One of Cuba's premier beach destinations, distinguished by some of the most pristine sands and water on the island, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are cousin cays reached by crossing a 27km (17-mile) pedraplén, or man-made causeway, that extends from the mainland over the shimmering, shallow waters of the Atlantic. The cays share some of the same attributes as Varadero, but with a more isolated and natural feel, and without the interminable string of hotels.
Though these cays were explored way back in 1514, when Diego Velázquez named the stretch of islands and cays along the north coast Jardines del Rey (The King's Gardens), Cayo Coco was only developed for tourism in the early 1990s. The development on its neighboring cay, Guillermo, is newer still. Until construction of the causeway in 1988, the Cayos remained completely isolated, exclusively known to local fishermen and adventurous sailors like Ernest Hemingway.
The cays are part of the Archipélago de Camagüey, which extends 300km (185 miles) along the north coast and consists of some 400 large islands and small cays. Cayos Coco and Guillermo, the most developed of the entire stretch, are populated by just a handful of resort hotels -- although more are planned. The unspoiled beaches have spectacular white and powdery sand and the waters are a classic Caribbean-style crystalline turquoise. The area's natural gifts are some of the best in Cuba: nearly 400km (250 miles) of coral reef, plus an eco-tourist's bundle of lagoons, marshes, and one of the island's most abundant populations of birds, with more than 150 species. The latter include the Americas' largest native colony of pink flamingos, estimated at upwards of 10,000 birds, which often appear as a gauzy pink haze shimmering on the horizon (except in May, when they venture close to the causeway), as well as herons, pelicans, black and white egrets, the white ibis, and other tropical species. The waters off the cays are flush with grouper, snapper, and mackerel, while deeper off the coast fishermen find marlin and swordfish.
A third cay east of Cayo Coco, Cayo Romano, and the beaches out on Cayo Paredón Grande (tiny despite its name), are the next bull's-eye targeted for Cuban hotel development in the archipelago, although no construction has yet begun. For now, the main resorts are Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, and they're quite popular with Canadian and British travelers, as well as a good number of Germans and French. The focus for most guests is trained squarely on the beaches, swimming pools, watersports, dining and drinking, in-house activities, and nightly entertainment; rare is the traveler who comes seeking something else. If you have other activities in mind, your sense of isolation could be significant, although for those who get antsy, all the hotels offer local excursions as well as day trips and overnights to Trinidad, Camagüey, and Havana.
A Bridge So Far -- To declare that Cayo Coco and Guillermo are only nominally connected to the rest of Cuba is no exaggeration. One has to pass a guarded checkpoint (CUC$2 toll each way) to access the pedraplén that bridges the distance between the mainland and the cays. The only Cubans allowed to pass the checkpoint are the 3,500 employees of the resort hotels or others with official work business there. If you are driving a rental vehicle, your car may be inspected to insure that you are not transporting any Cuban interlopers. A few Cubans who are the lucky beneficiaries of special vacations from the state are also allowed access. When people talk about Cuba's penchant for creating apartheid-like tourist sites, the northern cays are often cited as a prime example.