Jardines del Rey or the “Cuban Keys” consists of several tiny islands off Cuba’s Atlantic coast, about 250 miles (450 km) from Havana. The islands include Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Paredón Grande, Cayo Romano, Cayo Guajaba, Cayo Sabinal, Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Cruz. Mangroves and everglades, flamingos, sun-bleached sand and turquoise waters make this little corner of paradise the perfect retreat.
The islands got their name (“King’s Gardens”) in 1513 by Spanish conquistadors to honour king Ferdinand II of Aragon. In the 16th century, they were refuges for corsairs and pirates. Jacques de Sores is supposed to have used it as a base of operations for his attacks of Santiago de Cuba in 1554. In the 19th century, they were used as a point of entry for illegal slave ships after the slave trade was officially abolished.
The beaches are the greatest attraction of this area, but as the islands are part of Cuba’s northern coral reef, snorkelling and diving are spectacular. The islands are immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “Islands in the Stream”. Hemingway spent a great deal of time camping, fishing and boating on Cayo Guillermo during World War II. He is remembered for his double daiquiris, his boat (the Pilar) and his vivid fishing tales.
These islands off Cuba’s north coast that are jointly marketed as Jardines del Rey have gone from not even registering on the tourist map in the early 1990s to being a major tourism centre that now attract some 28% of all the Canadians who vacation in Cuba. And the area promises to continue to lead Cuban growth in 2009. In fact, before the 17 km long stone causeway that links Cayo Coco to the mainland was constructed, the cays found here went largely unrecognized. Since 2005 vacationers can also fly directly into the Jardines Del Rey Airport on Cayo Coco. Close by there is another airport – Ciego de Avila’s Maximo Gomez International Airport, which is linked to Cayo Coco by a highway 60 miles (97 km) long.
Cayo Coco is covered by thickets of mangroves, palms and other forestation and has a 22-kilometre strip of beach. To the west of Cayo Coco boasts the highest sand dune in the Caribbean (15 metres). The island is named after the white ibis (coco).
Cayo Guillermo’s five miles of fine white sand and gorgeous, clear green waters, including the spectacular Playa Pilar, offer picture perfect sunning spots. Fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities beckon from more than six miles of coral reefs. Flamingos and many other birds live in its lagoons, forest and jungle.
Generally, Cubans are not permitted to cross the causeway to Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo. Cubans who work at the hotels can pass the bridge checkpoint, as well as those with other pertinent business ties. Basically, it is a destination reserved for tourists, most of whom come from Canada and Europe. For those who have rented a car and are driving to their Cayo Coco Cuba accommodations, you will have to pay a small fee to cross, and you might expect to have your car looked over to make sure you are not bringing in anyone otherwise not permitted to cross. The causeway enables those vacationing on the islands able to visit the attractions on the nearby Cuban “mainland”.
The closest settlement is the city of Morón (makes me think of the funny place names topic!). The first residents were Creoles from Sancti Spiritus, although among them were also said to be a group of Spanish sailors who, having navigated all around Cuba, had disembarked nearby and had decided to settle here. In the first half of the 20th century, the archipelago and the nearby keys had attained little development. The town of Morón survived on a basis of a limited agricultural activities, especially sugar production. In the 1960s a road was built through the marshland to the coast, and in the 1990s this was extended into the causeway to the Cayos. Many of the hotel workers live in Morón and commute to work in specially provided buses. You know you’ve arrived at Moròn when you see the bronze statue of a rooster perched at the city’s entrance. Other distinctive features of this town include Casa de la Trova, a place to enjoy local music and the train station with its unusual architecture. For archeology buffs, the Moròn Museum and the one-kilometre road to Jùcaro-declared a World heritage Site by UNESCO-are important experiences. There is also a crocodile breeding centre among its attractions.
Another interesting place to visit is Laguna de la Leche (Milky Lagoon), the largest natural water reservoir in Cuba. The white color is caused by the lake’s limestone bed: natural movements of the sea level cause disturbances in the water table, which releases lime particles from the lake bed into the water.
It is also worth to see the 18,000-hectare Turiguano Island, once cut off from the mainland by streams and channels, and now connected by a 23-kilometre road that provides easy access to this cattle-raising area. The island’s adorable town is modeled after a Dutch village.
Occupying an area of four square kilometres, Lake Redonda is a favorite place for large-mouth bass fishermen. The average weight of the bass caught here is seven pounds, but some 1,500 largemouth bass weighing more than 10 pounds each have been caught here. The lake gained fame in the early 1980s when a group of American fishermen caught 5,078 bass in five days. Competitive sports fishermen consider Redonda an ideal lake in which to try for personal, national and international records.
Cayos Coco and Guillermo have 12 hotels between them, with Coco alone having eight hotels that collectively offer 2,500 rooms, while Guillermo has four hotels with 1,100 rooms. There are four hotels also on the Cayo Santa Maria, a little island in the Northern Keys, linked to the main island by a 48-km causeway.
Most of the hotels are four star and carry out the all-inclusive concept. Sol Meliá in particular has a noticeable Jardines del Rey presence, but other hotel companies that decided to establish a presence in a part of Cuba that has been averaging annual tourism growth of 13% in recent years include Iberostar, Blau and NH. All properties are beachfront. There are four dive centres and two international marinas. More growth is in store, with another 2,000 rooms planned over the next five years, some of them on Cayo Paradon, which to date hasn’t seen the tourism development its neighbours have. Jardines del Rey is also attracting tourists who want to get married in Cuba, averaging some 400 weddings a year.
Fortunately, the authorities won’t allow development to dramatically alter the islands. “We have never built a hotel more than three floors.” There are plans to create a national park in the area, he continued of an area that has 40 km of beaches, one named Pilar after Ernest Hemingway’s boat. The area also has some 340 species of plants and 200 bird species. Nevertheless, the region’s tourism infrastructure is expanding, with a golf course slated to open on Cayo Coco in 2009, while Cayo Guillermo will be getting a dolphin show. A shopping centre that will include a “tobacco house” for cigar enthusiasts is planned for Cayo Coco.
Most Canadian tour operators offer packages to the Cayos: Oasis Playa Coco, Blau Colonial, NH Krystal Laguna Villas & Resort (the biggest with 690 rooms), the adult-only property Melia Cayo Coco and one of the first hotels in the area, Tryp Cayo Coco are the Canadian favourites on Cayo Coco; Sol Cayo Guillermo and Iberostar Diaquiry are popular on Cayo Guillermo. Sunquest also offers some properties on Cayo Santa Maria (Sol Cayo Santa Maria, Barcel Cayo Santa Maria and Melia Las Dunas) – and the new luxurious 5-star Occidental Royal Hideaway on Cayo Ensenachos. For the last four passengers fly into the Santa Clara Airport.
Jardines del Rey is an exciting new area. If sun, beach and a quiet relaxing time is your cup of tea, if you don’t expect anything overly luxurious and just like to take it easy and have fun – this is your destination!