Featuring must-see destinations such as Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, and Cayo Santa Maria, Simon Calder’s fly drive trip to Cuba offers a great source of inspiration for the independent-minded traveller. Here’s our break-down of his itinerary.
Departing from Havana and covering must-see destinations in western and central Cuba (2-week trip), travel journalist Simon Calder’s fly-drive holiday in Cuba offers a great starting point for planning a road trip in Cuba. In this article, we take a look at the itinerary from the perspective of a Cuba holidays specialist and offer additional tips for travellers wishing to replicate this experience. We break down his itinerary day by day to give our readers tips, trivia, and even notice spots Calder missed during his adventure on the Cuban roads. If you wish to see details and prices for fly drive holidays just like this, click here or give us a call on 0207 148 3042.
Simon Calder Fly Drive in Cuba: Part 1
From the nostalgic streets of Havana to the Zapata Swamps and Cienfuegos, the first part of Simon Calder’s road trip in Cuba is the most adventurous and intriguing.
Calder’s road trip begins in Havana and ends in the coastal city of Cienfuegos. Along the way, the Independent’s travel journalist discovers the aboriginal village of Guama at the centre of Treasure Lake – only accessible by boat, the crocodile farms, and historic Bay of Pigs.
Cuba is approximately the same size as England, but longer and thinner. It is not a good idea to try and cover lots of ground in one day; by taking your time you’ll be able to enjoy a more relaxing trip and experience everything to the full. Besides, some of the roads are a little bit winding and perhaps not quite to the standards that you’re used to. Very good fun though!
First Stop: Zapata Swamps and Guama
After leaving Havana and taking the Autopista Nacional - the National motorway, also known as “8- Vias”, The Eight Lanes - you’ll soon arrive to Jaguey Grande. It is really hard to miss as it is the first major junction on the motorway after leaving Havana. It is well signalled and you’ll notice traffic slowing down due to police speed checks in the area.
The road between Jaguey Grande and Playa Giron is a straight line with sites of interest reasonably easy to spot (the crocodile farms, Guama, Laguna del Tesoro, and the Giron museum, for instance).
The detour to Guama, accessible by boat, is a great addition to this road trip. The boat trip is good fun and features fantastic tropical landscapes along with the Taino village (the name of the aboriginal settlers in this area before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors). The village, though not authentic, gives you a good overview of the way native Cubans used to live, their traditions and cultural practices. There are crocodile farms are nearby and the flooded cave, of Cueva de los Peces, provides a great spot to swim. The museum of Playa Giron retells the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 (Bay of Pigs Invasion) and Playa larga offers a nice beach along with some of the best diving spots in the island.
Cueva de los Peces is the largest flooded tectonic cave in Cuba (Over 200 feet deep).
At the Museum of Giron, check out the British C-Fury that helped sink the invading ships. The invasion was thwarted in less than three days and all prisoners sent back to the US in exchange for tonnes of baby food and medical supplies.
This leg of the road trip ends in Cienfuegos. We’d recommend staying overnight and recovering from all the excitement. Cienfuegos is a farming city, off-the-beaten-track and blessed with beautiful natural surroundings. Its classic French architecture, strong musical culture, lovely castle overlooking the bay, and the Escambray Mountains dotted with tropical jungle are among the charms visitors enjoy the most about this city, known to Cubans as “the southern pearl”.
Not far from Cienfuegos the sombre domes of the Juragua Nuclear Power Plant lie dormant. This was the single attempt by the Soviet Union to transfer nuclear technology to the tropical island. The project was abandoned in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, much to the relief of the American Government (memories from the 1961 missile crisis are still fresh among some groups in the US). The power plant is now inhabited by sheep; they do not seem to mind.
PART 2: Escambray and Trinidad
Upon leaving Cienfuegos, Simon Calder takes a detour to visit the Escambray mountains, specifically to meet with the coffee growers in the area. He learns some of the ancient techniques that they use to roast and brew the dark elixir (as quintessentially Cuban as tea to the British).
