Now that the American embargo has been lifted, everyone wants to visit Cuba. but forget about Havana – our hot tip for Latin American spirit, classic cars, pastel-coloured houses and the best beaches in the Caribbean is little-known Cayo Coco.
I’m in the back of a beautiful white and yellow 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, perfectly preserved in all its retro glory with huge, springy plastic bench seats and an ornate silver dashboard. The sun is shining, the palm trees are swaying and the sound of the waves is just audible over the satisfying growl you only get from vintage cars. I feel very relaxed – that is until our driver/guide Paulino López Delgado tells me we’re driving along an airport runway. I check for imminently landing aircraft as Paulino chuckles and points out a crumbling control tower among the greenery. Apparently this road used to be the runway for Cayo Coco’s old airport. Relieved that we’re not about to be landed on, I get back to the task in hand – enjoying the ride – and ask why it is that the rest of the world throw away their cars every 10 years while here in Cuba they seem to last more than half a century. “Well…” he laughs, “we have the best mechanics in the world.”
Think Cuba and cigars, rum and, of course, resplendent old cars come to mind. And while Cayo Coco, a tropical archipelago off the north of Cuba, has all of these in spades, it also has some of the Caribbean’s best beaches, plus an abundance of wildlife and some exquisite hotels, which makes it a great place for a Caribbean escape. And this year there’s going to be more interest than ever before. With Fidel Castro now gone and relations with the US (just 150 km away) thawing nicely, Cuba could be about to get busy – possibly very busy indeed. But while it’s a safe bet that the buzzing capital of Havana and neighbouring beach resort of Varadero will see a huge rise in numbers, for a peaceful escape visit lesser known Cayo Coco. Made up of 2,500 islands and islets connected to the mainland by a 27 km causeway, it has all the culture and colour that makes Cuba so intriguing.
Right now, it’s quiet. I’m on a birdwatching tour with Paulino, an ornithologist, who’s showing me some of the species found here in the Cayos, or Keys. He starts by explaining that twitching is an appropriate pastime for Cayo Coco. “The island is named after the white ibis, or coco in Spanish, not after the coconut, like people assume,” he says.
We see both coconut palms and white ibis on our journey around the old, quiet roads that cut through forests of mimosa, acacia and fig trees, as well as the four species of mangrove covering the majority of the island. Even through this thick vegetation semi-submerged in water, Paulino has an almost magical gift for spotting extremely well camouflaged birds. Within seconds he stops the car, sets up a telescope and has me staring into eyes of a Cuban green woodpecker, a carrion-scoffing caracara, a crab-eating black hawk, or one of the Keys’ 20,000 flamingos. I lose count of the number of birds we see, which isn’t surprising given that 250 of Cuba’s 374 species of bird are found here; 70 per cent of them migrate down from North America for the winter.
To soak up more of Cuba’s famously laidback atmosphere, head to Lenny’s bar on Playa Prohibida (Forbidden Beach). Lenny’s is a palapa, or open-sided hut, with a ceiling covered in number plates donated by visitors, who return year after year from all over the world. It’s the only bar on the beach and, though the menu is short, you won’t be complaining. The lobster lunch is a steal at less than half the price you’d pay back home; the lobsters caught fresh that morning. Add some ice-cold Presidente beers, a scattering of post-lunch, siesta-ready hammocks with breezy views of the beach (and a sublime sunset later in the day), and Lenny’s is a contender for one of the island’s most chilled-out spots.
After Lenny’s I head back to my hotel, the Iberostar Playa Pilar on Cayo Guillermo. It’s a smaller island to the west of Cayo Coco with some of the country’s, if not the Caribbean’s, most astounding beaches. The star attraction is the beach I’m lucky enough to see when I open my curtains in the morning: Playa Pilar. It’s named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, Pilar. The American writer was a big fan of Cuba and spent a lot of time here, even setting the finale of his book Islands In The Stream in Cayo Guillermo. With its powder- fine white sand and azure waters, Playa Pilar is the desert island beach of your (and my) dreams. It has its own laidback beach bar, El Coco Loco, whose eponymous cocktail – made from seven- year aged rum, lemonade, lime, sugar syrup and coconut cream, and served, of course, in a coconut – certainly packs a punch.
