So much to see, so little time. You’re best to concentrate your focus on Habana Vieja, where the main plazas are chock-full of museums and historic sites. Don’t miss Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza Vieja, where Taberna La Muralla serves delicious home-brewed beer (and its new larger twin which offers an expansive beer garden overlooking Havana harbour by the Arts & Craft market). In many regards, the entire island is a lived-in museum: the two-part Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes displays a stunning collection of art; be sure to visit both the international and Cuban sections.
Sure, it’s melancholic and occasionally gory, but for a profile on the Revolution, the Museo de la Revolución, nearby, is de rigueur. Next, stroll the Malecón and the tree-shaded streets of Vedado, taking in the Cemeterio de Colón and Plaza de la Revolución—it’s a long walk, deserving a refreshing ice cream at Coppelia and a mojito pick-me-up on the garden bar of the 1930s-era Hotel Nacional. Linger for an evening of entertainment at the hotel’s Cabaret Parisién followed by some bolero at El Gato Tuerto, nearby. Now pick up a rental car. Before leaving town, visit Parque Histórico-Militar Morro Cabaña.
Driving west into Pinar del Río Province, skip the Autopista in favor of the Circuito Norte coast road. You’ll need a good map to avoid missing the turnoff for Las Terrazas, worth a visit to see this experimental rural community with artists’ studios and nature trails. Your goal is Viñales, a sleepy and delightful village surrounded by mogotes—fantastic limestone formations. Touristy it may be, but a boat ride through the Cuevas del Indio is worthwhile. Overnight at Hotel Los Jazmines, perched atop a mogote, with fantastic views (room in the original structure are best) and the best food in town. To explore the tobacco fields, take an excursion to Finca El Pinar in San Luis, near San Juan y Martínez (the town of Pinar del Río can be skipped); here you can see the famous finca of the late Alejandro Robaina, now managed by his son and grandchildren.
There’s no avoiding the long, boring drive via the Autopista to reach Cienfuegos. Get an early start. At Jagüey Grande turn south for Península de Zapata, stopping for lunch at Restaurante El Colibrí, at Boca de Guamá. Fill up on gas here and tour the crocodile farm before continuing to Playa Girón, site of the Bay of Pigs landing. The Museo Playa Girón will excite military and history buffs. From here, the route via Yaguaramas leads via impoverished yet photogenic old-world farming communities. Arriving in Cienfuegos around sunset, check into the Hotel Unión, one block from the main square. The hotel has an excellent albeit overly-chilled restaurant, but for ambience join the other tourists in town for lobster at Palacio del Valle—the city’s astounding architectural gem—despite its worn feel and overrated dishes.
Beat the heat for a stroll around Cienfuegos’ Parque Martí before heading east along the Circuito Sur. The forested Sierra Escambray mountains drop down to the dancing teal—blue Caribbean Sea — an impressive backdrop for the roller—coaster ride to Trinidad, Cuba’s foremost colonial city. Just exploring the streets here is reward enough. The superbly run deluxe Iberostar Gran Trinidad is the place to stay for those with deep pockets; otherwise select a casa particular (private room rental), such as Casa Colonial Muñoz. After dinner at Paladar Estela, you’ll want to take in traditional music at the Casa de la Trova then get in the groove at Disco Ayala, inside a cave. An organized excursion to the Salto de Caburní waterfall in the Sierra Escambray or a steam train ride through the Valle de los Ingenios are fun side trips.
The drive to Sancti Spíritus is a scenic stunner. Pass by Sancti Spíritus town and follow the Carretera Central eastbound. Stop for a traditional country lunch at Finca Oasis (12 miles east of Ciego de Ávila) and arrive in Camagüey in mid-afternoon. The “City of Plazas” is well-named. Plaza San Juan de Dios is the place to be at sunset. Next day you can explore the other key plazas. Camagüey is a large city. Take your time strolling, being sure not to miss Plaza del Carmen, with its life-like figures of actual locals going about their business. The best hotel in town (and a bargain) is the Hotel Colón, a restored colonial gem. If Ballet de Camagüey is performing at Teatro Principal, don’t miss it!
Santiago de Cuba
It’s a full day’s drive to Santiago de Cuba, passing through Las Tunas and Bayamo, where Cuba’s independence struggle was spawned. After lunch at the bodega-themed La Sevillana, take a couple of hours to explore around Parque Céspedes then continue via El Cobre, to visit the Basilica. Arriving in Santiago de Cuba, check into the Hotel San Basilio, in the heart of the colonial quarter (for more sophistication, the Meliá Santiago reaches toward international par). The main downtown sites of interest—Plaza Dolores, Parque Céspedes, Museo Bacardí —can be seen in one day, with enough time also for Cuartel Moncada and Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia. Drive out to Parque Histórico El Morro for the sunset cañonazo and a criollo meal at Restaurante El Morro. Nightlife? The Casa de la Trova is world-renowned venue for son à la Buena Vista Social Club, and the Tropicana cabaret is a blast.
Head east to Guantánamo and just east of town, turn north for the Zoológico de Piedra—an amazing “stone zoo” with representations of animals from around the world. Further along, steel yourself for La Farola, the thrilling mountain road that leads to Baracoa, the oldest city in Cuba. Here make Hotel El Castillo your base. The views from this former castle are spectacular, and the restaurant is the best in town. Take time for an excursion to the dramatic mountain called El Yunque, and check out Museo Arquelógico Cueva del Paraíso. Otherwise, Baracoa is all about absorbing the ancient city’s esoteric mood. For that, walk the streets.
Set out early for Holguín Province via the badly denuded coast road. Allow four hours to arrive at Cueto, just before which turn south for Sitio Histórico de Birán, Fidel Castro’s birthplace; the original homestead has been recreated in idealized form. Retrace your steps north, continuing via Banes—a superbly scenic drive—and the Chorro de Maíta archeological site. Overnight at Guardalavaca, where all-inclusives are your sole option for accommodation: if you have the budget, the Occidental Grand Playa Turquesa, on Playa Yuraguanal, offers the most refinement; Brisas Guardalavaca Resort is the better bargain, albeit soulless.
Head out early for Holguín with time to stroll historic Plaza Calixto García and Plaza San José. Then, head west along the Carretera Central, turning north at Guáimaro to reach the Circuito Norte coast road. You’ll arrive at Cayo Coco in time for dusk and the spectacular flight of flamingoes returning to their nighttime roosts. You’ve earned time for two full days relaxing on sugar-white beaches, with time for watersports, including diving and even sport fishing. Where to stay depends on your budget: all-inclusive resorts are the only option. The Spanish-run Meliá Cayo Coco is best.
Suitably rested, return to the Circuito Norte at Morón and head west to Remedios, another colonial gem worth an hour’s stroll. If you’re traveling around year’s end, time your visit for the Christmas Day parranda, when the entire town explodes in firework fever (book accommodation far in advance). A spectacular side-trip is to Cayo Santa María, which adds two hours’ round trip but offers sublime sands and seas. Continue to Santa Clara. The Monumento al Che Guevara and, beneath it, the fabulous Museo del Che is a must and if you have a chance at night visit El Mejunje (a fascinating cultural center).
The Autopista brushes past Santa Clara, returning you to Havana in four hours where you can continue with your exploration of the stunning capital city. Your last night in Havana should merit a final splurge and where better than at La Guarida, the most intimate and atmospheric Cuban paladar. Afterwards, if you have not seen a top class Cuban band play, then you really have no excuse not to go now. Pulsating music and a great atmosphere guaranteed.
Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO’S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
Christopher P Baker
“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph May 2014 In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.
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