cayo santa maria

Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide

Located along Cuba’s northern coast, Cayo Santa Maria is the pristine beach destination you’re dreaming of when planning your ultimate Caribbean getaway. White sand so fine you’ll think it’s sugar and a crop of some of the most impressive resorts in Cuba make Cayo Santa Maria – or, Santa Maria Cay – a tiny slice of paradise you won’t want to leave.

Neighboring cays like Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, longer-established resort destinations in Cuba, tend to steal some of Cayo Santa Maria’s glory. However, Cayo Santa Maria is quickly becoming one of the most popular destinations for travelers in Cuba. Our ultimate guide to Cayo Santa Maria will show you how to enjoy your trip to one of Cuba’s most impressive destinations.

cayo santa maria cuba
Courtesy of Royalton Cayo Santa Maria

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Cayo Santa Maria

Located along Cuba’s beachy northern coast, Cayo Santa Maria is a stunning white sand island known as a cay. Together with neighboring cays like Cayo Las Brujas, Cayo Ensenachos, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, and Cayo Romano, this tiny island forms part of Cuba’s Jardines del Rey archipelago.

Named by early Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s in honor of King Ferdinand of Spain, the Jardines del Rey archipelago now forms one of the most important beach destinations in Cuba. These islands are home to the majority of Cuba’s best resorts, as well as a number of hotel rooms to rival the island’s premier beach destinations in Varadero and Cayo Largo del Sur.

Cayo Santa Maria is just ten miles (16km) long and just over one mile wide, so there isn’t much to it. However, with some of the most pristine beaches in the Caribbean and clear, shallow waters perfect for swimming and snorkeling, it’s one of the most incredible beach destinations in the country.

Cayo Santa Maria wasn’t much more than an empty stretch of sand before the early 2000s when the island was identified for its incredible tourism potential and a few first resorts and hotels began popping up. Now, it’s one of the major destinations for travelers in the Jardines del Rey archipelago.

While the island is still playing catchup with nearby cays like Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo when it comes to name recognition, Cayo Santa Maria has plenty to offer that makes it potentially even more appealing than its neighbors. Newer resorts, less crowded beaches, and arguably easier access to Havana make it one of the best beach destinations in Cuba.

Read More: The Cays of Cuba: Ultimate Traveler’s Guide

What is Cayo Santa Maria Known For?

Cayo Santa Maria is primarily known for its long white sand beaches, considered among some of the best beaches in the Caribbean.

The island is quite tiny and there aren’t too many things to do in Cayo Santa Maria other than enjoy the sand and sea. However, an increasingly impressive array of hotels and resorts make it easier than ever to enjoy an incredible stay in Cayo Santa Maria, and bring plenty of activities to the island.

things to do in cayo santa maria
Toniflap / Depositphotos

Is Cayo Santa Maria Worth Visiting?

Cayo Santa Maria is well worth visiting! If you’re looking for a spectacular beach escape in Cuba, Cayo Santa Maria should be one of the top destinations you’re considering for your trip.

The beaches in Cayo Santa Maria will amaze you, the resorts will impress you, and you’ll have an unforgettable vacation, whether you’re traveling with family or for a romantic couples getaway.

Keep in mind that Cayo Santa Maria is quite resort-centric, without a permanent population and with only hotel and resort accommodations to choose from. There are no “beach towns” here, meaning everything revolves around the hotels and resorts. It isn’t something that appeals to all travelers, but for those looking for a resort stay, it’s perfect.

Varadero or Cayo Santa Maria?

It’s a question we get frequently – should I travel to Varadero or Cayo Santa Maria? The answer totally depends on what you’re looking for. While both destinations offer great beaches, they’re actually very different.

Varadero has much more going on, with busier beaches, activities, and events. Cayo Santa Maria is much more secluded, laid-back, and natural.

Varadero is a true beach town, with numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops to choose from, as well as a much wider range of accommodations. In Varadero, you can find everything from basic room rentals to luxury beach houses and some of Cuba’s best resorts. In Cayo Santa Maria, you only have a few resorts to choose from, and nothing to speak of in terms of shops or restaurants outside of the resorts.

Whether you choose Varadero or Cayo Santa Maria, you’re in for an incredible beach vacation. Both options are spectacular and offer some of the best beach experiences in Cuba – you really can’t go wrong.

cayo santa maria cuba
kmiragaya / Depositphotos

Things To Do in Cayo Santa Maria

Beaches in Cayo Santa Maria

The number one thing to do in Cayo Santa Maria is visit the beach – it’s the main draw for travelers looking to visit the island. As the island is wrapped in white sand, it has no lack of beaches to choose from. While most visitors stick to the beach at their resort, you can certainly enjoy beach-hopping in Cayo Santa Maria should you feel so inclined.

All beaches in Cuba are technically public beaches, meaning that you’re free to explore any beaches on Cayo Santa Maria or any other part of Cuba for that matter. However, keep in mind that the use of beach chairs, umbrellas, and any other kind of beach installation is reserved for resort guests.

While it’s hard to say that any of Cayo Santa Maria’s pristine beaches are better than any others, these are some of the nicest beaches on the island if you want to beach-hop.

Playa La Estrella

Playa La Estrella, located in the center of the island, has the distinction of being the longest beachfront in Cayo Santa Maria. This white sand beach stretches on for more than two miles (3.5 km), and is about as pristine as you can get.

Playa La Estrella is home to resorts like Royalton Cayo Santa Maria, Melia Las Dunas, and the Memories resorts.

Playa Las Caletas

One of the shorter beaches in Cayo Santa Maria, Playa Las Caletas is particularly beautiful, with calm waters and a pristine beachfront. It sits just west of Playa La Estrella. This beach is home to Gran Muthu Cayo Santa Maria.

Playa Cañon

Playa Cañon is known as one of the few beaches in Cuba where you can find clothing-optional sunbathing, so be aware of this if you plan to visit.

The vast majority of visitors enjoy the beach with bathing suits on – just don’t be surprised if you find visitors taking advantage of this beach’s special designation.

Travel Essential

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Visit the Delfinario

One of the most popular activities for travelers looking to enjoy some time off of resort property is visiting Cayo Santa Maria’s delfinario – or, dolphinarium. Home to a number of dolphins as well as space for events and even a small restaurant, it’s an excellent facility offering experiences travelers tend to love.

The Delfinario offers a number of different experiences with dolphins, including dolphin shows and the opportunity to swim with dolphins. Sign up and inquire about transportation at your resort, as resort staff work closely with the Delfinario to organize visits. They can plan your entire experience.

Formally known as the Acuario Delfinario Cayo Santa Maria, the delfinario is located off of the causeway used to access Cayo Santa Maria, just before the turn-off point used by visitors to access Cayo Ensenachos. It is one of the most popular things to do for visitors to either of these pristine islets.

Stroll Through Plaza La Estrella

While Cayo Santa Maria doesn’t have any true beach towns to speak of, Plaza La Estrella is a central spot on the island where visitors can shop for handicrafts and souvenirs and explore the island beyond the resort.

There are several small restaurants, cafes, and bars that even play live music. It’s the perfect place for a stroll, a snack, or passing an hour or two of shopping and browsing.

Keep in mind that the area is purely for tourists, as there is no permanent population on Cayo Santa Maria. However, it’s charming nonetheless and perfect for those looking to take a break from the beach and the resort.

Visitors from the neighboring resorts – Royalton Cayo Santa Maria or Starfish Cayo Santa Maria – can easily walk from the resort to Plaza La Estrella. Otherwise, take a taxi from your resort or hotel, or hop on the island’s hop-on, hop-off bus if you’re so inclined.

Enjoy A Spa Day at Melia’s YHI Spa

Several of the resorts in Cayo Santa Maria offers spas and wellness treatments, but if you’re looking for something special or perhaps your hotel doesn’t offer a spa, consider booking at Melia’s YHI Spa Aguas Claras.

Melia’s YHI Spa Aguas Claras offers a number of treatments, including mud wraps, massages, exfoliation treatments, and manicures and pedicures. The spa and wellness area also includes access to a gym, jacuzzi, dedicated pool and lounge area, and more. It’s a wonderful facility among the best on the island.

MBStudio / Depositphotos

Visit Santa Clara

If you’re traveling to or from Cayo Santa Maria via Santa Clara, consider spending a few hours or even an entire day exploring the city. While Santa Clara isn’t one of Cuba’s most famous destinations, it has a lot going for it, including being home to one of the island’s most important historical monuments.

Santa Clara is best known for being home to the mausoleum of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary who transformed the country and now lives on endless billboards and posters around Cuba, and a million t-shirts around the world. His mausoleum is a popular destination in Cuba for history buffs and the curious alike and is well worth a visit.

In addition to visiting Che Guevara’s mausoleum, make sure to wander the historic center of town and take in some of the historic buildings. Santa Clara doesn’t have as charming of a historic center as towns like Cienfuegos or Trinidad, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Visit the Untouched Playa de las Gaviotas

Most of Cayo Santa Maria’s beaches are now home to resorts and hotels – except for a precious few untouched spots that remain undeveloped and empty. Playa Las Gaviotas, on the far eastern edge of Cayo Santa Maria, is one of them.

