To the north of the Cuban mainland are some of the most idyllic spots on the entire island – the cayos of Cuba. Cayos are coral islands, which in English we call 'cays' or 'keys'; hence we have the Florida Keys strung out southwest from the Florida coast, not a million miles from Cuba itself.
The cayos are being developed for tourism at a frantic pace, so it probably won't be long before they're home to the kind of sprawling hotel complexes you associate with Varadero, the package holiday peninsula to the east of Havana. At the moment development is still gathering pace, and there are still some deserted beaches to be found, but it's obvious that the government wants to squeeze as many tourist dollars out of its northern assets as it can; I just hope that in doing so, they don't manage to spoil what makes them so special in the first place.
Driving on Water
Getting to the cayos off the northern coast is a surreal experience, not least because you can drive there. In a fairly obvious plan to make the cayos easy to reach for tourists and their dollars, the Cuban government has built a series of huge roads across the sea, joining the likes of Cayo Coco, Cayo Romano and Cayo Santa María to the mainland.
The road from Remedios to Cayo Santa María is a good example; known as El Pedraplén, this 48km causeway joins the mainland to three cayos and is a delight to drive. The road stretches out into the blue ocean, perched on top of a long wall of stone, and at times you genuinely feel you're driving on water; it takes quite a while for the first signs of land to appear on the horizon, small pockets of green mangroves that slowly turn into larger islands of trees and shallow wetland. The first cayo you drive through, Cayo Herradura, is uninhabited and a picturesque mishmash of tropical mangrove forest and hidden inlets, which would be a delight to canoe round. It doesn't last long, though, and soon enough there's another stretch of shiny blue ocean before the road reaches the second island, Cayo Las Brujas, and it's here that the first signs of life are apparent.
Cayo Las Brujas is easily the most beautiful cayo out of the three, despite being home to the resort's airport and a large, modern petrol station. But it's the pretty beach at Villas Las Brujas that steals the show, managing to combine the best of tourism with the best of nature. Villas Las Brujas is a complex with 24 individual bungalows tucked onto a small headland at the west end of a wonderful little beach. A restaurant on the end of the headland discreetly looks over the golden sand, and apart from a handful of sun loungers and thatched beach umbrellas below the restaurant, the beach is pure, untouched and spotlessly clean.
We spent a whole day soaking up the rays at Villas Las Brujas, this time wearing sun cream. It's a place of beautiful tropical colours, best enjoyed on a beach towel under one of the palm trees along the back of the beach. The blue sky up above is peppered with small white clouds that drift eastwards, and if you sit there and look at them long enough it's possible to see them boiling away into space under the hot sun. A half moon sits lazily on its side, looking like the top of a bald man's head1 peering out from behind the wispy clouds.
Gently move your eyes down to the horizon and the sky becomes turquoise, turning a hazy grey as it meets the sea from the slight humidity hanging above the tropical ocean. The sea itself is a deep blue on the horizon, a stark contrast to the light blue sky, but as your eyes drift down towards the shore, the peaceful waters turn greener and greener, until the shallow waters lapping the beach are a light emerald against the bright, cream-coloured sand and the olive green fringe of palm fronds at the back. It's a picture, it really is.
It's also home to some intriguing people. When we visited Villas Las Brujas there were no children, hardly any young people, some astoundingly fat sunbathers, and one token in-it-for-the-money couple, consisting of a pasty, middle-aged computer nerd and a gorgeous dark-skinned supermodel who whispered sweet nothings in his ear in a way that had more to with professionalism than passion.
There were also no Cubans, which is not surprising when you remember that there's a passport control point at the start of El Pedraplén. For reasons I can only speculate about, the Cuban government doesn't allow Cubans onto the cayos here; they're turned back before they even leave land, and only employees of the hotels or workmen can cross the mini-border. It feels rather unfair, but it does mean the beaches are completely free of touts, which is a relief to anyone who's suffered on a tourist beach in somewhere like Bali.
The Dark Side of Paradise
The third cayo along El Pedraplén is Santa María, and this is where you get a real sense of Cuba gearing up for hardcore tourism. The guidebooks mentioned a couple of large, all-inclusive hotels, so we thought we'd take their advice and head instead for the 'utterly deserted' Playa Ensenachos, which, according to the Footprint guide, is 'deliberately being left wild and there are no hotels or facilities.' Unfortunately things are moving fast on Cayo Santa María, because Playa Ensenachos is now a mass of huge cranes, concrete shells and signs declaring that there's going to be an almighty resort opening there in the not-too-distant future. It looks as if the environmental plans of the past have already been swept away on a wave of construction.
This is probably the biggest threat to the cayos, and yet it's unstoppable, at least while people like you and me continue to lust after such tropical idylls. When El Pedraplén was finished in 1996 after seven years of building work, it represented a vast improvement on the earlier causeway to Cayo Coco, which was finished in 1986 with no bridges at all, thus effectively damming the sea, cutting off water flow in the bay and splitting the wildlife populations in two. It's not known how disastrous this will prove to the environment, but the nutrient levels in the water around Cayo Coco have taken a serious beating and things are unlikely to get better. There are lots of bridges in El Pedraplén, so water and wildlife can circulate, but plans for Cayo Santa María include 10,000 hotel rooms and ever-increasing numbers of tourists, so things have got to change.
We did manage to find a deserted beach, though, at the far eastern end of the cayo. Playa Perla Blancha might be devoid of development, but instead it's home to a large and varied collection of jetsam, ranging from tangled fishing nets and perishing Styrofoam blocks to faded oil canisters and broken plastic crates. The sandfly population is epic and the sharp volcanic rocks on the approach to the beach are lethal, but the sea was as pure as ever and it was good to see Cayo Santa María in its natural state. Something tells me it won't be like this for very long, though...
1 In the tropics – and Cuba is just in the tropics, with the Tropic of Cancer a handful of miles to the north – the moon is turned on its side, unlike in the cooler climes, where it waxes and wanes from side to side. This is exactly the sort of useless information that makes lying on the beach so relaxing...