My Cuban roadtrip hasn’t even started yet, when the first problems already appeared. Who would have thought it is that complicated to rent a car? But with that first challenge mastered I was looking forward to an intriguing ride over the Caribbean island to see it’s broad spectrum and beauty. What followed were 18 days and 3,000 km of adventure, nearly no internet access, coping with the permanent shortage of everything, the indifferent road conditions and even a a visit at the local police station after an attempted fraud – but also highly enjoyable nature, beautiful pastel colored towns, beaches with turquoise water, interesting historic insights, hospitable locals and quiet a few Mojito’s! Cuba is absolutely worth a trip but be prepared for a country incomparable to other places in the world and an adventure that I would call the ‘charming challenge of improvisation’.
Before describing the route we did – which covered nearly all of the country – here are some general tipps for your roadtrip through Cuba:
- Download an offline map prior your trip (nearly no wifi, rare street signs, unclear traffic situation – trust me, you want to have a working GPS in your car… and the rentals mostly don’t have one included)
- Avoid driving in the dark! Potholes are already hard to see during the day, but during the night they’re fatal.
- Watch out obstacles on the street. And with that I do not only mean potholes, but also vendors who jump on the highway to present onions or cheese to passing cars, hitchhikers, very slow horse-drawn carriages, trucks that suddenly stop on the street with no indication or warning or just animals passing the street (we had two pretty intense emergency brakes to save the lifes of a suicidal goat and a world-weary cow).
- Learn how to overtake foresighted but fearless – otherwise you will be stuck behind a sooty truck and you’ll probably never arrive.
- Always ask the people you stay at where to park your car, they’ll point out a neighbors garage or a friendly old man in the next side street who will watch your car during the night for a little remuneration of 2 or 3 CUC per night. Better than missing a tire or the radio the next day!
- Not all petrol stations will have the gas you need! Rental cars normally need petrol with minimum 91 octane – but as Cuba has way more old classic cars that run with lower octane some petrol stations only have 80 or so… take that into account and never run too low on petrol.
- Don’t be confused about why other cars give you headlight flashers all the time – it’s probably just other cars trying to forcefully warn you that there is a police standing somewhere on the side of the road – even if it’s still some miles away…
DAY 1-3: MATANZAS
After arriving in Varadero we didn’t want to stay in this very touristy and resort-plastered place, so we picked up the rental car at the airport and drove 20 minutes to the next town – Matanzas, the birthplace of rumba and the Cuban city of bridges. Probably the opposite of busy Varadero this place makes a perfect start for a Cuba trip with it’s unagitated atmosphere, organised city structure and beautiful squares and parks. Hostel Azul is a popular casa particular to stay, there but as this was fully booked they took us to Casa Verde – a homestay that is run by an adorable, but only spanish-speaking, old women.
From Matanzas you can go for a day trip to Varadero (toll 2 CUC each way), to check out the indeed stunning beach, or some entertainment in the Beatles bar or one of the other thousand tourist bars along the strip.
Another must-do in the area is the big cave-system “Cuevas de Bellamar”. It’s a bit tricky to get there and if you don’t want to risk going through a pedestrian tunnel (our car could not have been one millimeter bigger!) you should ask for directions before getting there.
DAY 3-4: CIENFUEGOS
Just a tiny detour on the way from Matanzes to Cienfuegos is Colon – a town that seems as time stands still there. Pastel colored houses with porches and swing doors, men walking through the streets with cowboy hats and many many horse-drawn carriages in between the classic cars. Certainly not conceived for tourism but particularly because of that absolutely worth a short stop.
Cienfuegos, apparently the Paris of Cuba, has two major areas to stay – weather all the way in the south at the water, or closer to the center around “Parque de José Martí” or “Parque de la Juventud”. The colonial town is a UNESCO world heritage area and very easy to explore with it’s grid layout. Walk along Paseo El Prado, enjoy Parque de José Martí with its distinctive arc and the splendid theatre building.
Best case if there is no cruise ship stopping at the moment, otherwise the city will be packed with busses and tourists doing guided tours (yes our timing wasn’t that great – but nevertheless a nice, chilled place with a beautiful sunset!). If you arrive not too late one night is enough to get an impression of the town and to see the main sights.
DAY 4-6: TRINIDAD
The next day we left already to Trinidad, but with a little stopover at Guanaroca Lagoon – a lake where you get carried by rowboat to an area with hundreds of flamingos (1hr boatride for 10CUC per person).
After that we drove to Trinidad – the roads are quiet good, just a little hilly, and the trip takes about 1,5 hours. Trinidad is a pure gem – it has the little colorful houses and street art you always imagine when you think of Cuba, but it’s also close to the mountains and the beach. The town is really lively – many people on the streets, music, good restaurants, bars and a techno club in a cave, called Ayala.
We stayed for 2 nights and on our full day we did a 4 hour hiking trip to the waterfall Vegas Grande in the Parque National the Topes de Collantes (pretty steep and slippery trail, but at the end we were the only people at the waterfall which was worth the exhausting hike). Afterwards we drove half an hour back to Trinidad and another half an hour further to the beach Playa Ancon, where we cooled and relaxed our sore legs, soaked a bit of the afternoon sun and watched the sunset before heading back to Trinidad for a big dinner.
DAY 6-8: CAMAGÜEY
Nearly halfway between Trinidad and Camagüey is the little town of Sancti Spiritus and that’s absolutely worth stopping. The colorful and hilly town amazes with it’s main square, the bright blue cathedral and the vivid pedestrian street where I can only recommend to get some churros con leche! We spend an hour there before we headed further.
When arriving in Camagüey you should know where to go because the labyrinth-like town with it’s weirdly organized one-way-streets will confuse you at first and sometimes you have to go a huge detour by car to reach a place that would have taken you only 5 minutes to walk to. Camagüey is the the capital of churches, so if you are intested in different sacral architecture that’s the place to go. Furthermore it has a nice street with 3 cinemas and movie-themed cafés and restaurants. Eat the cheap peso-pizza there – it’s great! As the weather wasn’t great when we were there we went to the cinema twice – it’s only 0,50 cents per person! There’s also a lake with a big icecream place some km outside the town but as the weather wasn’t ideal we skipped this one.
We stayed 2 nights – but 1 would maybe be enough too in my opinion. We stayed in a nice hostel which style is described as ‘tropical minimalism’: it’s called Natural Caribe, it offers 2 rooms, a nice breakfast with every pastry you can imagine and the best vegetarian dinner we had in a Casa in Cuba (thanks again to the uncle of Rafael for cooking!).
DAY 8-10: SANTIAGO DE CUBA
Another nice stopover is Bayamo – on the way from Camagüey to Santiago. The roads are quiet bad or sometimes disappear at all, but when you get there and do a little stroll through the tiny city center you’ll see an authentic side of Cuba. Also there is the big plaza a bit outside the city where Fidel Castro held one of his last speeches in 2006.
A few hours further is Santiago, the second biggest city in Cuba and the capital of the Oriente. And it’s truly a great city! Full of history and views, a lot of music (Casa de Trova!), great churros (Lucky Churros) and a fort in the south (El Morro – Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca) that has the best sunset views. Stay at least 2 nights as there is a lot to discover. If you have more time you can even do a hike in the famous Sierra Maestra, where Fidel and Che were once hiding from their opponents in the guerrilla war.
A two hour ride away – on the way to Baracoa (we didn’t make it till there although people tell it’s nice there too) – is Guantanamo, a chilled city that has few to do with it’s namely reputation and the nearby naval base. From a viewpoint at a restaurant nearby the city you can take a look at the navel base, but honestly the only thing you can see is the airstrip… so not as exiting as it may sound.
DAY 10-11: HOLGUIN
An about 4 hour drive from Santiago to the north is Holguin, the capital of the eponymous province, where Cristopher Columbus first landed in 1492. Nearly halfway, just a short detour from the main road is the little town of Birán and close to there is the birth house of Fidel Castro, which is now a museum and an interesting place to visit as this place is not overcrowded and really interesting regarding the history of Cuba.
Make sure to grab a delicious coconut on the way (2 coconuts for 1CUC) from a seller at the street and drive further to Holguin. After checking in in one of the casas there just walk through the city center (it’s actually the 3rd biggest city in Cuba, but it feels really small). It has 3 main squares connected through one main road, all really close to each other. There’s a big mural and some nice churches along the way. Holguin is full of music and dance, as there is a big conservatory and many dance schools – if you are lucky some groups present their dances on the main square at night.
The next morning go for a morning hike up to Loma de la Cruz – the local mountain just on the north side of the city which gives you an amazing view. It’s recommended to do that before the midday heat as the 458 steps are quiet exhausting to climb anyway.
One night in Holguin is enough to get a good impression, so after that early workout you can sit back in the car and drive to your next destination – some days at the beach to relax from all the city flair.
DAY 11-13: PLAYA SANTA LUCÍA
As our next destination Santa Clara was a very long drive from Holguin, we decided to stop over in a place in between on the beach. So we went to Playa Santa Lucia – and stayed not in the main hotel area, but further to the north at Playa Coco (La Boca) in a nice casa particular called ‘Hostal Coco Beach’. We enjoyed lying at the beach with barely other people around, but just after sunset we got attacked by the sandflies and got some pretty nasty bites – beware of that!
