While most tourists won’t venture very far from the well-known beaches and all-inclusive resorts like you’ll find in Cayo Coco, it can be a lot of fun to go off the beaten path a little and find some hidden gems. Playa Santa Lucia in Camaguey (where my family is from) has all the turquoise waters and sugary sands of the touristy beaches, but none of the crowds.
And for an even more authentic experience, go where the locals go and visit Playa Los Cocos or Playa La Boca, about 15 minutes north of Playa Santa Lucia. It’s named for where the ocean glides into the bay at Bahia de Nuevitas. A virtually untouched diving paradise, it’s also home to a number of shipwrecks and marine life. A local dive club in Santa Lucia will even take you to swim with hand-fed bull sharks.
How to get to Playa Santa Lucia
Playa Santa Lucia makes a great day trip from Camaguey city, because it’s only 70 miles (112 km) away. Because of the road conditions, which are often peppered with huge potholes and cracked asphalt, it’ll take you roughly one hour and 40 minutes to get there by car. If you’re staying in the Camaguey city center, you will pass the Ignacio Agramonte International Airport (CMO airport code) just outside of town, going towards Nuevitas. While your GPS on your phone should work with an international plan, it’s not really hard to find your way around because the roads are extremely well marked. There’s even a small regional airport, Aeropuerto de Santa Lucia if you want to fly from Camaguey or elsewhere on the island.
If you don’t fly, or have your own rental car, a taxi shouldn’t cost more than 50 CUC each way and they’re pretty easy to come by. Sometimes, you can even arrange for your driver to hang out for the day and wait for you while you lounge at the beach or sightsee. There are worse places for a driver to be stuck than the beach, and they’ll probably tell you that. We went as a family, and there were 25 of us (seriously), so our transportation was a little less luxurious but definitely more adventurous. We traveled in a converted livestock truck, or a guagua, as the locals call it.
Why you should visit Santa Lucia
You should visit Playa Santa Lucia for the local interactions and a more unspoiled Cuban adventure. There are so many beaches to enjoy but going to a place that is less touristy means you’ll not only have a more authentic experience, but you’ll actually be able to relax too.
Take Playa Los Cocos for instance, the cabanas and chairs along the beach are free and because it’s a lot less crowded you don’t have to worry about availability or trying to get there early to reserve your spot. You will be amongst local Cubans who are also out enjoying a beautiful day at the beach, a luxury most of them don’t get to indulge in often. The food is cheaper, and it’s better because they aren’t trying to appeal to what they think tourists like to eat.
Do yourself a favor and order a fresh agua de coco con ron (coconut water with Cuban rum) and you’ll be rewarded with a show. A coconut will be chosen for you, hacked open with a machete and the bartender will fill it the rest of the way with the Cuban elixir of life and hand you a straw. It’s delicious.
Where to eat in Playa Santa Lucia
When you go to the beach, it seems only natural to have seafood. If you’re in Santa Lucia, try Luna Mar for fresh camarones y langosta (shrimp and lobster) and a somewhat decent selection of Spanish and Chilean wines. Cuba is known for their rum, not for their wine, so the availability isn’t great although you can find it here and there. If you don’t like seafood, order a pizza and a cold beer to go with it.
At the open-air Restaurante Bucanero at Playa Los Cocos, they’ve got a great lightly battered fried fish plate with crispy tostone chips and ice cold Bucanero (the bar’s namesake) and Cristal beer and a great assortment of crowd-pleasing cocktails. If you ask the bartenders to turn up the music, they’ll happily oblige with a good selection of reggaeton to give you more of a party atmosphere. This is a great place to seek shelter from the sun or an impending rain shower as the thatched roof protects you from the elements. They’ve also got good toilet facilities by typical Cuban standards, especially when you’re enjoying a more remote beach.
Here’s an insider tip for those of you who love finding places under the radar. There is a delicious paladar along Playa La Boca with sky blue picnic tables nestled right into the sand and shaded by towering palm trees. There is no name, but if you ask for it, all the locals will know what you’re talking about. They serve the best meals you will have in all of Santa Lucia, from the freshest seafood and roasted chicken and rice to an array of vegan and vegetarian items like black beans and platanos maduros (sweet, gooey plantains).
What to do in Santa Lucia
Take long, slow strolls along the shoreline, look for an array of shells on the beach, catch up on your reading or take an afternoon nap under a thatched daybed. Because this is a region of more remote beaches, it’s quiet and perfect for a lazy day. This is, after all, why you came on vacation right? It’s common to find large, beautiful conch shells completely intact along the beach, tiny crawling crabs and even sea urchins. Word of advice: shuffle your feet as you go into the ocean and do not walk through the dark vegetation along the shore. We had a member of our group step on a spindly little sea creature with a terribly painful sting.
If you’ve come to dive in the pristine warm waters, you’ll be happy to know that in addition to the well-protected coral reefs, there are also sunken shipwrecks to be explored. Sharks Friends Dive Center is the place to book a scuba excursion package to take you through the wrecks and the coral. They offer multiple day packages and you can even watch their dive masters hand feed the bull sharks.
More things to do in Cuba
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.