Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, has no shortage of postcard-perfect shores, from family-friendly snorkeling spots to standout black-sand beaches.
The biggest of all Caribbean islands, Cuba is an intoxicating combination of tropical rhythms, modern art, painstakingly restored colonial architecture, and glorious natural landscapes. With nearly 3,500 miles of coastline and 430 beaches—including ones with powdery white, golden, and black sands—choosing the most suitable one in Cuba is a highly personal endeavor.
Our favorite beaches are a mix of easy access spots, good snorkeling and diving locales, and family-friendly destinations. If you prefer silky white sand with tourmaline waters, try one of the all-inclusive resorts on Cayo Largo del Sur or Cayo Santa María. But note that many resorts are off-limits to U.S. travelers, who are prohibited from direct financial transactions with any Cuban entity linked to the armed forces, so check the list of restricted properties before you visit.
Despite the restrictions, there are several legal ways for Americans to travel to Cuba today. Direct flights on commercial airlines, with an accompanying tourist visa, can be purchased online—even by U.S. passport holders, who are required to fill out a form indicating their purpose of travel. Most folks qualify under the “support for the Cuban people” category by staying in private homes (also known as casas particulares) and patronizing private businesses, including restaurants, bars, and crafts shops on their beach trip.
Many travelers default to the resort town of Varadero and its eponymous beach, with its swaths of velvety white sand, blue water with nary a wave, and near-perfect weather year-round. This idyllic yet well-touristed spot two hours east of Havana, with public beaches as well as all-inclusive resorts, might be considered “not really Cuba,” due to its efficient transportation, buffet meals, and scripted musical shows. Those staying in a casa particular steps from the beach can rent lounge chairs, umbrellas, and even catamarans—and dancing to live rock-and-roll at nearby Casa del Tabaco, Beatles, or Club 62 will give travelers more of a local vibe.
Havana can be magical and has over five miles of archetypical Caribbean beach within easy reach. When you need a break from the hustle of the city, hail a taxi or board the hop-on/hop-off bus for the 30-minute trip to the beach strip of Playas del Este.
Almost anywhere else, Playas del Este, with over half a dozen beaches, would be packed with hotels, high-rises, and vacation homes. But not in cash-strapped, embargoed Cuba, where geopolitics and other factors make massive development nearly impossible. Of the handful of beaches out this way, Santa María is the most popular because of its many beachside restaurants and bars. But if lounging under a palm with no people cluttering the view is more of your scene, head to Mi Cayito. As Cuba’s only openly gay beach, it’s as beautiful as the others, but not as populated by locals. Guanabo, the next beach east, is a proper town with casas particulares, bars, restaurants, and shops. Beach lovers could even make this home base and commute to Havana for a fix of city culture and nightlife.
Best day-trip beach from Havana
Despite Playas del Este’s proximity to Havana, Jibacoa, which an hour-long drive away, earns honors as the most captivating beach day trip from the capital. Its namesake beach is a stellar one you can have almost to yourself—except in summer, when Cubans descend by truck, bus, car, and horse cart. Downhill from the modest Villa Loma de Jibacoa hotel is a small, scallop-shaped beauty known as Playa de Artistas. The biggest house on the beach has a facade full of works by Amelia Peláez, one of the country’s most renowned artists. While this house is reserved for visiting artists, the fabulous three-bedroom casa next door is available for rent through Villa Loma de Jibacoa. Cuba’s northern coastline generally lacks good offshore snorkeling, but the waters here teem with giant barrel sponges, multicolored coral, and enough tropical fish to keep you entertained.
Best beach for diving and snorkeling
The Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos to Cubans) made headlines in 1961 for the failed CIA-backed invasion, but today it’s a diving and snorkeling hot spot known for its superior underwater landscapes. Don a mask here and you’ll see psychedelic parrotfish, graceful angelfish, barracuda (if you’re lucky), and abundant coral and sponges. Gear, classes, and certification are available at dive shops in Playa Larga, a wide beach with seemingly interminable shallows perfect for a family outing. Around the bay heading southeast, you’ll encounter La Cueva de los Peces, a cenote with calm, aquarium-like snorkeling, and beyond that a protected cove called Caleta Buena—both tailor-made for underwater explorations with the wee ones. The nearby museum dedicated to the invasion is packed with creepy, chilling ephemera and a blow-by-blow account of the “first defeat of imperialism in the Americas”—a motto you’ll see on roadside billboards, too.
Best black-sand beach
Drive along the Circuito Sur de Oriente, the island’s most scenic road, on the south coast between Santiago de Cuba and Granma, and load up on guanabana (also known as soursop), zapote (or sapote), and other fruits from roadside stands. Your destination is laid-back Chivirico, a small town known for its black-sand beaches backed by dense, lush forest. This isn’t the only black-sand beach in Cuba—other popular ones are on the Isla de la Juventud and near Baracoa—but no others combine such a charming slice of Cuban country life with hospitality, outstanding vistas, and opportunities for off-the-beaten-track adventures (like cycling into the remote mountains or surfing the nifty left-hand break known as Media Onda).
Best no-name beach
If you consider yourself an extreme traveler, Cuba’s hardest-to-reach beach, a couple of miles west of Chivirico, is for you. At the foot of a cliff, wedged between the road and mountain slope, is a beach so remote that you’ll encounter few souls, except maybe some young boys riding bareback. According to them, the beach has no name—“even the fishermen don’t have a name for it,” they said. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a meadow by the side of the road and a lone tree. You’ll need a good length of rope to tie to the tree and a certain amount of chutzpah to descend the scree, but it can be done.
There’s perhaps no landscape in Cuba as majestic as the southern coast route between the towns of Chivirico and Punta Piedra. Here, the Sierra Maestra—Cuba’s highest range—drop down directly to sandy beaches and are separated only by a ribbon of road. This is remote travel at its best, but like Cuba in general, it’s safe for travelers—even those on the road solo. A roadside beach even few Cubans know, Punta Piedra holds plenty of treasures, including vibrant, healthy reefs below the jade green shallows. After a hike, it’s the ideal place to spread out a picnic blanket, uncap a bottle of local rum, and take in the views of mountains and beach meeting seamlessly.