The next day we decided not to leave yet but stay another night and use the day to do some diving at Shark’s Friends. There is a coral reef (which is ok but I saw better ones) and a ship wreck (that’s awesome) where you can dive to. Normally you need the Open Water License but as we both dove before they took us out anyway with an extra instructor. After that we enjoyed the rest of the day at the beach and on our way home stopped at the swampy area between the peninsula and the mainland to see some flamingos. We did see a lot of them but also got nearly eaten alive by mosquitos. Beware of that too!
We let the day end with good food and some Mojitos on the deck of our hostel right at the water.
DAY 13-14: SANTA CLARA
Santa Clara is of historical significance for the Cuban revolution and the person of Che Guevara. Castro’s troups around Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos captured the city in 1958 and therewith opened the way to Havana. The city cherishs its revolutionists with big monuments and murals, that are pretty impressive. BUT if you go by car to the big momument of Che (Monumento Memorial Che Guevara) you are very likely to become a target of a scam: Someone destroyed a tire valve of our car which was as a result leaking air. Then someone on a bike came by to offer help and bring us to a mechanic. Don’t do that! We found ourselves in the middle of a big fraud where they first tried to steal the tire and as this plan didn’t succeed they tried to extort money from us. When we realized in what situation we were in we used the second these guys were far away from the car to jump in, lock the doors and drive off… but we had to report that incident to the rental service and the police – all in Spanish… Please save you this experience and do not go there by car).
Besides that unpleasant happening and the trouble it caused for us, we had a good time in Santa Clara – the casa we stayed in was the best we had in whole Cuba (friendly owners, good beds, nice light, amazing bathroom) and the restaurant we ate dinner was also the best restaurant we’ve been to in Cuba. And the good thing: they’re right next to each other: The restaurant is called Hostal Florida Center (also a casa to stay at) and the casa particular right next to is called Hostal Candeleria (owner Carmen is a dear).
Because of the good casa and the nice food we thought we could have stayed longer than just one night but then we remembered the car-scam and we were happy to leave town (after inflating our tire at a reliable petrol station).
DAY 14-16: VINALES
A 7 hour drive from Santa Clara to the west is Viñales – a little town in the middle of lush landscape and alluring mountain ranges. The town itself is nothing exiting – mainly built to serve tourism purposes – but THE thing to do there is horseback riding. Four to five hours on a horseback through the valley along tabacco fields, coffee plantations and great nature. No riding experience is required. Wear long pants and bring a sweater in case it starts raining. Viñales is very different to the rest of Cuba and because of that absolutely worth the trip to the west of Havana.
After the horseback ride you can relax your sore legs in the pool of one of the two big hotels, which are located on the mountain so you have a great view from there: Hotel Las Jazmines or Hotel La Ermita.
We stayed 2 nights in a great casa in the town of Viñales: Casa El Balcon – try to get the big room in front with its own entrance… it’s really cool with its big windows (architecture-wise in Cuba nearly no room that is for rent had windows to the outside). They also make good dinner there.
On your way to the last stop – Havana – you can stop by the town of Pinar del Rio, which is very close to Viñales. We wanted to do so too, but were already annoyed by the touts trying to bring us somewhere or sell us something even before we really got out of the car. That’s why we only drove to a beverage factory, bought some local guava liqueur and continued to Havana.
DAY 16-19: HAVANA
Save the best for last… that’s what they say, right? We were really exited to go to Havana and we didn’t get disappointed – but we were really happy that we did it last as it is not the ‘real Cuba’. It’s much more developed and – for Cuba – in some areas even modern.
It has three main areas: Havana Vieja – the old Havana – with the Capitol and big, splendid houses, big squares, plenty of museums (Museo de la Revolucion is a must!) and polished classic cars offering tours through the city. That’s the main area for tourists. Then there is Havana Vedado in the west – a nice neighborhood with the university, the Coppelia ice cream parlor (you wait at least 30-40minutes for icecream but a scoop is just 0,05$ / 0,05€) and the Hotel Nacional as probably its main attractions. This is a younger, but still interesting neighborhood for visitors. In between those two areas is the neighborhood of Havana Centro… it’s not really a center – just the center between the two real centers so to say. You can immediately see the difference to the two other parts as the houses and cars here are way more run-down and there are even parts of the houses completely missing. Nevertheless this area is worth a visit: see how the locals play domino in the middle of the street or buy their meet out of a kitchen window or eat at a little booth where they sell cheap fast food for a few pesos.
We lived in Centro and spend one full day in Vieja and one in Vedado – so 3 nights is a minimum for Havana. Don’t miss a walk along the Malecon and see the waves crashing against the quay wall and the water splashing on the street every now and then.
There are a lot of places to eat – for all budgets. So just follow your nose and again – don’t say no to churros as you have to spend your pesos anyway (you can’t change them back into another currency).
What’s your impression of Cuba or what do you imagine to see when you go? I met a lot of people with different opinions on that country, so please share you’re view with me – I’m exited to hear other experiences!!