It’s also a great location for a spot of island- hopping. One afternoon I visit Media Luna, meaning Half Moon, a couple of miles away via catamaran, with my belongings stuffed into dry bags to keep them safe from the spray as we skim across the waves. I arrive on another deserted beach and walk a couple of hundred metres to the lone house that sits in the middle of the island. Over a lunch of grilled lobster, prawns, chicken, rice and beans, I chat to snorkelling instructor Lázaro Rivero Perez, who explains a little about the island’s history and the local flora and fauna. “Media Luna used to be a summer house of the wife of General Batista, Cuba’s president before Castro, before it was turned into a restaurant,” he tells me. “Now it’s a base for snorkelling tours on the nearby reef and a 100-year-old wreck of a steamboat that’s just a 100m or so from here.” Along with various species of coral, the translucent water here is perfect for crystal-clear sightings of snappers, rays, groupers, urchins and, if you’re lucky, even nurse sharks.
Not that Cayo Coco is all beaches, sunloungers and snorkelling. I take a day-long jeep safari trip with Gaviota Tours (gaviota-grupo.com), which takes in Laguna La Redonda, Cunagua Hill and the traditional town of Morón. Bouncing along a red dirt road with plumes of dust obscuring the cattle ranches and sugar cane plantations we speed past, I’m enjoying the change of scenery. Laguna La Redonda – literally “round lagoon” – is our first stop, where visitors can try their hand at trout or bass fishing or, like us, take an exhilarating speedboat ride to see the surrounding mangroves and their resident spiders, snakes and crocodiles.
We don’t see any of the latter, but given how close we are and how small the boat is, I can’t say that I’m too disappointed. But the possibility of impressive animal sightings doesn’t end there. En route to our next stop, Loma de Cunagua, a hunting lodge turned nature reserve on top of a 360m-high hill with views out over the Cayo Coco causeway, our guide tells us he occasionally comes across the majá de Santa María while driving down this 6.5km dirt track. Better known as the Cuban boa, this endangered snake is Cuba’s biggest, and can reach up to 5m. Thankfully, there is no suggestion of getting out of the car.
Our final stop is Morón, where we wander the streets and check out the beautiful old train station and handicraft market in the main square. There are bakeries, ice cream shops – even a makeshift cinema showing Korean arthouse films (the Cubans are nothing if not cultured). It’s colourful, vibrant and friendly, and you can’t help wondering how much scenes like this, which could be from half a century ago, will change now that Castro, the leader of 57 years, has gone.
It seems clichéd to say go to Cuba before it changes, and as a rule it’s best to avoid politics on holiday. Still, I can’t help asking my taxi driver a few days later as I’m zipping to the airport in another beautiful vintage car, whether so much of what draws visitors to Cuba might soon be confined to the history books? I’m greeted with a raised eyebrow and a suggestion that, contrary to what one reads in the papers, for better or worse, nothing here happens very fast.
Where to stay at Cayo Coco
The Iberostar Playa Pilar is one of the newest hotels on Cayo Guillermo. It has four restaurants including Japanese and Mediterranean (try the surf ’n’ turf), five bars (including a cigar bar) and a nightclub – plus a spa and gym for sweating it all out. The lobby hosts an impressive array of entertainers singing local son music (think Buena Vista Social Club), while watersports, from kayaking to sailing to aqua aerobics, are available on the beach. Don’t miss the stunning half-hour walk along the sand at low tide to Playa Pilar. Oh, and help yourself to piña coladas – it’s all inclusive. Find hotel deals.
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Words: Patrick Welch. Photos: River Thompson