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The Best Beach Near Havana? A Trip To Guanabo

I knew what I was in for but I went anyway.

Guanbo beach, Cuba
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GUANABO, Cuba- It was time to get out of Havana. The thick smoke belching from the rears of decades-old automobiles was becoming a little too much, and I felt as if I’d capped off much of what I wanted to experience there.

When in a country for the first time it is a mistake to just skip through the biggest city, but it is also folly to spend all of your time there. Like they say, cities are the brains of a place, but the countryside is the soul.

So I called a car with La Nave, Cuba’s version of Uber, and set out for Guanabo, a beach town just outside of Havana.

The driver arrived in a beat up black car of a type and era that I could not readily identify. If I had to guess, I would say it came from the early 1970s. The dashboard was cracked from the sun, the carpeted floor was all torn out, and the thing shook and rumbled down the highway more akin to a go-cart than anything that should have been approved for highway travel.

The car smelled like exhaust.

The highway smelled like exhaust.

I’m not sure if I’ve smelt anything else this past week in Cuba other than exhaust.

I had my camera out and was snapping pictures and shooting some video out of the window, but the driver was extremely concerned about me doing this anywhere near police watch towers or the checkpoints they’d set up along the road. Sometimes he’d hurriedly reach over in and push my camera down.

After we drove by a checkpoint where a few vehicles were pulled over, his apprehension became a little too obvious and I figured it would be best to just can the photography.

So I just sat back and looked out the window. There wasn’t much of anything out there. I thought the German was speaking in hyperbole when he commented about how they don’t grow anything here, but at least over the short span from Havana to Guanabo he was correct.

It was only like a 30 minute ride. Guanabo is one of the main beaches that people from Havana go to for day trips on the weekend, and I was riding out on Saturday morning. If I know anything about beaches that are in proximity to a major urban area, this will mean that it will be crowded, dirty, and loud. 

I knew what I was getting into and I can’t say I had very high expectations for Guanabo. It would be a local beach, not a tourist beach. There’s a big difference. Although Lonely Planet did rank it as one of Cuba’s best beaches— for whatever that’s worth.

I booked an Air BnB here. This has been my default accommodation strategy in Cuba — for convenience, privacy, price, and because there’s these vague rules about where Americans are and are not permitted to stay (which I highly doubt are ever enforced or even enforceable).

My driver couldn’t quite figure out how to get to where I was staying and I was a few hours early anyway, so I just had him drop me off on the main drag that runs through the town parallel to the beach.

I stepped out of the car onto a wide, dusty, more or less empty street. There were shops on both sides but few seemed to be open or actually in business. The noon-time sun was blistering hot; everyone seemed to be in hiding. I looked up and down the street and everything seemed to be in various stages of being sun faded.

A horse-drawn carriage rumbled by me. I watched it clomp, clomp down the street. Then another one passed by going the other way. The horses were big and black and the carriages were like those from the 19th century and were well-decorated with big spoked wheels. It became apparent that this was the dominant form of local transportation here, but what I couldn’t tell is if this was just how people get around here or if it was something for the tourists — kind of like in Central Park.

I had some time to kill before I could check-in, so I went looking for a restaurant to get some lunch, relax with a beer, and type some notes.

I found a little place that had a large palapa hut that extended out from a cinder block kitchen. I stepped inside and appreciated the shade. I was brought an old and greasy laminated menu. I ordered some grilled chicken and sat back and began taking some notes about the morning ride.

It took a really long time for the food to come, but I didn’t mind — I truly had nowhere else to be.

Eventually, a plate of rigor mortis-y chicken with some oily plantains and desiccated beans was delivered to my table. 

Then the flies declared war. As soon as I’d shoo one group of them away from my food another group would dive bomb it from the other side. These flies were either unusually bold or desperate. They wouldn’t relent and I eventually gave up — picking up my chicken up and pushing the rest of the food to the other side of the table. A diversion tactic, I suppose. I then took a couple bites of the chicken but found that its chewy, rubbery texture reminded me too much of what it would be like to sink my teeth into one of those frozen mummies who spent the past ten thousand years stuck in a glacier in the Alps, and I decided to just call it.

I admitted defeat, picked up my bag, and began walking back down the main drag to a little park area at the center of town. There were a couple vendor stalls selling some fast food and beer. I got a can of local beer and sat down on a bench in the shade and cracked it open. I took a big long drink. It hit that particular spot that only a cold beer can on a hot day in the tropics.

These empty pre-check-in hours are a part of travel that rarely gets talked about. As check-in times have gotten progressively later there’s become this entire blocs of travel that’s essentially wasted time:

The hours before check-in are one of the conundrums of modern travel. Check-out times used to be 11 am or noon, check-in times used to be noon or 1 pm. Now check-in times are 3 pm or even later. So what do you do if you change rooms or arrive early somewhere? Just walk around all day with your luggage like a dumbass? In the old days you used to just drop off your bags at your hotel or hostel and they would hold them for you until check-in time. But in this era of temporary apartment rentals and self-service hotels this really isn’t possible. I don’t have an answer here … and I spent my first six hours in San Juan trudging around with a Kelty 44 liter rucksack on my back and a shoulder bag with a Macbook in it on my front.

You just sit and wait and look around at what’s going on around you. I texted some pics of the old cars to my dad. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock — ok, it’s time to go and actually start doing something again.

I booked an Air BnB from a young guy who’s originally from Guanabo but now lives in Ottawa. He handles the bookings for his parents. When check-in time came around he gave me some directions to find the house. It was maybe three hundred meters away on the second row of houses in from the beach. I found it without trouble. The Canada paraphernalia that was stuck, hung, and draped over everything gave the place away. Apparently, they’re a little proud of their son here.

