The Best Secret Beach in Cuba: Playa Coco
I found it.
The elusive 'only locals know about it' beach. Or rather in this case, the beach that even the locals don't know. I found it in Cuba and it was called Playa Coco.
Yes, it is in the Lonely Planet Guide (named as Playa los Cocos, page 333, bottom right corner). And yes Cuba has lots of beaches. So how can this one possibly be the best beach in Cuba and how can it possibly be a secret beach in Cuba? Well. It transpires that although Lonely Planet has discovered Playa los Cocos and lists it as a place of interest in the Camagüey region, the information is fairly limited and very out-of-date, despite being published in 2017. Contrary to what you may read: There are no public transport options, there is only one restaurant and in all likeliness, no accommodation. Taxis drivers will claim they have never heard of it, even after showing them the spot on a map. It is a mythical, unicorn beach and one worth stubbornly digging your heels into the fine golden sand and persevering with until you find someone to acknowledge it is real and convince them to take you there.
Originally there was no full beach day planned for Cuba, with a little under two weeks to get from Havana to Baracoa, speed was of the essence and the all-inclusive, eye-wateringly expensive resorts of Varadero et al. had limited appeal. I had successfully convinced myself that visiting yet another stretch of stunning but generic coastline was a wasted opportunity. I had come to Cuba for the cultural experience, the cities, natural beauty and people, not to laze around topping up my tan. How affected and self-indulgent.
Luckily, my extensive Camagüey planning went awry. Against my better judgement half a day to explore Cuba's third largest city was more than enough, leaving a beach day as a genuine option before theVizaul bus booked to Baracoa. After all my ill-conceived notions of Cuban traveller enlightenment, the frustrating and bizarre chain of events that finally led to chill-axing in the Caribbean sea provided wonderfully unexpected cultural insights. Not to mention that discovering a local hangout was the most 'authentically Cuban' experience a tourist could hope for.
The beach itself was glorious - a stretch of virtually untouched beauty. With the sun dancing across crystal clear blues and greens and only a handful of locals to be found, it was the perfect place to sit, read, listen to music and nap.
How to get to Playa Coco - and the strange things that may occur along the way.
Find and organise transport
If you want to visit Playa los Cocos as a day trip from Camagüey, a taxi driver will first need to concede it exists. After surmounting this unnecessary hurdle, the more standard and expected negotiation over the price can commence, in Spanish. I strongly recommend you undertake this frustrating and bizarre exchange the moment you arrive in Camagüey since it is not a short dialogue and the majority of drivers are found at the Viazul depot rather than in the city centre. Befriended by a Spanish speaking Portuguese traveller, we (she) haggled the return journey down to 60CUC ($60 total) which our casa particular impressed on us was the locals' price. Win.
Google maps and Maps.me will tell you that Playa Coco is a 3 hour drive from Camagüey - Google and Maps.me are wrong. Arrange breakfast as early as you dare with your casa and leave by 8:30am. The journey may come in more like 4 hours depending on traffic, weather and vehicle condition and you don't want to have to turn back after only a couple of hours catching rays.
Leave your luggage at the casa particular
Counter-intuitively, taking your luggage along the ride will not save time.
Our casa Los Vitrales was reluctant to store luggage after check out or allow us to return and clean up, mumbling a range of convoluted excuses about police checks and fines for undocumented guests. This seemed dubious and manifested as an outright lie when our visibly nervous driver argued for leaving the bags at his. All these antics felt very dramatic, until two policemen stopped us just shy of Camagüey. Our poor driver was searched, questioned at length and an official note made on his licence for the transportation of three tourists and their bags with plans to return that evening. It transpired this behaviour was so unusual that the police were concerned for our safety, they could not comprehend why we would be dragging luggage around for the day.
Take snacks and water
The lone restaurant at Playa Coco offers an excellent and affordable lunch (approximately $5 for a drink and a main). It is, however, the only option and snacks are limited to a tired collection of sugar laden treats. The best option is to ask your casa if they have anything to take along, they are usually more than obliging to demonstrate their hospitality and culinary skills. Much more pleasing than any supermarket haul, you can also bask in the self-indulgent knowledge that these supplementary services are more profitable to small business owners than your room booking itself.
Assume no public facilities
When we visited there was no running water. We had expectations of showering at the beach before our 4 hour taxi drive and 14 hour night bus and had been reliably informed by Los Vitrales that this should not be a concern; the parking attendant even confirmed that the showers were free to use. But this was not to be, even if there had been water, there were no showers and faced with the prospect of a very sticky, uncomfortable stint to Baracoa, we threw cold buckets over ourselves in the toilets with water hauled over from the restaurant. Vaguely hilarious, but certainly not ideal or with particularly gratifying results.
Leave yourself plenty of time to get back
Cars aren't the most reliable form of Cuban transport. Trouble ensued on the way back when heavy rain started pouring down through the roof and up from through the floor. After almost 10 hours behind the wheel our driver had clearly had enough and after dropping us off to grab dinner in Camagüey never returned to take us to the bus station. I don't blame him, 3CUC was not worth the hassle, but it did put us in a tricky situation. This was, however, the first time I experienced just how tight the Cuban community is and the lengths they will go to to help others. Maria of Casa Lavastida, our Portuguese friend's casa particular, was a godsend. She provided shelter from the rain, insisted on warm showers complete with clean towels, whipped up a quick dinner, offered fresh coffee in addition to snacks and water for the looming bus ride and rang all her friends to find not just an emergency ride but also hospitality once we arrived Baracoa and later Havana.
Refusing to take a penny, crying as we dashed out the door, Maria and Angel (yes, her husband is fittingly named Angel) were quite unlike anyone I have encountered. There was barely enough time to register the experience, my primary focus on catching that damn bus. What did hit me was a wave of warmth and generosity, both humbling and uplifting, and a soothing antidote to the perplexing behaviour of Los Vitrales.
Playa los Cocos provided a moment of Cuban calm and relaxation, pleasantly underdeveloped and still very much a local secret. Like much of Cuba, it feels disconnected from the rest of the world and it is certainly playing by its own rules.
So, in summary, go to Playa Coco. It's worth the drama, honestly.