Beaches are a major reason why so many of us northerners flock to Cuba. In fact, most visitors tend to eschew much of the country and only go to the Varadero region or to one of the many Cayo *SomethingOrOther*. But it actually doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation which is exactly what the Cayos and Varadero are – once you’re there, you’re generally stuck in the middle of nowhere with hundreds of other holidaymakers. If you’re like me and prefer things to be a little less touristy or prefer not to spend the whole vacation trapped on a resort, then you should check out the Playa del Este region (except in the summer months when Habaneros all come out to frolic).
Playa del Este has six beaches along its 9km stretch of coastline. Here, you have several options. First is to stay at a resort, but since Playa del Este is not isolated like other resort regions, you actually have options to escape to major places such as Havana or Viñales. Second option is to stay at one of the many casa particulares that dot the region. Third option is to stay in Havana itself and take bus to the beach when you’re craving salty air.
When I visited Cuba with a friend of mine, we had to practice the art of compromise. She wanted beach and I wanted Havana. So we found a resort in Playa del Este (on the beach of Santa Maria del Mar) and it ended up being the best of both worlds: picture perfect white sand / clear water and access to a free daily shuttle into Havana. The drive was only about 30 minutes and in a one week stay, we went into Havana three or four times. We also spent a day in Viñales.
In addition to the easy access of other areas of Cuba, what I especially loved about Santa Maria del Mar was the relative lack of people and the fact that it was not all that built up. As such, the typical resort-style service was practically non-existent so we didn’t really feel like we were on a resort. What was extra fun was that the resorts in this area generally are Soviet-bloc style. Some may find it ugly but I quite liked the contrast between the concrete buildings and the soft sandy beaches. It added some visual interest as I find that when something is too perfect, it gets boring rather quickly. But while things here may look a little rougher than at a Cayo, I found it to be perfectly safe and enjoyable.
So, if you are the kind of person who wants to relax on a beach but not be surrounded by excesses, modernism, luxury, and burnt flesh, Playa del Este may be for you. If you are the kind of person who wants beach mixed in with sightseeing/exploring, Playa del Este is for you. And if you’re staying in Havana and want just a single day’s worth of sun and sand, Playa del Este is most definitely for you.