For many years, there was as a divide between locals and tourists in Cuba. There were Cuban bars and there were tourist bars. There were Cuban pesos and tourist dollars (the convertible peso). When you went into a restaurant, you would be handed a tourist menu, different to the menu handed to Cubans. And similarly, there were private tourist beaches and public Cuban beaches. Ever since Raul Castro’s reforms of 2008, the law does not enforce these divisions – for example, Cubans were granted access to enjoy beach resorts and hotels – however, at times it feels a hangover from these days remains, albeit in the process of fading.
Access to many of Cuba’s beaches is prohibitively expensive. The most famous and arguably most stunning, often touted as the Caribbean’s best beach, is Playa Pilar, which is really only accessible if you’re staying in one of the all-inclusive resorts on Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Coco. While the white sand and clear turquoise waters have a undeniable daydream charm, it also feels somewhat devoid of the what makes a place distinctly Cuban: the people.
I’ve chosen the below beaches because they are all regularly used by local families, as well as tourists, and are affordably accessible to all.
Playa Maguana, Baracoa
This is a beautiful beach in its own right with golden white sand, lined with mangroves, and warm calm waters, protected by a coral reef. But, with a small village here as well, it also gives a lovely chance to mix with the welcoming community. Old men play dominoes in the mottled shade of the trees and kids play with the piglets, running wild. Located 22km from Baracoa, it’s a 45-minute journey either via collectivo (5 CUC) or in a taxi (25 CUC). The road is incredibly bumpy, but the scenery is splendid, passing by the majestic Rio Toa with the grand mountain range in the background, and offering glimpses into family life on the campesino. As you sunbathe, you may get offers of lobster lunch, craftwork or even salsa classes, but these are always polite. Make sure to find out the time of the last truck home, though there are worse places to be stranded.
Playa Las Salinas, Villa Clara
Part of the hundreds of small keys that make up Cayerias del Norte, Las Salinas remains fantastically rugged and quiet, and as a public beach, is used by holidaying locals. This is one of the more recent development projects by the Cuban government, and it has been more delicately executed than in other areas, with care taken to protect the local flora and fauna here. The long strip of white sand is dotted with a few tatty palm leaf shelters and backed by thicket and dunes. At the rocky headland you’ll find the resort of Villa las Brujas, where you can get lunch and drinks if needed. The beach is accessible via El Pedraplen causeway (there’s a CUC 2 toll), and 65km drive from Remedios.
Playas del Este, Havana
Just 18km from Havana’s city centre, is a seemingly endless stretch of palm-fringed white sand. There are numerous resorts along the 15km, but walk just five minutes away from them, and you can find a sand dune to nestle into, as if it were your private Caribbean beach. Santa Maria del Mar is the most popular, and has a party vibe every summer weekend, as the whole city decamps here. But head to the village of Guanabo, the furthest point, when you get hungry. This ramshackle little town is home to El Picolo, serving the best pizza in the city.
Playa los Cocos, La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia
My favorite beach of them all, this little village is decidedly local, home to the many Cubans who work in the imposing all-inclusive resorts lining Playa Santa Lucia. Accessible from there by foot, bicycle or hitchhiking (it’s 7km from the nearest resort), the beach here has golden sands with sheltered water (as long as you don’t swim too far out) to one side and the Laguna el Real to the other, dotted with pink flamingoes. You can snorkel to the reef just metres from the shore. The best thing about this beach is the neighbourhood: local holidaymakers roast pigs on the beach and drink rum in the shallow waters. Make friends with the charming Kiki on the snack stall, and learn about life in this tiny village.
As published in Insight Cuba, America's leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba