Vacationing in a Forbidden Beach Paradise

Arriving on an island for a beach vacation, just off the main island of Cuba where we live. 

Arriving on an island for a beach vacation, just off the main island of Cuba where we live. 

Cayo Levisa, Cuba — Every so often, we need a vacation away from our vacation-like life in Havana. That’s when we pack up our car and head for Cayo Levisa, a tiny island off the island on which we live.  

From Havana, we drive two and a half hours, mostly through beautiful, winding hills. We imagine that in a decade or two these steep green slopes will be filled with hotels and tourists, but for now, all that’s there are palm trees and a scatter of wooden huts. We share the road with farmers on oxen and cowboys on horseback. The road curves through a small town and port called Bahia Honda, “Deep Bay,” that once briefly belonged to the United States. We make a right turn once we’re out of the town, and the road curves toward the ocean. There’s one new restaurant here at the bend, with an entrepreneurial lady standing out front, but it looks too suspiciously new to be good, especially after she tells you the price is $10 per person, a fortune in Cuba. We press on. The road peters out at Palma Rubia, a tiny port, from which the boats go to just one place — Cayo Levisa. 

The boat sometimes leaves just a few minutes late; other times its departure is held up waiting for a delivery of bread or some other item crucial for the island. But once we’re there waiting, we adjust to Cuba Time. There’s no point in getting anxious or angry; there’s nothing that we have to do at a certain time on the other side. We board a barge that’s been retrofitted to seat passengers and sit for a 30-minute crossing on shallow, calm waters. The cayo is a long strip of land that is shaped like a miniature version of the main island. 

The other passengers on the boat are from Europe — France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom. Every so often we’ll come across an adventurous American couple or family, but they are few and far between. After all, the embargo and its related travel restrictions prohibit most Americans from coming to beach resorts in Cuba.  

My kids building a fort in the cabana on the beach. 

My kids building a fort in the cabana on the beach. 

The island is, amazingly, even off-limits to Cubans, because antiquated Cubans laws that once banned all locals from hotels and boats somehow still apply here. On the island, there are no cars, no roads, no inhabitants. Only one resort exists, and resort is a generous word to describe it, as it’s more or less a series of several dozen bungalows that line the beach, each with its own large porch. A boardwalk suspended over the mangroves connects the lobby with the resort’s one restaurant; there are no pools, nor nighttime entertainment, save a guitarist and a maraca player who saunter around the dining area in the evening playing old Cuban hits like “Guantanamera.” 

Not much competes with the beach here. There are no exercise classes, no gyms, no guided activities. The beach is gorgeous and long, a never ending strip of tan sand that is the perfect color for sand castles, of which there are many in various stages of being washed away by the greenish blue aquamarine waters. A half-hour hike east along the beach takes us to the biggest attraction — a natural pool where our kids can swim and touch the starfish that cling to the ocean’s shallow bottom.  

The food definitely doesn’t compete with the beach. Some of our expat friends who come here bring their own food: steaks and fish in coolers, wine and loaves of bread somehow foraged in Havana. But for us, it defeats the point of vacation if we have to think, plan, and cook.  Anyway, usually our compact SUV is loaded to the max with visiting family and our children. At the resort, there’s only one restaurant and no menu, just a bland buffet. Dinner starts at 7:30, but we’re usually there at 7 to beg them to let us in early; our hurry is not for any other reason except that our kids’ bedtime is around then. Greeting us is stale bread, limp pasta, rice and beans, different types of mystery meat. There is a choice when it comes to the fruit — papaya in chunks, or papaya in spears. At every meal, we have a running conversation about what everything tastes like, not because it’s delicious, but as a kind of cautionary tale to the rest of us for our next trip to the buffet. 

“The chicken soup is okay,” one of us says. 

“Avoid the potatoes at all cost,” says another one of us. 

“This lasagna is actually not bad — if you mix it with the squash,” comments someone else. 

Another thing to be aware of is the sun. It’s somehow even sunnier here than in Havana, and one afternoon, after not having my sunglasses on, I developed a blazing migraine that had me camped out in our bungalow, with all the shades drawn down. And sting rays can also be a problem. On one visit, my husband got stung by a ray that happened to be resting on the floor of the ocean. After calling for help to no avail, it seemed, and waiting for what seemed like an eternity, not knowing what had caused the profound punctures in my husband’s big toe and ankle, the resort’s doctor finally sauntered down the beach. She administered a shot of steroids, pronounced him to be fine, even as he was doubled over in pain, and re-sauntered back to her clinic just behind the restaurant.    

But even after those episodes, we have come to love Cayo Levisa, accepting it like an old family member, taking the good along with the bad. My kids never get sick of naming various hermit crabs “Sorry” and “Bella” and chasing up and down the beach. They spend hours playing in the cabana, stacking pillows into forts and mountains. They never tire ofbuilding sand castle for princesses or race tracks for their car collection. 

Eventually, though, we have to pack up our shovels and our buckets and the vacation has to come to an end. On the boat ride back, our kids doze, lulled by the waves and the hours in the sun. 

The last time after we leave the cayo and are packing up our car, we overhear a couple of distressed French tourists telling an attendant that while they’d been on the island, someone had been sleeping in their rental car. They pointed to the reclined car seats and the doors left slightly ajar.  The attendant shrugged. After all, nothing had been stolen, no harm had been done. After complaining for a minute or two, the tourists shook their heads and did what Cuba has taught us to do over the last two years: adjust, laugh, and move on. 


My husband launches his kiteboarding off the sandy beaches on Cayo Levisa.

My husband launches his kiteboarding off the sandy beaches on Cayo Levisa.