Spanning the trunk of the island some 450km east of Havana, the low-lying provinces of Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey form the agricultural heart of Cuba. The westernmost of the two, sleepy Ciego de Ávila is sparsely populated, and with only two medium-sized towns, Ciego de Ávila city and Morón. Most independent visitors base themselves in Morón, conveniently located for trips to the province’s star attraction, the Jardines del Rey, a line of cays off the north coast with flamboyant birdlife, the country’s most dazzling beaches and one of the Caribbean’s biggest barrier reefs, with superb offshore diving. As well as offering accommodation at a fraction of the price of the cays’ all-inclusive hotels, Morón also takes you within close proximity of two alluring lakes, Laguna de la Leche and Laguna la Redonda, both well set up for fishing, boat trips and lakeside dining.
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Livelier than its neighbour, Camagüey is the country’s largest province, largely made up of low-lying farmland dappled with a rural villages. Its main draws are the northern beaches and the provincial capital of Camagüey city, one of the original seven villas founded by Diego Velázquez in 1515. Nurtured by sugar wealth that dates to the late sixteenth century, Camagüey has grown into a large and stalwart city with many of the architectural hallmarks of a Spanish colonial town, and is deservedly beginning to compete as a tourist centre. While the government pushes the plush northern beach resort of Santa Lucía as the province’s chief attraction, its least spoilt beach is just west of the resort at Cayo Sabinal.
Diving at the Jardines de la Reina
The only reason for heading south of the provincial capital, Ciego de Ávila, is for the outstanding diving and fishing at the Archipiélago de los Jardines de la Reina, a cluster of over six hundred tiny virgin cays some 80km from the mainland. The jumping-off point for trips to the cays is the barren fishing village of Júcaro, 32km south of Ciego de Ávila. It’s a miserable collection of wooden shacks and half-finished cement constructions set around the derelict-looking Parque Martí and a malodorous fishing port. Don’t let this deter you, however, as the real beauty round these parts is hidden underwater.
The diving here considered by many to be among the best in the world. More than eighty dive sites around the archipelago boast caves, canyons, and wall, spur and groove coral formations. The real draw, though, is the phenomenal abundance of fish, including many large species. Spectacular feeding shows are staged by Avalon staff, who attract scores of sharks with scraps of fish. Also abundant are monster-sized goliath groupers, barracudas, cubera snappers and tarpons; with luck, you may see eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, lemon sharks, nurse sharks and turtles.
Camagüey’s north coast
Cut off from the mainland by the Bahía de Nuevitas, 10km north of Nuevitas town, are Camagüey’s north-coast beaches. The remote resorts of Santa Lucía, and Cayo Sabinal to the west, make perfect retreats for those seeking sun and sea holidays. While Santa Lucía derives an infrastructure of sorts from the knot of all-inclusive hotels arrayed along the beachfront, Cayo Sabinal is castaway country – with only the most basic accommodation, it virtually guarantees solitude. Those wishing to explore completely virgin territory should head for Cayo Romano in the far western reaches of the province.
Cayo Sabinal and around
Twenty-five kilometres west along the north coast from Santa Lucía, Cayo Sabinal could not be more different – a deserted white-sand beach cay that’s so paradisiacal it’s almost eerie. The reason it’s yet to be discovered by the masses is its geographical isolation, hidden away at the end of a 7km stretch of notoriously bumpy dirt-track road, part of which forms a causeway across the bay, flanked by foaming salt marshes; there’s no public transport, and very little general traffic makes it this far.
All the beaches are on the north side, accessible by signposted turnings off the single main road, itself bordered by thick vegetation. The longest beach is pearl-white Playa Los Pinos, where the sea is a clear, calm turquoise and wild deer and horses roam through the woodland that backs onto the sand. Occasionally a group of holidaymakers arrives by boat from Santa Lucía, but otherwise it’s a top choice for a couple of days’ total tranquillity. Just 2km further west, smaller Playa Brava has similar soft white sands. Playa Bonita, another 3km west, has a lengthy stretch of coral reef perfect for snorkelling, as well as 3km of pure white sand.
Hemmed in by salt flats on the northern coast, 128km from Camagüey, SANTA LUCÍA is one of Cuba’s smaller beach resorts. Much more low-key than the packed resorts on the Jardines del Rey, it’s perfect if you want to park yourself on the sand for a fortnight, soak up some rays and indulge in a few watersports, but those looking for a more well-rounded destination may find it lacking. The road up here from Camagüey passes through the idyllic pastoral countryside that typifies this region, with lush grazing meadows, cowboys herding their cattle and meandering goats impeding the traffic, the air thick with clouds of multicoloured butterflies. Less appealing are the swarms of mosquitoes that descend at sunset. Now that laws have been relaxed and Cubans are easily able to stay in the hotels (if they have the funds), the resort has a less contrived feel. The downside is that there has been an influx of escorts staying in the hotels and jineteros on the beach.