After a short break, the travel journalist heads to Trinidad, taking the Circuito Sur (South Circuit) Road. This is a winding track with spectacular views towards the Caribbean Sea, long bridges running atop isolated coves, and the majestic Escambray Mountains to the north. I personally love it.
Trinidad is one of the secret gems of Cuba, and one of our favourite destinations. Not as popular as Varadero or Havana -- meaning you will not compete for photo opportunities with dozens of fellow travellers -- but popular enough to have a tradition welcoming foreign visitors (tourist-ready, so to speak).
The best part about Trinidad is that the old colonial town is one of those rare all-in-one destinations. It not only has heaps of character and rich traditions but enjoys a dramatic landscape of mountains, valleys and endless trails in the tropical jungle, making it popular with cycling and trekking enthusiasts. Its beautiful Caribbean beach (Playa Ancon) is the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the warm waters that Cuba is famed for.
Something we’d do differently: a visit to El Nicho
There’s one thing we’d do differently. Instead of visiting the coffee farms and the Giant’s Garden trail in Escambray, we’d take the opportunity to visit El Nicho waterfalls. Take a look at the pictures above and see if you would agree.
PART 3. Trinidad to Cayo Santa Maria
This is the part of Simon Calder’s itinerary where we would make the most changes.
The travel journalist, on leaving Trinidad, makes a stop to visit Valle de los Ingenios (The Sugar Mills Valley). Then continues to the City of Sancti Spiritus, making a short stop in Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara Memorial and then moves on to the colonial village of Remedios. He finishes this stage of the road trip by the gorgeous beaches of Cayo Santa Maria.
Here’s what we would do differently:
- Stay for a bit longer in Trinidad. 2-3 nights is our minimum recommended stay. There’s much to do in this lovely colonial city that you’d be missing by rushing through it.
- Instead of leaving the visit to Valle de los Ingenios for the last day, take a day trip and return to Trinidad. The road between Trinidad and Cayo Santa Maria is a bit tortuous, you’ll want to travel rested and make only the essential stops.
- Skip the visit to Sancti Spiritus city and drive straight to Santa Clara. You can see from the video that even the travel journalist struggles to find enough attractions there. Churros and a bridge are not enough to justify the extra hours added to the itinerary. It is a lovely city but not quite yet “tourist ready”.
- Besides, driving directly to Santa Clara will save you a good couple of hours driving.
- Santa Clara and Remedios are short stops, not places to stay overnight unless you are particularly interested in Cuban heritage. Santa Clara is rich in revolution history and Remedios was one of the first villages founded by the Spanish. Remedios is also home to what is probably the largest Christmas festival in the Caribbean, "Las Parrandas de Remedios".
Time to head back to Havana and conclude your fly and drive adventure. But if you must return to Havana, why not take a tiny detour and visit Cuba’s most famous beach resort?
Varadero is on the way anyway, and not only boasts some of Cuba’s most beautiful beaches but enjoys a cultural scene like no other Cuban beach resort.
What’s more, the drive from Varadero to Havana on Via Blanca (the motorway that connects the two cities directly and runs along the north coast) is a lot more fun than a monotonous drive along the motorway. You’ll get to drive through the city of Matanzas, visit Cuevas de Bellamar (a large cave system just outside Varadero), enjoy the imposing scenery in Bacunayagua (home to Cuba’s highest bridge), and drive by the beaches closest to Havana: Guanabo and Santa Maria del Mar. Great fun!
Just a few miles before arriving to Havana, you’ll notice a large building complex, bungalows and a marina on your right-hand side. You are seeing Tarara, which went from holiday destination of the Cuban upper classes in the 1950’s to a school and resort for international students during the Revolution. In the 1990s, the luxurious town functioned as a recovery resort for Ukrainian children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Foreign companies’ representatives now reside in the villas.
Calder's trip ends here. A good night's rest in Havana is recommended before dropping off your car and heading to Havana’s International Airport for a pleasant flight home.