Playa los Cocos, a Cuban idyll

Imagine a golden crescent of sand, sparkling azure waters and a brightly painted Cuban village nestling amidst palm trees on the edge of the ocean. Throw in a couple of thatched-roofed beach bars and a scattering of people lounging on the sand, and you will be imagining what Playa los Cocos and the village of La Boca looks like. A Cuban paradise by the sea.

Rafael, our charming and resourceful casa owner in Camaguey, had told us not to leave Cayo Santa Lucia without spending at least one day at Playa los Cocos; and not to leave Playa los Cocos before we’d drunk rum and eaten grilled fish caught by the villagers of La Boca on the beach. It seemed like a challenge of which we were capable.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

La Boca and Playa los Cocos stand at the top of Cayo Santa Lucia, about 10km away from the hotel resorts on Playa Santa Lucia. Even though the development on Playa Santa Lucia is pretty low key (especially compared to other Cuban resorts), the contrast with Playa los Cocos couldn’t be more pronounced.

Two wooden shacks serving food and drinks are the only buildings on the beach, beyond this there is no tourist development whatsoever. Only a potholed dirt road connects Playa los Cocos to the rest of the world. I imagine that will change in coming years, but hopefully the salt flats behind the beach, where dozens of flamingos live, might prevent the developers from destroying this atmospheric spot.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

We took a taxi to the beach early in the morning, and arranged for the driver to collect us later. When we arrived there was nobody around, so we strolled along the beach away from the village. The shore quickly became rocky, but we found a small beach amidst the rocks that we claimed as our own for a couple of hours. No people, and only the sound of the wind and sea for company. Blissful.

Eventually we were joined by a Cuban couple and their young daughter. Hunger was getting the better of us, so we shuffled off back to the main beach to see if the bars had opened. They had and a couple of dozen people, Cubans and tourists, had arrived on the beach. We had a delicious lunch of fish and prawns washed down with cold beer at the El Bucanero restaurant, and then hired a couple of loungers for the rest of the day.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

I’m not very good at sitting on the beach, so after a while I took off to go and explore the village of La Boca and the coast further around the headland. The village is small, dirt roads and weather-beaten wooden houses give it a ramshackle and careworn feeling. People are friendly though, and I was invited into one house by a man who was keen to show me a whalebone from a whale that had washed ashore.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Walking further down the deserted coast was fantastic. A sailing boat passed close to the coast, some fishermen floated in inflated tire inner tubes, and a few seabirds wheeled overhead. I took swim from a small patch of sand and bobbed around for a while before heading back to the main beach. It was idyllic.

Beach time on Playa Santa Lucia

We were beginning to despair of finding a patch of golden sand, for which Cuba is rightly famous, to call our own. We’d planned to go to the beach near Cienfuegos, and again near Trinidad, but there were so many tourists in Cuba that we literally couldn’t find anywhere to stay. We’d been travelling for three weeks and had spent one day at the beach. Something had gone badly wrong.

We were bemoaning our fate to Rafael, our casa owner in Camaguey, and he decided to take matters into his own hands. This is typical of Cuban hospitality. It took a day and numerous phone calls, but when we came back one afternoon he triumphantly declared success. He’d found a place for us to stay at the Playa Santa Lucia.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

There are two sides to Playa Santa Lucia: one, with all-inclusive resort hotels that were last in fashion when the Soviets were still exporting Ladas to Cuba; the other, south of the ‘strip’ with a few houses, bars and tiendas scattered amongst palm trees. It was here, amongst the palms, that Rafael found a motel for us. It had a swimming pool, an al fresco bar and restaurant, and was a short walk to the beach. It cost €30 per night.

It was clear from the moment we set foot on the beach that we were staying in a Cuban area. It was the weekend and families were eating, drinking and swimming on this southerly stretch of beach with no facilities beyond some thatched umbrellas. A lot of rum was being consumed and a lot of fun was being had. The water was crystal clear and sublimely warm. We dived in and realised what we’d been missing.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Relaxing in the warm azure waters, it felt like we were washing off the dust of the many Cuban towns we’d visited and the many kilometres of road we’d travelled. It was glorious. The beach here stretches for 20km and we walked towards the resort hotels through the surf, watching fishermen at work in the shallows.

It was clear when we left the public beach and entered the resort beachfront. Suddenly there were people wearing wristbands, and people checking them, loungers by the dozen and Canadian English replaced Cuban Spanish as the lingua franca. We were searching for lunch but none of the hotels took our fancy. Instead, we found a small restaurant just off the beach and ordered up some cold beers and grilled fish.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

After a long lunch we wandered further along the beach before retracing our steps along several kilometres of beach towards our motel. Passing the strip of resort hotels, we stumbled upon a wedding on the beach, which was drawing a crowd of unofficial onlookers. As we stood there the groom took the microphone and burst into song at the altar. They do weddings differently in Cuba.

As we walked, dark forbidding clouds started to gather and for a moment it looked like we might get caught in a thunderstorm. Luckily the rain held off just long enough for us to get back to the motel. The rain was warm and didn’t last long.

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Cayo Santa Lucia, Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

That night we sat out by the pool, drank mojitos, ate fried chicken and (bizarrely) cabbage, and pondered the transformation that the Cuba we’d come to know over the last three weeks had just undergone. Being by the beach was like being in a different country.