Cayo Largo, Cuba: In Search of Piratical Adventure
By Jennifer Wattam Klit
I’d spent last few months wondering why I felt, well frankly, discontent. Perhaps it was the tail end of the winter woes? Nothing that a good dose of the Pirates of the Caribbean film couldn’t cure, I thought.
I was inspired by the crystal clear waters, white sands and the naughty, yet adventurous spirit that pirate Jack Sparrow conveyed in the infamous film.
It reignited the wanderlust needed to set my own little pirate adventure in motion. Time to hightail it on out of here to warmer climates. No cold weather, no traditional tourist traps, just peace, tranquility and a dash of curiosity and open-mindedness were all that would be required.
In other words, getting back to nature (the tropical kind), mixed with a little of the unexpected. Yes, it was time to bare and feed my soul.
Cayo Largo del Sur, a small island located in southern Cuba was just the ticket. Since it is said to hold the richest memories of pirates in the whole Caribbean, it was perfect. This voyage had to include Cuban pleasures like relaxing in a hammock, cigars and rum.
Did I mention long solo walks on the spectacular white, paradise like beaches and dare I say it, the nude beaches? I was destined to revel in new experiences and all by my lonesome. You see, I’d be chartering in unknown waters by traveling alone for seven days. As I was about to find out, you’re not necessarily alone in Cayo Largo.
Cayo Largo covers 38 kms (24 mi) with a whopping 25 kms (15 mi) of that being sugar sweet beach. It is home to hundreds of iguanas, pelicans, seagulls, parrots, crabs and starfish. The turquoise sea contains various fauna, as well as a 30 kms (19 mi) of coral reef.
This, and a multitude of beautiful, colorful fish, is why Cayo Largo is considered to be a world class diving spot. A diversified flora characterized by coastal vegetation, coconut trees and four species of mangrove trees decorate the historic dunes and beaches. There are no vintage cars nor vast, historic architecture to view. Rather, it’s an exotic, Robinson Crusoe type island escape.
Cayo Largo is 177 kms (110 mi) south of Havana and 120 kms (74 mi) east of Isla de la Juventud.
The daily average temperature ranges from 22 to 30 degrees C (72 – 86 F). It can get cooler at night so bring a jacket. The dry season is November until April and the wet season is from May until October. The mosquitoes can hungry in the evening, so bring mosquito repellent and keep your doors and windows closed after sundown.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are flights from Toronto, Montreal, and Milan and from Havana or Varadero. The Cayo Largo airport (Vilo Acuña), which resembles a small villa, is a maximum 10-minute drive away from all of the hotels on the island. Please note that a departure tax of 25 pesos ($25 US) will be charged on your return home at the airport.
WHERE TO STAY
All of the hotels are located on the beach, so depending on what you fancy, it’ll be tough to find a bad coconut in the bunch. Choose wisely, as other entertainment and restaurant options are slim and none. Every past experience told me that anything under a 3-star is equivalent to the Bates Motel.
Since this was to be an adventure though, I bit my lip and booked at the 2.5 star Gran Caribe. It was the only one on the island that didn’t charge the single supplement of 250 dollars per week.
Even though my hotel section was a bit older, it was clean, quiet and had a lovely balcony overlooking the sea. Most importantly, this small, quaint hotel met the safety and security criteria that this lonely traveler required.
There’s not a lot happening in this hotel in the entertainment department. The couple I arrived with, thought it was too low key and shipped out to a more action packed one. Plenty of bells and whistles may be found at the other hotels on the island, so to each his own.
All hotels offer all inclusive packages, which include three delicious meals a day. Internet service is available at a cost of 10 pesos ($10 US) per hour. Bring your cellphone, as it will work in Cayo Largo.
Cayo Largo: A Treasure of an Island
Famous pirates like Jean Lafitte, Latrobe and Pepe El Mallorquin touched down on Cayo Largo between 1565 and 1820. It’s humbling that notorious legends like Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and Christopher Columbus (in 1494) wandered through the same white sands and turquoise waters that I’ve been prancing about in.
This area is said to hold the richest memories of pirates and privateers in the whole Caribbean. Henry Morgan parked his ship here for repairs three centuries ago and buried all his treasures in the key in 1666. Some suspect Sir Henry Morgan’s treasure is still buried in the area. There are almost two hundred sunken ships here, dating from between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries.
EATS AND DRINKS
Reviews I’d read about Cuba dissed the food, so I was apprehensive. Influenced by Caribbean, African, Spanish and American cuisine, the staples are rice, potatoes, lime, red and black beans, seafood and beef. Mojo criollo sauce, a marinade of garlic and citrus juice adds flavor.
Who said Cuban food was bland? Cuban grown sugar cane yields rum and sweet cakes. Ernest Hemingway, the famed writer, who once lived in Cuba had a favorite drink called Mojitos. I tried and enjoyed this tasty combination of lime juice, rum, sugar and mint.
Delicious delicacies and divine drinks, combined with the traditional, soft music filled nights created the sensuous, seductive atmosphere that is Cayo Largo. The light, flute filled cha-cha-cha and the big band mambo sounds are still echoing in my head. Occasionally, I’d be jilted back to reality with Reba McEntire tunes they sometimes played at the resort.
WHAT TO DO – THE ART OF DOING NOTHING
A pirate is one who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea without commission from a sovereign nation. Well, the closest you’ll get to that on this island will be by grabbing yourself a hammock, kicking back a pirate’s drink of choice (rum) and puffing away on a cigar. Not likely an exclusive Habanos cigar, which the pirates demanded, but one with all of that distinctive flavor and aroma.
