Sea Kayaking in Cuba - Warm Waters and Scenic Splendor in the Caribbean
I’ve been fortunate to have participated in and led various sea kayaking trips around the world, including the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, the Baja peninsula of Mexico, British Columbia and Quebec in Canada, Antarctica and, in Europe, the coastlines of France, Croatia, Albania and Turkey. One of my favorite sea kayaking destinations, still little-known in the sea kayaking community, is Cuba. It’s one of the world’s best winter kayaking destinations and easy to reach from Canada, the US, Central America and even Europe.
This Caribbean Island is known for having the healthiest sea and coral reefs of all the Caribbean Sea. This is largely due to the fact that there has been little development along the coast, and that agricultural practices in Cuba don’t generally include the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Thus the waters along the coast are clear and healthy.
Since Cuba is an island, there is no end of potential locations to kayak. While we offer several itineraries for sea kayaking in Cuba, there are other potential stretches of coast still waiting for more exploration.
Peter and guest paddling through mangrove trees in Zapata National Park.
Iguanas on a white sand beach in Zapata National Park.
One of our favorite places is the Zapata National Park, which is the largest protected area in Cuba and home to its biggest wetlands. Paddling here offers the option of weaving your way through mangroves as well as shallow bays and channels protected from the open sea by smaller islands. If you’re a birdwatcher, this is paradise! Thousands of birds winter here while others stop on their migration from the north to south, or south to north. Flamingos are the most iconic bird of the area, but there are many others including spoonbills, herons, egrets and more.
A favorite paddling destination - Bay of Pigs.
The infamous Bay of Pigs is also located in Zapata National Park, and on our kayak tours it’s one of our favorite paddles. In the late afternoon the clouds and water mix to create a magical scene of blue. Learning the history of the conflict that happened here in April of 1961 is a highlight for many people.
Kayaking in the Bay of Cienfuegos.
Continuing east along the southern shore of Cuba, is one of Cuba’s most beautiful cities, Cienfuegos. Located on the shores of the Bay of Cienfuegos, it’s a lovely town with a marina, waterfront homes and beaches. Paddlers can paddle from the town itself or travel a bit further east to one of my favorite paddles that starts in Laguna Guanaroca. Laguna Guanaroca Nature Reserve is a shimmering saline lake formed by the River Arimao flowing from the mountains into the sea. It boasts an astounding density of birdlife that includes a resident (non-migratory) colony of more than 2,000 pink flamingos. Paddling to see these colorful birds is a true delight. After viewing the mangroves and birds at Laguna Guanaroca, you paddle into the open waters of Cienfuegos Bay where the Soviet Union built a submarine base in the late 1970’s. You can paddle past a rusting corpse of one of the subs, a reminder of the delicate relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960’s and 70’s.
Sea kayaking rest stop near Trinidad.
The beachside resort of Guajimico is a bit further east and is another great launching point for sea kayakers. Our favorite sunset paddle, the small bay opens up to the open Caribbean and red-hued cliffs. Paddling east or west after exiting the bay is possible.
Not all sea kayaking has to be on the sea. In the town of Trinidad, one of Cuba’s most popular destinations for tourists from around the world, flows the Rio Guaurabo. There is a serene paddle on this verdant waterway for those seeking a peaceful exploration. Hernan Cortez stopped here in 1519 to gather supplies and more men while on his way to the Yucatan Peninsula and future military conquests. Today there are a few fishing boats and simple wooden houses along the shore.
Betsy Bowen paddling on the northeastern coast of Cuba.
Along the northeast coast of Cuba, in the Atlantic Ocean, are many other sea kayaking options. Just north of Cuba’s fourth-largest city of Holguin, is the small seafront two of Gibara. It was close to Gibara that Christopher Columbus landed in October of 1492 and wrote in his diary that this was “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” The Bay of Gibara is a wonderful place to paddle with distant mountains making for a scenic backdrop. A couple different rivers also flow into the bay and it’s possible to explore these by kayak as well.
Sea kayaks ready to launch near the town of Gibara.
To the west of Gibara is the Bay of Bahia of Puerto Padre, or Bay of Puerto Padre. Completely protected from the ocean, this sheltered bay makes a lovely paddle. Perhaps the highlight however is after the paddle. In the small town of Puerto Padre is a talented jazz group called Portu Sax that gathers to play for us when we paddle here with groups.
Sea kayaking outside of Cayo Saetia National Park
Snorkeling in Eastern Cuba
East of Holguin are many other paddling options! Along the north coast are a number of bays that are ideal for Cuba sea kayaking. One of my favorite paddling areas is next to the Cayo Saetia National Park. A short 3-4 mile paddle follows the coast over crystal waters with healthy reefs that invite snorkelers to enjoy the abundance of their marine life. Cuba Unbound offers our Kayaking in the Wake of Christopher Columbus trip that includes many of the best kayaking locations in this eastern part of Cuba.
At the far eastern edge of Cuba is Humboldt National Park, named after the accomplished Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt who landed in Cuba in 1799 on his way to Venezuela. Numerous rivers flow from the mountains to the sea in eastern Cuba, and several bays offer fantastic paddling options.
At the other end of the island, on the coast north of the popular destination of Vinales, are many other possibilities for sea kayaking. Near the towns of Puerto Esperanza, Santa Lucia and Bahia Honda are miles of paddling options with islands and tropical beaches.
Unlike many places in the world, you have to have governmental permission to sea kayak in Cuba. This is because boats in general are highly regulated. Why? Because they can be used to leave the island and cross to Florida. Fortunately, there’s opportunity to kayak in Cuba with either Cuba Unbound or Sea Kayak Adventures. These companies have established the infrastructure to operate legally in Cuba and offer two distinct itineraries operated with a focus of Support for the Cuban People. If you belong to a kayak club or have a group of kayaking enthusiasts, both Cuba Unbound and Sea Kayak Adventures can design custom kayak tours on other paddling routes.
Working in tandem, they have a fleet of kayaks in Cuba that include both plastic and fiberglass boats. They are located at two different bases in Cuba near some of the best kayaking locations. Trips are led by talented Cuban kayak guides who love to share the beauty of their country with you.
Cuba Unbound sea kayak guides.
Sea kayaking in Cuba is much more than just paddling! The people, towns, culture of Cuba, history of Cuba, music and food are also part of the joy of coming to this island paradise. When you’re not kayaking, be sure to enjoy all the island has to offer. On our tours we orchestrate all this for you, including visits with local artists, local Cubans, schools and much, much more.
I hope you’ve found this article useful and that we’ll see you paddling in Cuba soon!