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Imagine driving through superb tropical landscapes, in the company of vehicles that are relics from half-a-century ago, between glorious colonial towns and dazzling beaches. Add in roads that are lightly travelled, and an amazing diversity within a nation the size of England, and the only possible answer is Cuba.
The Caribbean’s largest island is ideal territory for a fly-drive adventure. Rental cars are readily available and represent excellent value. Even if you are an independent traveller who enjoys using public transport, you might be tempted: while Cuba’s buses and trains have improved in the past 20 years, they are still not frequent enough to allow you speedily to cover the ground between the scenic tobacco-growing lands in the west and the wild countryside and revolutionary history in the east.
Of course, you need not rent a car for the full duration of your stay; if you are planning to spend time in Havana, a vehicle will be a positive disadvantage. Outside the capital, though, from a pragmatic point of view parking restrictions are light – and aesthetically, the range of natural and man-made sights is rich.
If you are taking the only non-stop scheduled flights to Havana, on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, my advice is to start by driving away from the capital. A good first move is to go west on the Autopista Nacional – the motorway that is the backbone of the island’s road network.
In Pinar del Rio province, the Cordillera de Guaniguanico provides a stirring upland companion. The range includes the Sierra de los Organos with the bizarre mogotes – large limestone humps which rise dramatically out of the tobacco fields of the Vinales valley.
Vinales offers splendid hiking, as well as the most environmentally sensitive aspects of tourism in Cuba. A great place to stay for your first night is the Hotel Los Jazmines, a handsome early-20th-century mansion with superb views. Then explore the Vinales National Park north of the town, which includes fascinating caves and spectacular views. You can also aim for the north coast, where some lovely coves and beaches are blissfully empty.
Then move gently east, possibly pausing at the southern port of Batabano for a side-trip to the Isle of Youth – for some rejuvenation and diving. Ferries are erratic, though, and you may want to leave the car on the mainland.
The Zapata Peninsula gets its name from the shape on the map – like a shoe (zapata) kicking into the Gulf of Batabano. It is Cuba’s prime rainforest area. Continuing west, you can tick of one fascinating city after another: Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila. By now the autopista has ended, and the journey continues on the Carretera Central. Camaguey is certainly worth a stop, Las Tunas less so. But make a detour to Bayamo and the province of Granma. (Granma, by the way, means “grandmother” – it is the name of the cabin cruiser used by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and their comrades for the 1956 landing that began the revolution.)
The beaches along the flat south-eastern shore of Cuba are superb, but the towns and cities are even more compelling. Santiago, “Hero City of the Revolution,” contains the Moncada Barracks where Fidel Castro led his first, unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Batista regime. You can drive into the Sierra Maestra, where the rebels set up camp while rousing support to continue the struggle.
Further west, Guantanamo is a handsome city in its own right – but best known for the US naval base where Washington keeps detainees. One of the most eerie experiences of fly-drive in Cuba is when the military radio station accompanies you as you drive along the coast.
Baracoa, close to Cuba’s “Land’s End, is reached by a fabulously sinuous drive through the mountains. It is a sleepy, seductive town that captivated Columbus in 1492.
Feeling adventurous? The road along the north coast was, when I last tried, navigable with care. The resort of Guadalavaca provides some en-route indulgence, while the city of Holguin is a friendly place ideal for getting under the skin of Cuba.
Along the north coast, many of the cays – sand and coral islands – have been developed for tourism. Yet colonial Cuba is never far away. The exquisite town of Remedios is close to Cayo Santa Maria, yet mass tourism seems a million miles away. Likewise, Cardenas projects the gently crumbling face of a nation hamstrung by the US economic embargo, while nearby Varadero shows how tourism has been harnessed to rescue the ailing post-Soviet economy of Cuba.
Varadero is one end of the Via Blanca, a late 1950s project that provides one of Cuba’s great drives – returning you to the capital for some much-deserved rest and relaxation in the warm embrace of Old Havana.
Havana to Cienfuegos
All distances to points across the nation are measured from the Capitolio building in Havana, and this is an excellent place to survey automotive history – with one spluttering old relic from Detroit after another – before heading south-east, pausing for a bit of a jungle adventure then visiting a beach.
The Autopista Nacional really should be called the Highway to the Sun.
A great place to get in touch with the nature of this voluptuous island is Guama, where you can board a boat to explore more deeply. You are taken across the Laguna del Tesoro – treasure lake – which got its name because when the conquistadores arrived, the local people decided to throw their riches into the lake rather than hand them over to the Spanish.
To give you an idea of what life was like, a Taino village has been recreated, with thatched huts on stilts dotted around the island that you can rent.
Close by, the Cueva de los Peces is the deepest flooded tectonic fault in Cuba – and a great place to cool off. It translates as “the cave of the fish” and this limestone void, a cenote, is said to be over 200 feet deep.
Playa Giron is central to the story of 20th-century Cuba. After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, the United States was not exactly delighted by the turn of events. A force of 1,400 Cuban exiles was trained by the CIA, and in April 1961 they landed here at what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The attack was a catastrophic failure. Fidel Castro took personal command of repelling the invaders. The story of Plan Pluto – or the Bay of Pigs Invasion, or the invasion de Playa Giron – was launched from Nicaragua, and defeated within days, is told in the museum opposite a good all-inclusive resort.
Your timing is good for the next leg, because a newly opened road cuts a big corner and brings you to Cienfuegos in barely an hour. By the standards of Cuban cities, it’s relatively new – founded in 1819 – and I think rather lovely. It was founded by a French settler, Louis Clement, and is full of 19th century French architecture.
One of my favourite hotels in all of Cuba is here: La Union. It’s right in the centre – though if you hide away in the beautiful courtyard you feel a world away from the activity outside. It’s a garden in the city with lovely details such as the tiles.
A block away is the main square, the Parque Jose Marti, which for me has many of the ingredients that makes Cuba unique and so adorable. The Teatro Tomas Terry was bequeathed by a Venezuelan industrialist – have a peak into the exquisite auditorium. There’s a statue of Jose Marti, the father of free Cuba, and the national hero for whom the square is named – and a triumphal arch celebrating the independence he fought for. The Casa de la Cultura, house of culture, a feature of every Cuban town and city. This one’s a particular favourite of mine. And the governor’s palace. Yet there is an even more impressive palace at the other end of town.
The Palacio de Valle, created by a sugar merchant called Ascisclo de Valle y Blanco, whose imagination was as extravagant as his name. In the early 20th century he bought a patch of land here at Punta Gorda, the most exclusive part of town, and created a Hispanic-Moorish masterpiece.