The resort, such as it is, consists of little more than the beaches. Set well back from the coastal road and lined by a few hotels, these wide expanses of soft, fine sand are bordered by turquoise waters, a little sullied by seaweed drifting in from the barrier reef, and surrounded by inaccessible mangroves. The town, which you pass en route to the hotel strip, has nothing to offer tourists, and you will quickly get the impression that you’re out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to see or do away from the sun and sea.
Lying 36km north of Ciego de Ávila on the road to the cays, picturesque MORÓN is surrounded by flat farming countryside replete with glistening palm trees, banks of sugar cane and citrus trees. Fanning out from a cosy downtown nucleus, its few gaily painted colonial buildings and proximity to the Jardines del Rey ensure its popularity with day-trippers from the cays, and it’s certainly the best place to stay if you want to visit the cays but can’t afford a luxury hotel. More than 24 hours in the town itself would be stretching its sights and entertainment options very thin, but even without making trips to the cays you could comfortably fill two to three days with trips into the surrounding countryside .
The area surrounding Morón offers a welcome contrast to the unrelentingly flat land to the south, and holds a few surprises well worth venturing beyond the town limits to explore. Five kilometres north of town, the large Laguna de la Leche is fringed by reeds and woodland that hide the Aguachales de Falla game reserve, while 10km northeast the tranquil Laguna la Redonda is an idyllic spot for drifting about in a boat. Just north of the lakes is the Isla de Turiguanó pensinsula, home to the mock-Dutch village Poblado Holandés, its faux-timbered, red-roofed houses looking completely out of place beneath tropical palms. Towards the east, rising from the plains like the shell of a tortoise, is the gently rounded Loma de Cunagua, its dense tangle of woodland full of bright parakeets and parrots, and a favourite spot for day-trekkers and birdwatchers. West from Morón, in an area straddled by the tiny villages of Chambas and Florencia, is the Boquerón nature reserve, where you can go horseriding or river-swimming and explore caves.
Boquerón nature reserve
Veiled behind the folds of the Jatibonico sierra – the rugged tail of the Sierra de Meneses chain, which steals into the province from Sancti Spíritus to the west – the picturesque Boquerón nature reserve nestles a few kilometres west of the undulating farming country around the tiny towns of Florencia and Chambas, the nearest public transport links. Both sit some 40km west of Morón in landscape pocketed with dazzling green-gold sugar cane fields and tobacco meadows.
Florencia’s name – given for its resemblance to the Italian town – is an indication of its arcadian beauty but it’s Boquerón, 5km west of Florencia, that is the best place to focus a day-trip on this side of the province. Framed by a halo of royal palms, the Campismo Boquerón is the entry and focal point for visits, occupying a hidden paradise of banana groves, fruit trees and flitting hummingbirds. Overnight stays here are now officially reserved for Cubans only (though foreigners sometimes slip in), but anyone can explore this beautiful spot for free. The nearby Jatibonico River twists through the hills and makes an excellent spot for shady swimming, while the explorable caves hollowing into the hillsides are full of stalactites, stalagmites and aboriginal pictographs.
Horseriding around Boquerón
The glorious countryside around Boquerón can be explored on guided horserides through the coconut groves and banana fields, run by Cubatur in Morón. You can also ride to the shores of the Liberacíon de Florencia lake, to the east of Florencia. Keep a lookout for the majestic ceiba tree near the lake – identifiable by its gigantic size and webbed roots overlaying the tree base, it’s accorded magical powers by followers of the Afro-Cuban Santería religion.
Laguna La Redonda
Some 12km north of Morón, the Laguna La Redonda ("Circle Lake") is the smaller of the region’s two lakes, measuring 3km at its widest point, and has five mangrove canals that radiate out from the central body of water like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. All visits are funnelled through the Complejo Turístico La Redonda, a small complex with a restaurant, a souvenir shop and a little jetty. More intimate than Laguna de la Leche, but with better facilities for getting out on the lake – and so more popular with tour groups – it’s perfect for an idle afternoon’s boating or trout fishing. The delightful boat trips cross over to the far side of the lake and drift through the mangrove tunnels and canals.
Loma de Cunagua
The lone high ground in an area of unremittingly flat farmland that stretches all the way to the coast, the Loma de Cunagua is 364m high and can be seen for miles around. Just past the foot of the hill, about 1km along a dirt track from the Circuito Norte (the main road), is a gate where, before you are permitted to pass, you will need to pick up a guide from the lodge here and negotiate a price to be taken into this protected area and up to the top; there’s not much point in turning up after midday as there are rarely any guides around after that time. Note also that taxis are not allowed past the lodge, so you’ll have to walk from this point on unless you have your own car.
From the gate, a gravelly road weaves its way up through the dense tangle of spindly trees clinging precariously to the steep slopes. A favourite with birdwatchers, the hill’s forests, crisscrossed by a network of trails, are home to dazzlingly coloured parrots, as well as the tojosa (a small endemic dove), the zunzún (Cuban emerald hummingbird) and the tocororo, which was chosen as the country’s national bird because of its startling red, white and blue plumage, the same colour scheme as the Cuban flag. If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of an enormous Cuban tree rat, known locally as jutia. Take the dirt track up to the summit, which offers panoramic views over the surrounding countryside and out to sea, and a restaurant.
