trees and shrubs creeping down to the shoreline. It’s a good jumping off point for snorkelling and diving in the reefs around the shoreline, plus Trinidad, Cuba’s colonial gem is just a stone’s throw away.
Simply translated as “turquoise beach”, it comes as no surprise to find that Playa Turquesa is one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. Filled with golden sand and bordered by mangrove forest at its eastern boundary, the shallow bay has a small coral reef a short swim offshore, while a strip of dense forest between the hotel Riu Playa Turquesa and the beach makes it feel perfectly undiscovered.
Some 5km west from Guardalavaca, picture-perfect Playa Esmeralda (also known as Estero Ciego) boasts clear blue water, powdery sand speckled with thatched sunshades and two luxury hotels hidden from view by thoughtfully planted bushes and shrubs. If you want unashamed hassle-free luxury, where the intrusion of local culture is kept to a bare minimum, this is the place for you.
The resort of Guardalavaca is popular for good reason: a succession of gorgeous beaches sweeping around sheltered reefs, backed by a surrounding landscape of gentle hills and fields of sugar cane. One of the best beaches in the area is delightful Playa Guardalava, a 15000m stretch of dazzlingly white sand that draws both Cubans and tourists alike. Running along the centre of the beach, a strip of palm and tamarind trees provides a cool walkway and dapples the sand with shade, while a number of stands are on hand to rent out snorkelling equipment.
On Isla de la Juventud’s most remote upturned hook of land, lies Punta Francés, where you’ll find the island’s top beach, Playa Francés. There is over 3km of beach in all, split by a sandy headland into two broad curves of soft, silver shore ringed on one side by the lush green of a woody, palm-specked thicket and on the other by the glassy Caribbean Sea. The deserted tranquillity of this private world is all part of what makes it exceptional, though this is sometimes destroyed by hordes of cruise-ship visitors. Equally attractive are the nearby reefs; the beach lies within the island’s ecologically protected area, which is renowned for it’s superb diving.
The tiny islet of Cayo Largo, a narrow ribbon of land flanked by pale downy sands, is separated from Isla de la Juventud by 100km of sea. With no permanent population, it’s entirely geared to holiday-makers who are drawn here for the irresistible beaches and various watersports. Protected from harsh winds and rough waves by the offshore coral reef, and with over 2km of stunning white sands, Playa Sirena, at the western tip of the cay, enjoys a deserved reputation as the most beautiful of all the beaches on Cayo Largo (if not in all of Cuba).