Cuba's best beaches are mostly on offshore islands well away from Cuban culture apart from Varadero (2 hours from Havana), Guardalavaca (3 hours from Santiago de Cuba) and Playa Ancon (near Trinidad).
Varadero is a no-town, no culture, no excitement, no interest. But its coast is packed with a range of all-inclusive resorts - such as the one below - that cater to any beach-lover's whim except culture and culture can be found in Havana just two hours drive away to the east.
Varadero's beaches are broad, 20 kms (12.5 miles) long and pleasantly carpeted in medium-grain light-brown sand. They cannot compete with Cuba's keys such as Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo (photo below) and Cayo Largo for superb fine, white sand beaches and unspoiled hinterland but the keys are not easy to get to, either requiring a long drive or a domestic flight of an hour or so.
A typical 3-star all-inclusive Varadero resort, Hotel Kawama.
Package deals of a week's holiday are usually split into 3 days in Havana and 4 in Varadero, or vice-versa, as any longer in Varadero and you'd go mad with boredom. Havana is 85 miles (140 kms) away.
Guardalavaca in far northeast Cuba's Holguin province encompasses plenty of massive and sophisticated beach resorts, excellent fine white sand up to a kilometre long on the main beach and an enjoyable promenade dotted with palms and flowers. A minitrain connects the main beach with dazzling Esmerelda beach.
Varied water sports are available including swimming with dolphins, coral diving, snorkeling and catamaran cruises, but the area is distinctly lacking in authentic local culture and a long way from city culture. December to April is the best weather and peak season and most tourists fly in to Holguin airport
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's second best city and is 3 hours drive from Guardalavaca so it's a long day trip or better to stay overnight. Not dissimilar to Havana, Santiago is a vibrant and music-loving port awash with old cars and older buildings including an impressive fort.
Cayo Largo del Sur beach, photo by Vgenecr.
Cayo Largo del Sur is a 25km island off the southeast coast of Cuba that hosts two incredible, broad, fine white sand beaches, Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena. The beaches are a kilometre apart but you can only walk from one to the other at low tide. Paraiso is more of a nudist beach while Sirena offers the usual tourist facilities but is still mostly unspoiled. A shuttle train transports people to the beaches from resorts. Basically this is a beach experience island unrelated to Cuban cultural life.
Cayo Ensenachos in Cayeria del Norte embraces two spectacular beaches, Playa Ensenachos and Playa Megano, with crystal clear waters and a very gentle drop but they're private and day entry is expensive unless you stay at the first class hotel Occidental Royal Hideaway Ensenachos.
Cayo Guillermo beach.
Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are both accessible by driving from the north-central Cuban mainland on a 27km causeway. The islands are still fairly wild in spite of the construction of an airport and a dozen international all-inclusive resorts. Beaches are beautiful, reasonably unspoiled and offer a wide range of water sports including superb coral snorkelling and diving off the north coast.
Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, the CIA's least favourite beach resort.
Beach-goers head for the Bay of Pigs. Next, Viñales Pictures.