To visit this untouched beach with powdery white sand, head just east of the Valentin Perla Blanca, where the main road cutting across the island ends. Here you’ll find the entrance to the island’s nature and wildlife refuge, which has a nature trail that takes visitors to the beach. It’s a refreshing distinction on the island, now populated with resorts.

Through the refuge, which has a $4 admission fee, you’ll find a nature trail leading to the beach. Expect to see wildlife like lizards and plenty of birds along the way. Alternatively, walk east from the beachfront of the Valentin Perla Blanca and you’ll be able to access the beach as well.

Travel Insurance

Cuba requires that all travelers have proof of a comprehensive travel insurance policy in order to enter the country. Check out our guide to travel insurance for Cuba for more details. We recommend these brands for Cuba travel insurance:

  • Visitors Coverage: Coverage for Cuba travel available to citizens of all countries, though not currently available to residents of New York and Maryland in the United States.
  • Insubuy: Coverage for Cuba travel available to citizens of all countries and states of the United States.
royalton cayo santa maria
Courtesy of Royalton Cayo Santa Maria

Where To Stay in Cayo Santa Maria

Royalton Cayo Santa Maria

One of the best resorts in Cuba and among our favorites of the Royalton brand, Royalton Cayo Santa Maria is my top choice and recommendation for travelers deciding where to stay in Cayo Santa Maria.

With just 122 rooms and suites, the resort isn’t overwhelmingly large, though the amenities you’ll find here are those you’d only expect at a much larger resort. A number of pools, beautifully-decorated lounges and eateries, and an incredible beachfront with great beach activities are highlights that every traveler will enjoy.

Royalton Cayo Santa Maria also has an onsite spa and wellness center and reservation-free, all-inclusive dining across the resort. It’s one of the very best resorts in all of Cuba and is certainly the best place to stay in Cayo Santa Maria.

Reviews and Bookings – Royalton Cayo Santa Maria

melia buenavista
Courtesy of Melia Buenavista

Melia Buenavista

Perched on a secluded section of beach on Cayo Santa Maria’s west end, the all-inclusive Melia Buenavista is one of the best places to stay in Cayo Santa Maria. The 108-room resort is smaller and feels more intimate when compared to neighboring resorts, and offers personalized attention and service to match.

Three different beachfront, each with stunning white sand and clear waters, make the resort a highlight for travelers looking to kick back and relax in one of Cuba’s most beautiful destinations. Calm waters make for great snorkeling and swimming.

Upgrade your stay with suites part of “The Level,” which include the nicest rooms, and butler service during your stay on the property. Melia Buenavista also offers several villa options for travelers looking for more privacy and those traveling with larger parties. Three- and four-bedroom villas with private pools are available, as are smaller villas and suites packed with amenities.

Reviews and Bookings – Melia Buenavista

paradisus los cayos
Courtesy of Paradisus Los Cayos

Paradisus Los Cayos

Another stunning property of the Melia brand, Paradisus Los Cayos is one of Cayo Santa Maria’s most beautiful resorts. This modern, all-inclusive eco-resort is perched along some of the island’s most stunning white-sand shores and has incredible amenities and room choice options, making it easily among the best resorts on the island.

While the resort isn’t overwhelmingly large, it boasts incredible amenities. Eight dining concepts, numerous bars, a luxurious spa, and stylish, updated rooms are highlights here.

Upgrade the Reserve, an option available for families and couples, for exclusive benefits and amenities during your stay. Located in a separate, upgraded part of the resort, rooms in the Reserve have access to a private lounge and private pools, which are swim-up from the lower floor levels, as well as additional services.

Reviews and Bookings – Paradisus Los Cayos

Getting to Cayo Santa Maria

Cayo Santa Maria is connected to the Cuban mainland at the town of Caibarien via a long causeway known as a pedraplén. Visitors headed to Cayo Santa Maria will pass by Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Ensenachos along the way, with Cayo Santa Maria being the final destination on this nearly 30 miles causeway.

Most travelers fly into the international airport in Santa Clara – Abel Santamaria Airport. There is a tiny airport near Cayo Santa Maria in neighboring Cayo Las Brujas that receives flights from Havana. However, flight schedules here are quite variable; with the Santa Clara airport just over an hour from the resorts, most travelers fly into Santa Clara.

Santa Clara is also well connected by bus and shared taxi service from Cuba’s other major cities, especially Havana and Matanzas. If you’re looking to avoid flight connections through Havana or Santiago de Cuba, taking the bus is a great choice – the journey from Havana is just over three hours.