Whether you will prefer Cayo Santa Maria or Varadero largely depends on two things: (1) How much you enjoy parties and the company of lots of other tourists and (2) how much time you have planned for staying on the beach.
(1) The Tourist Factor Or How Much You Love Sharing Your Beach
While both, Varadero beach and the Cayo beaches, are incredibly beautiful, Varadero is much more crowded. Varadero is relatively famous and probably the most popular beach that is relatively close to Havana. Therefore there will always be other tourists. Also, younger people tend to go to Varadero rather than to the Cayos exactly because there is much more going on in Varadero. There are more night clubs and you will likely get to know other travellers without much effort. Hence, if you like going out and meet new people, Varadero is the beach you want. If you prefer a romantic couple getaway to a rather remote beach without loud music and lots of other people, choose one of the Cayos.
(2) The Time Factor
For the majority of tourists in Cuba, Havana is a must. If that holds for you too and you are not planning to stay at least a few days on a beach and time is limited, Varadero seems to be a good solution. It takes around two hours to get to Varadero and there are buses going from Havana to Varadero several times a day. There are even organised day trips from Havana to Varadero which bring you back to your hotel in Havana at night. It takes around 6 hours to go from Havana to the Cayo beaches but the bus schedule is not as straightforward. Hence, depending on whether you are taking a private bus operator or the state operator you need to plan a bit more time in to get to the Cayo beach. Therefore it makes sense to stay at least 3 nights over there to make it worth the trip.
Hence, if you are a party animal and have limited time, go to Varadero. If you are on a romantic honeymoon and want to spend a few days on a beautiful beach, drive up to the Cayos.
The Cayo beaches also make perfect sense if you are planning to visit other cities in Cuba as well (and have a few days allocated for beach time), e.g. Trinidad where you could pass by on your way back from the Cayo to Havana.
We decided to spend 4 nights in Cayo Santa Maria – which was absolutely beautiful and quiet :) Photos of Cayo Santa Maria below!