When entering Havana you will notice it immediately: there’s a grayish haze hanging above the city. A result of years and years of pollution.
This results in the fact that streets and buildings literally color 50 shades of gray.
And even though the beautiful, brightly painted old timers bring charm and nostalgia, as soon as they pass you, they quickly disappear in a thin blue line of exhaust gases. Leaving you breathing for air.
Luckily Havana is situated at the North-West coast of Cuba. During the hot and smoggy summer months (July-August) the citizens of Havana flee the city to one of the beaches east of the city: the beaches of Playa del Este.
HOW TO GET TO PLAYA DEL ESTE
There are several ways to head east. The most easy way is a taxi, which will cost you about 20 CUC ($20), or about 1 CUC per kilometer, for a one way ride. It will take you about 20 minutes to get to one of the small towns in Playa del Este.
You can choose a “collectivo”, which is a shared taxi, as well. In that way, you can split the costs with other travelers. Sometimes, you have to wait a while until the car is full. Besides, be prepared to carry your backpack on your lap: these old timers might be big, they sure know how to fill them up.
During the summer months (July and August) a daily train will leave from the harbor (South-East part of Havana Vieja) towards Guanabo. If you want to make sure the trains run, inform at the local train station.
The cheapest option – and quite an experience as well – is to take the bus. Take bus 27 (there are plenty of stops in Vedado, Havana Centre and Havana Vieja, ask around to find the nearest bus stop) towards the harbor (South-East part of Havana Vieja). Get out at the ultimate stop and walk up 2 more blocks to find the bus stop for the buses to Playa del Este. However, after bus 27 you deserve a pitstop and therefore I would advise you to order a cheap lunch at Cafe Parisien. Don’t forget to leave your name on the wall. After this break you’ll need to catch bus A40 towards Guanabo. It leaves about every 20 minutes (could be 10, could be 30). You can buy a “ticket” (a small piece of paper) on the street, if you are able to find the vendors. Or just wait patiently for all the people with a ticket to get in the bus and line up a little further up the road. The bus will drive 10 meters, stop again, and let people without a ticket enter. A ride will cost you about 1 CUP (note: this is the local currency and is about 0,04 CUC, you cannot pay with CUC in the bus). The bus will drive to Guanabo in about 40 minutes. You can also get off at other beach towns, such as Tarará or Santa Maria del Mar.
The beaches of Playa del Este are beautiful: white sandy beaches, waving palm trees, nice cool seawater and a pleasant breeze. However, be prepared, these are local beaches. This includes the habits and traditions of the Cuban people: throwing trash on those beautiful white sandy beaches, playing music extremely loud all day long and drinking lots of beer.
It’s quite a happening if you are used to clean and organized beach holidays. But you will not be bored, that’s for sure.
WHERE TO STAY IN PLAYA DEL ESTE?
As at every beach, large hotel resorts have found their way and settled along the beaches. The large, square, grey buildings might remind you of old Sovjet style flats. However, this is former glory: quite a few of the resorts are deserted or inhabited by locals.
A hotel room all-inclusive will cost you about 160 CUC per night (double room). I strongly advise you to look up some reviews before you decide whether this Cuban all-inclusive experience is the one you are looking for.
In all the small towns you can find an Infotur centre. The employees are very nice, however, don’t have a lot of knowledge about places to sleep (except for their own hotels). Luckily, there are plenty of leaflets and maps freely available in which you can find casas particulares (homestays). My advice would be to walk up to the beach and check the best entrance, from there on you can decide where to stay. Look out for the blue casa particular sign (two blue triangles against a white background). As soon as you found a nice house just yell “buenos días” very loud and wait for the owners to get to you. A night at a casa will cost you about 25-30 CUC (double room with airco), breakfast is commonly 5 CUC per person.
WHERE TO EAT IN PLAYA DEL ESTE?
Since tourism hasn’t lifted off in these local beach towns, finding a proper restaurant can be a hassle. However, looks can be deceiving. You will find awesome food at the tiny wooden sheds. They are clustered near a square or park and most of the times painted in blue. These vendors usually open up around lunch time and don’t only sell pizza (which you probably tried in Havana), but also sandwiches (10-15 CUP) and great meals with chicken or beef served with rice and salad (50-60 CUP). We had the best bbq chicken of whole Cuba during our stay in Guanabo for only 50 CUP (2 CUC = $2!). You can wash your meal away with a juice, soda (“refresco”) or beer. Don’t expect the juices to be fresh here, however, they’re homemade (which means a lot of sugar added). If you want the real Cuban beach holiday experience, head to one of the “beach bars”, grab a plastic chair and order El Presidente beer (probably the only brand they have in stock). For dessert I would recommend you to buy a box of ice cream in the supermarket (they do have spoons for you if you ask).
WHAT TO DO IN PLAYA DEL ESTE?
Probably the first thing you’ll do when you head to the beach is gazing at the beautiful girls in fluorescent minidresses and the teinted, muscled men with golden teeth. However, there’s more to do. There are a few dive shops that offer snorkeling and diving tours. Don’t like being underwater? You can enjoy a day on the water during one of the organized sailing trips. You can also rent smaller sailing boats yourself. And for the real thrill seekers, this part of the Cuban coast is perfect for kite surfing. But catching some sun and cool off in the nice, blue sea is the number one reason to go to Playa del Este. Just relax and reload.
Playa del Este is different than the 20 kilometers of white sandy beaches of Varadero. The peninsula where you can find dozens of hotels and where you have to book in advance for sure. The sleepy towns East of Havana wake up during lunch, when loud music will be played and people parade on the small streets. Life here seems easy. Playa del Este is the perfect place to stay at the end of your holiday, to reflect your thoughts and finish in style. The Cuban style it is.