A return to Hemingway’s favourite coastline: Cayo Coco and Pilar

The clear waters off Pilar beach

One of our favourite locations in the Caribbean is Cayo Coco, an island off the northern coast of Cuba. Located among a series of 2,500 cays (low-elevation, sandy islands) in Cuba’s remote Jardines del Rey archipelago, it was once a hideout for buccaneers during colonial times. We had visited on two occasions in the past 10 years, and decided that our first international trip since the start of the pandemic would be best done in a quiet and relaxing setting.

Our last trip outside of Canada was in March of 2019, when we cut short our year of travelling while in Thailand. We had no idea it would be almost 2 years before we did another international trip, but a week in Cayo Coco, Cuba this past Christmas was a welcome escape.

The trip out to the island was much quicker and easier than the return, but that was expected given the times. After a little over 3 hours in the air we arrived at the small Jardines del Rey airport located on the north side of the island. From the airport it was a short ride to our resort. Accommodations on the island are very limited and there are few options other than the resorts that dot the northern coastline.

Our accommodations were situated over a peaceful lagoon a short distance from the ocean

Conditions were windier than they had been on previous occasions, so the water was less calm but still warm enough to enjoy. On one occasion, we walked down the beach to check out a coral outcropping where fishermen waited patiently for the next fish to bite.

On the beach

Cayo Coco and neighbouring Cayo Guillermo were settings for Ernest Hemingway’s stories Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea. I had read the latter novel in high school but never imagined at the time that I’d experience Hemingway’s vision up close.

Watching the fisherman at work
Looking back
Pilar is located at the tip of Cayo Guillermo

We made plans to once again visit Pilar Beach, one of our favourite beaches from our travels. There is a double-decker bus that runs the length of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo for US$5 return per person. It takes about an hour and a half to do the length of the islands, and is a relaxing way to take in the views.

Bus schedule
With fewer tourists around the bus was not busy on this day. We enjoyed the open air up top.
Old American-made cars, usually used for local taxi services

As we travelled along the views changed from the exposed scrub and sand of Cayo Coco to the low, calm, blue-green waters of Cayo Guillermo.

Eventually we arrived. Pilar Beach is named after Hemingway’s yacht, and has recently become a spot for Cubans to visit along with tourists. Originally, Cubans were not allowed to visited unless they were working on the island, but those restrictions were lifted in the year 2000. On this day we saw some Cuban families arriving by car, most of which were models from the 1950s and 1960s that were still in excellent shape.

Old car waiting for business
A short boardwalk took us to the beach.
In the distance was a different resort we stayed at a few years back
Kim enjoying the water while the wind blew her hair around
Relaxing in a palapa rental. Not many tourists today
Where to go next?

The trip home was much less relaxing due to strict COVID requirements. We received antigen tests at the resort before departing (both negative) and were tested again at the airport in Toronto (both negative again). Although the restrictions were more than a little inconvenient, they haven’t dampened our desire to head out somewhere again this summer. For that one, we’re going to be much more active!

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