I tried the cigar portion of the program in the morning hours as Cubans do, for the first and last time on Playa Blanca beach. My new found friend for the hour, a charming Cuban, introduced me to it. Speaking of charming, a little romantic rendezvous can easily be arranged here if that is your intention. It wasn’t mine, so if you aren’t there for the romance bit, women get your excuse book ready.
My occasional dinner buddy and avid traveler, Mr. S, used Cayo Largo as an escape from his hectic job to do “a lot of nothing,” as he called it. Best of all, there are plenty of free beach chairs and nobody really harassing you. Panhandlers and beach vendors are nonexistent.
WHAT TO SEE
Beaches – I see naked people
Cayo Largo is truly a beach walker’s paradise. There are also bicycles, car rentals, trolley trains and taxis from most hotels to the two best beaches in Cayo Largo, Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena, located on the western end of the island. The trolley train is free until it’s filled to capacity. At that point, you’ll be forced to either walk home or hire a taxi.
Isolated from the southeasterly trade winds, makes for calmer waters with the same white sands which encompass the entire island. It takes two hours to walk from the hotel district to these beaches. In Cayo Largo you can wander for ages alone and feel like you are in your own safe, little paradise.
There are so many spots where you can sit and revel in utter and complete solitude. In some secluded areas, there was a fair bit of trash, mostly in the form of empty bottled water bottles. I thought to myself, for the love of water, there has to be a more environmentally friendly method than tossing our empty water bottles onto this exquisite beach. I doubt even pirates plundered like this.
Experienced and environmentally conscious beach roamers carried small thermoses purchased from their homeland and refilled them for free, with adequate water from their hotel rooms or from the hotel bar.
Parade on the beaches nude, semi-nude or fully clad, your choice. Be prepared to see plenty of folks in the buff, as this is a nudist colony’s paradise. A vivid image remains of a guy on a beachfront cliff doing his best King of the World pose, leaving nothing to the imagination. I tried not to look and giggle.
There’s also a real mixed bag of same-sex couples, singles and families of all age groups and cultures. One family told me point blank that they were offended by the rampant and blatant nudity, so if seeing folks bits and pieces is not your bag, don’t go there.
Nudism is officially allowed at the west and east ends of the beach. There are nudisme signs posted but to be honest, it’s everywhere. You’re almost in the minority if you aren’t nude or partially so, and besides that there is a practical side to it. It’s much handier, no need to think about what to wear and there’s no sand filled bathing suit after your swim. Alas, no tan lines.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
There are 30 diving centers and the main site is located at the Marina in Isla Del Sol. Coral reef, fish, ship wrecks and caves are yours to discover. Cost for one dive with equipment rental will set you back about 80 pesos, not including diving lessons.
Only Village – Cubans, Cubans where art thou?
Cubans work on the island for 20 days and then head back to the mainland and their families for 10 days. While in Cayo Largo they live temporarily in apartments in the only village on the island called Isla del Sol, located in the North West quarter about 8 km (5 mi) from the hotel zone.
Centrally located is a snack bar, a little sea turtle farm called Granja de los Quelonios (admission 1 peso) and the Marina. It can cost 10 pesos ($10 US) one way for a taxi to Isla del Sol or 2 pesos each, as a group.
A small rocky island known as Cayo Iguana is occupied with loads of iguanas. If you’re a bit squeamish it may feel as though you’ve been unwillingly cast in a horror film. The iguanas won’t hurt you but are curious and nearsighted. Therefore, if you’re intent on feeding them, you might want to think twice. That finger you treasure could easily be mistaken as something good enough to eat.
From the Marina, Iguana Island can be reached by boat in about 20 minutes. Included is Cuban-style lobster or chicken lunch and drinks, as well as 45 minutes of snorkeling and a half hour at the natural swimming pool. Cost is about 73 pesos ($73 US) at the Marina or through your tour operator.
Near the garden’s tower and visible from the only main road on the island, there are 11 horses on a ranch for all hotels, including the one used by the employee who accompanies you for a ride along the paths.
The breathtaking tour takes about an hour, as you are whisked through palm tree laden woods and then onto beautiful Playa Blanca beach. Here you’ll see the remnants of an old hotel, Villa Caprichio, ravaged by Hurricane Michelle. The cost is 6 pesos ($6) and can be paid at the ranch. Reserve ahead of time. It’s a 20 minute walk from the Gran Caribe resort.
Upon entering the small museum (Casa Museo) located in downtown Isla del Sol, your first stop will be viewing photo catalogs of damage done by Hurricane Michelle.
Farther on is an exhibit dedicated to sea life and archaeological finds. The last stop, and the final leg of my journey, is a treasure trove display of pirate memorabilia and flags of the rebels of days gone by. Admission 1 peso.
Cayo Largo is one of the most beautiful, freeing, laid back and safest destinations I’ve ever visited. As the saying goes, “Where there is a sea, there are pirates,” and that’s definitely the case in Cayo Largo, exposing the hidden pirate in all of us…
Jennifer Wattam Klit has written articles for Gonomad.com, PreviewCT, Transitions Abroad, Escape from America and has contributed to various travel guides such as DK Eyewitness Guides, among others. When she’s not living abroad or traveling around the globe, she dabbles in film and theatre.
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