His parents appeared to be in their 50s and seemed to be the typical retired couple — heavy set with the dude walking around perennially shirtless. Kind of reminded me of my father’s stepdad in Florida. I never once saw that guy with a shirt on.

The retired couple built a two story extension onto the back of their house for Air BnB guests and what appeared to be young long-term boarders (students or something).

The room had a bed, a small desk, a small kitchen with a gas stove that didn’t have a tank attached (good!), and a bathroom. There was local beer and water from Costco (from Canada?) in the fridge. It was the very definition of perfect.

My room in Guanabo, Cuba

But I didn’t hang out there for very long. I came here to go to the beach. That’s about the only thing anyone comes to Guanabo for. So I threw on some shorts, slipped into my Buffalo Bills sandals, and walked the 50 meters to the sand.

At first, a smile crept across my face. I looked out at the waves, looked out across the tan sands, and saw some beach-front bars with their telltale bright red umbrellas in the near distance. Peace.

But the more I walked into the crowd the more I realized that the place was full of garbage. It was packed with locals from Havana, and they seemed to just be tossing their spent beer cans around wherever they stood.

It’s their country, I suppose they can treat it anyway they want to.

But this sentiment began to wan when I saw a group of five year olds fortifying their sand castle with a strategically stacked pile of beer cans and then I kept feeling them crushing under my feet as I walked out into the surf.

I floated in the waves for a while and looked into the sky, but just couldn’t shake the adverse reaction that I would have when I put my feet down felt the miscellaneous refuse of beachgoers past and present. It felt as though I was trying to stomp grapes in a recycling center.

It was time to get out of there. My exit was hastened by a floating maxi pad that was giving chase.

I did a little filming and one of my sandals broke. I picked it up and continued on with one sandal on and one sandal off. Some drunk dudes saw my plight and approached me. One of them offered to fix it for me. 

Cool. Go for it.

He pressed the severed pieces of rubber back together and seemed surprised when they wouldn’t stick back together. He said that I would need something to tie it with and then noticed my camera and began freaking out.

He tried to not giving me back my broken Bills sandal. For some reason that I don’t understand I swiped it from his hand. I didn’t really want it. I just didn’t want him to have it.

I finished filming what I wanted of the beach and then headed back to my room, showered, sat on the edge of the bed, and said what the fuck?

I guess I’m drinking.

Old Cuban car

I went back out and walked into town. There was a big seafood restaurant near the beach that was full of people and looked like a cool place to hang, but I kept going. A girl propositioned me. Then I walked by a gaggle of propositioners on the other side of the street. They were whistling and trying to wave me over. Apparently, they still had time for one more job before hopping on the bus and heading back to Havana. 

I kept walking. 

I found myself near a little circus and filmed some drunk cowboy guy who was dancing on the street in front of a restaurant. I’m not sure if he was doing this for tips or for fun. 

I turned around and walked back through town and towards a beach bar that I saw earlier in the day. It was early evening by this time and I figured that I would grab a beer and lounge back and watch the sun set.

Guanbo beach, Cuba

I approached the tiki bar … which was called Tiki Bar … and did just that.

I sat in a lounge chair facing west, cracked open my beer, and took a good, long drink. I looked around at the groups who were around me — an extended family was sitting to my side and a couple of young dudes were sitting on an embankment dangling their feet over the edge. We were all just watching the people playing in the waves — splashing, kayaking, fishing — and enjoying the radiating orange glow of the sunset.

It somehow made the rest of the day seem not so bad and I began looking forward to the walk on the beach that I would take the following morning.

Guanbo beach, Cuba

As I was paying my tab I noticed a sign on the front of the bar that said “What happens at Tiki Bar stays at Tiki Bar.”

What could possibly happen here that would need to stay here? I thought about sticking around to find out, but then realized that I probably already knew the answer to that question … which was more than likely a two word term that began with an N and ended with an H.

When I was walking back from the beach bar I had a nice conversation with a young mother who was carrying a baby. She invited me to come back to her house to meet her family. 99 percent of the time in 99 percent of the places I say yes. Here, I had reservations. I simply liked the thought of having a nice conversation with someone so much that I didn’t want to risk losing the memory to some bullshit request to buy a family member medicine or something.

I didn’t like that I thought like that.

I didn’t like that at all. 

If you think like this in a place you’re probably wasting your time being there.


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Filed under: Beaches, Cuba, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Rob March 22, 2024, 10:43 am

    I’m sitting here thinking about putting a value on your time in Cuba from what you wrote… I know it’s not my place but I’m a human & these things happen … but it really isn’t my place to judge you at all!
    Am I going to let that stop me? 🙂 Cuba sounds like a tourist spot I don’t need to visit.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Link Reply
    • VBJ March 22, 2024, 11:47 am

      Hello Rob,

      Feel free to share those opinions if you’d like!

      As for Cuba, I think there’s some really nice tourist areas. But that’s not really my forte.

      Also, I visited at a weird time. The entire country seemed more desperate than usual. I imaging that if I go back in a year or so it will be different.

      I guess I had a good time there. I just have to be honest …

      Link Reply
      • rob March 22, 2024, 11:53 am

        Your view of the place is important, if that’s how it was when you were there than that’s how it was…
        It’s hard to find journalists with an honest view point anymore.

      • VBJ March 23, 2024, 5:26 pm

        That’s true, especially in the travel niche. It’s like everyone is trying to make places seem better than reality so they can get those affiliate sales. Basically, the line between blogger / journalist and salesperson has been nefariously blurred. Same goes for big media where it’s all about appeasing the agenda of their advertisers and the political parties they support.