The cock of Morón
The first thing to strike you about clean, compact Morón is the shining bronze cockerel, perched at the foot of a clock tower on an oval green in front of the Hotel Morón, just inside the southern entrance to the town. In the sixteenth century, the townsfolk of Spanish Morón found themselves the victims of a corrupt judiciary that continually levied high taxes and confiscated their land without explanation. Having suffered these oppressive conditions for several years, the people set upon and expelled the main offender, an official nicknamed “the cock of Morón”. The incident was quickly immortalized in an Andalucían ballad that proclaimed that “the cock of the walk has been left plucked and crowing” (a saying still used throughout Cuba today to mean that somebody has had their plans scuppered). The current statue dates from 1981.
Jardines del Rey
Lying 30km off Ciego de Ávila’s north coast and hemmed in by 400km of coral reef, the Jardines del Rey ("The King’s Gardens") were christened by Diego Velázquez in 1514 in honour of King Ferdinand of Spain. The cays are the dazzling jewels in the province’s crown, with 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.
Diving and other activities in the Jardines del Rey
The Atlantic Ocean fringing Cayo Coco’s northeast coast holds one of the world’s longest coral reefs, with shoals of angel fish, butterfly fish, nurse sharks and surgeon fish weaving through forests of colourful sponges, and alarmingly large barracudas bucking below the water line. There are over forty dive sites spread over the length of the reef, averaging 10m in depth but reaching 35m in places. Several diving centres operate on the cays but, if you’re staying at a hotel, you can organize a dive, or a boat trip, through the hotel itself and most establishments give free induction classes to guests.
Cayo Guillermo has its own dive centre, as well as some of the cays’ best snorkelling off of Cayo Media Luna. It’s also one of the top two kitesurfing locations in Cuba (the other is in Varadero), with winds regularly reaching speeds of 20–40km/hr. The best conditions are at the northern end of Playa El Paso and on Playa El Medio, where the Sol Cayo Guillermo hotel has two kitesurfing clubs open to non-guests.
There are also many other activities, from fishing and boat trips to horseriding along the beaches and exploring the lush interior south of Cayo Coco’s hotel strip on foot. Though you can strike off on your own – ask at the hotels about hiring horses or arranging horse-drawn carriage tours – you can also book organized excursions.
Bordered by pearl-white sand melting into opal waters, sleepy CAYO GUILLERMO, west of Cayo Coco and joined to it by a 15km causeway, is a quieter, more serene retreat than its neighbour: a place to fish, dive and relax. The cays’ colony of twelve thousand flamingos (celebrated in all Cuban tourist literature) gather here to feed, and although they are wary of passing traffic, you can usually glimpse them swaying in the shallows and feeding on the sandbanks as you cross the causeway. As the presence of the birds testifies, the waters around Cayo Guillermo are home to an abundance of sea life including a wealth of fish, notably marlin, and the marina here offers a range of deep-sea fishing expeditions.
At only thirteen square kilometres the cay is tiny, but its 4km of deserted beaches seem infinite nonetheless. Development on Cayo Guillermo has been steadily growing, and although still considerably quieter than its rowdier neighbour, it’s no longer the peaceful haven it once was. However, all the hotels are fairly close together on Playa El Medio and Playa El Paso, while the rest of the cay’s stunning beaches remain largely untouched – with so much space, you’ll never have a problem finding solitude. It’s quite a trek from the mainland if you’re not staying overnight, but arriving early and spending a day lounging on the sands and exploring the beautiful offshore coral reef definitely merits the effort. Day-passes to enter any of the all-inclusive hotels (which cover all meals and drinks) will set you back $40–50CUC, though there are plenty of other places to access the beach if that’s all you want.
On the western tip of Cayo Guillermo, gorgeous Playa Pilar is named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, Pilar, and was the author’s favourite Cuban hideaway. With limpid clear shallows and squeaky-clean sand, Playa Pilar is without doubt the top beach choice on Guillermo, if not in the entire cays. Largely undeveloped but still quite popular, precisely because of its natural character, there is nevertheless a growing infrastructure here, including a new hotel, opened in early 2016, a beach bar and restaurant, and a watersports club.
Ernest Hemingway’s submarine hunt
The affection that Ernest Hemingway had for Cuba sprang from his love of fishing, and numerous photographs of him brandishing dripping marlin and swordfish testify to his success around the clear waters of the northern cays. He came to know the waters well and, when the United States entered World War II, Hemingway, already having seen action in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, was more than ready to do his bit.
With the full support of the US ambassador to Cuba, Spruille Braden, he began to spy on Nazi sympathizers living in Cuba. He gathered enough information to have his 12m fishing boat Pilar commissioned and equipped by the Chief of Naval Intelligence for Central America as a kind of Q-ship (an armed and disguised merchant ship used as a decoy or to destroy submarines). His search-and-destroy missions for Nazi submarines off the cays continued until 1944 and he was commended by the ambassador, although according to some critics – notably his wife Martha Gellhorn – the whole thing was mainly a ruse for Hemingway to obtain rationed petrol for his fishing trips.