What is the first thing that comes to mind when you picture islands in the Caribbean? What about volcanic hot springs, soaring mountains, and World War II shipwrecks? You might be surprised to learn that you can find all this, and so much more, alongside the crystal clear water and white sand beaches, you’ve seen on a postcard.
Let’s look at some of the most incredible hidden gems in the Caribbean. You may never hear of them, but they’re calling your name!
Isla de la Juventud
Nestled just south of the main island of Cuba and surrounded by a chain of white sand keys, Isla de la Juventud is technically a part of Cuba, though, in many ways, it feels a world away. Many visitors compare it to a Cuba of the past.
The charming capital city of Nueva Gerona is just a tiny town, with only about 50,000 inhabitants, filled with the historic architecture and the vintage American cars that make Cuba famous. After a quick visit to Nueva Gerona, head outside the city to the island’s true attraction: the countless pristine beaches, including some of the most beautiful undeveloped beaches in the Caribbean.
While Isla de la Juventud’s white and black sand beaches are unmissable, you’ll also want to visit the pristine beaches on the keys just off the island’s shore. The most famous nearby key is Cayo Largo del Sur, home to Playa Paraiso and Playa Sirena, which is largely considered the most beautiful beach in Cuba.
Isla de la Juventud is easily accessible by regular flights from Havana, so you can add a day in Old Havana to your itinerary before catching a flight to Nueva Gerona.
Just a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico, Vieques has long been a popular destination with in-the-know travelers looking for one of the best Caribbean islands you can visit from the United States without a passport. While Hurricane Maria devasted the island, even more so than it did Puerto Rico, Vieques has rebuilt and is better than ever, ready to welcome visitors back to its untouched beaches.
Vieques is also home to Mosquito Bay, one of the world’s most famous destinations for experiencing bioluminescence. Popular boat tours ferry visitors to this bay under cover of darkness to witness blue-green glowing waves lapping at the shores, lit brightly by the microorganisms that grow here.
Part of the French-controlled Caribbean, Guadeloupe has all the charm and beauty of other French Caribbean colonies like St. Barths and St. Martin, but with just a fraction of the visitors. Technically an archipelago of several islands, a visit to Guadeloupe isn’t complete without visiting the two largest islands, Basse-Terre and Grand-Terre. Basse-Terre is known for its natural beauty, and its wild landscape is complete with waterfalls and swimming holes in the jungle. Grand-Basse has more of the white sand beaches and coral reefs you might expect from and of the best Caribbean islands.
If you’re a fan of Ernest Hemingway, you may have heard of Cayo Guillermo; the author’s work “Islands in the Stream” lauds this tiny island off the northern coast of Cuba for its incredible natural beauty, shallow coral reefs, and crystal clear waters. Rimmed with some of the best beaches in Cuba, Cayo Guillermo is one of the best Caribbean islands for a getaway at a luxurious all-inclusive resort that may not have been on your radar.
Once a wild and natural getaway, Cayo Guillermo has caught the recent attention of some of the world’s largest hotel chains, and new developments have popped up along the island’s east coast. Staking claim over the island’s most beautiful beach – Playa Pilar – are beautiful Kempinski and Iberostar properties where you can enjoy the beach and countless watersports like snorkeling and diving.
Cayo Guillermo is easily accessible via the Jardines del Rey International Airport on the neighboring island of Cayo Coco, connected to the island by a bridge that prominently displays a statue of Hemingway to remind visitors of its most famous guest.
The rugged and natural Cayo Jutias is yet another under-the-radar island off the coast of mainland Cuba, home to several untouched, wild beaches that make this unique Caribbean destination a true off-the-grid escape. You won’t find any all-inclusive resorts here – just tiny guesthouses and spots for wild camping among the unspoiled beaches.
The easiest way to visit Cayo Jutias is by renting a vintage American car on the Cuban mainland to bring you over the long bridge connecting Cayo Jutias with the rest of Cuba. While some visitors spend days on this laidback, undeveloped paradise island, most choose to come just for the day while in the area visiting Viñales, one of the most picturesque natural destinations in the Caribbean. In combination with a visit to the Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage destination for its unique limestone karst “mountains,” Cayo Jutias makes for a perfect getaway.
Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, the tiny island nation of Dominica is one of the best spots in the Caribbean for ecotourism. Think all things natural beauty: mountains, warm, lush jungles, waterfall, and even volcanic hot springs to bathe in. One of the least visited large Caribbean islands, Dominica is not a place you’ll be overwhelmed by tourism; plan to stay in a boutique hotel or budget accommodation and eat at local joints, where you’ll have delicious and plentiful Caribbean classics.
While you won’t find as many pristine white-sand beaches in Dominica as you will on neighboring islands, don’t count out Dominica as a potential travel destination. Dominica has so much to offer visitors – far beyond what you might imagine of a Caribbean island.
Largely overshadowed by neighboring Aruba and Curacao, Bonaire is one of the best-kept secrets of the Caribbean, still quite undertouristed despite its endless natural beauty. Experienced snorkelers and scuba divers nearly unanimously identify Bonaire as the best spot for undersea exploration in the Caribbean.
Bonaire’s reefs are an excellent destination for beginner divers and snorkelers, as many shore diving destinations have impressive arrays of fish and coral accessible from the beach. However, don’t count it out even if you’re more experienced. In addition to natural underwater beauty, you’ll also find nearly a dozen shipwreck dive sites scattered around the island, including the infamous Hilma Hooker, the wreck of a drug-running vessel that crashed into the reef in the 1980s.
The hidden and underrated dive spots in the Caribbean don’t stop with Bonaire; the tiny island of Carriacou, part of the Grenadines in the Lesser Antilles, is another world-class spot, easily one of the best Caribbean islands for snorkeling and scuba diving. Known as the “Isle of the Reefs,” Carriacou is home to countless dive spots around the island, many accessible by shore and shipwrecks to dive. You’ll also find beautiful beaches here, like the white-sand Paradise Beach, which lives up to its name.
This island is tiny, so if you get antsy, head to Grenada, just a 90-minute ferry ride away. Carriacou is also accessible by plane with regular flights to Grenada.
The Corn Islands
Head 45 miles out into the Caribbean from the coast of Nicaragua, and you’ll hit las Islas del Maiz – the Corn Islands – which are quickly becoming a favorite off-the-beaten-path Caribbean destination. Long a favorite destination for surfers and budget backpackers looking to disconnect, word has gotten out in recent years, and there are more visitors than ever. However, nothing seems to kill the relaxed vibe you’ll enjoy on “the Corns.”
While both islands have beautiful beaches with great opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and surfing, Big Corn Island has more hustle and bustle, plus more accommodation and dining options. Little Corn Island – just a few square kilometers in size – is much more laid back, and there are no cars on the island. Despite being relatively remote, multiple daily flights from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua to Big Corn Island make them easy to reach. Book your visit before word gets out about these underrated hidden gems!
The Rosario Islands
Located just off Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the tiny chain of islands known as las Islas de Rosario – the Rosario Islands – are a favorite Caribbean destination for South American travelers. The Rosario Islands offer a wide range of accommodation options, including everything from luxurious eco-lodges to party hostels, meaning all kinds of travelers can visit these shallow, turquoise waters, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
Just an hour north of Cartagena and frequented by shared and private boats from the city, the Rosario Islands are an easy and relatively inexpensive Caribbean getaway. With cheap international flight into Cartagena and lower-cost accommodation options that you’ll find in most other Caribbean destinations, the Rosario Islands might be the budget Caribbean vacation you’ve been dreaming of.
These unique Caribbean destinations may not be suitable for every traveler, but they have so much to offer visitors looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination. Consider adding these hidden gems to your itinerary for your next Caribbean vacation, and you will have unforgettable experiences enjoying these hidden Caribbean gems.
This post originally appeared on Hello Sensible.
Carley Rojas Avila is an avid traveler and the creator behind Home to Havana. Having visited twenty-five countries and spent years living abroad, she shares destination guides and travel tips to help travelers and digital nomads feel at home when traveling off the beaten path to Havana or beyond.