Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and the 17th largest in the world. It stretches 780 miles long and has a population of 11 million. The views and landscapes are fantastic and sometimes breathtaking. No one had prepared us for the rolling hills and deep green rain forest, the splendid beaches and pastures, the cows, the goats and the vultures. With every turn came a new tropical surprise. There is one main, national highway and a few provincial, very-country roads that connect the smaller towns. If you do decide to get on the road in Cuba, like we did, there are a few things you should prepare for:
- Order your rental car in advance. There are very few cars on the island, let alone rental car companies. A friend recommended a UK travel agent to organize this for us but I am certain you could go directly through Rex, the most reliable with the best cars. You can find offices in each terminal at the airport and they accept US credit cards!
- Don’t drive one of the old 50s cars. It sounds like heaps of fun and like you’ll be the coolest tourists ever, but unless you want to get stuck on the side of the road waiting for a horse and carriage to save you, or overnight at a mechanic’s I strongly recommend the not-so-cool car. A friendly man at the gas station warned us about a pending flat tire and fixed it in ten minutes.
- Don’t drive at night. Many people warned us about that. I think this is mainly because there isn’t too much street lighting. Every day after work, people who don’t own a car, stand on the side of the road and hitchhike to get home. It’s quite dangerous, for them and for passing vehicules because they don’t show up until they’re in front of your headlights. On New Year’s Eve we saw a fatal accident in front of our building…
Our trip started on New Year’s Day in Havana. We drove – severely hungover, mind you – four hours on the main highway South East to Cienfuegos, a fairly clean, crisp and new looking town. We ate lunch at the main hotel – most places close on January 1st – and took the scenic route for another couple of hours to Trinidad, a perfectly preserved Colonial settlement, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1988.
We spent three nights in Trinidad. Which is the perfect amount of time to enjoy its beautiful beach, Playa Ancon, hike to the waterfalls of Topes de Collantes and wander around the cobble stone maze of roads and brightly colored buildings. We spent one night at Bertha’s and Benito’s ridiculously cute Casa and two nights at the overpriced, but comfortable Iberostar Hotel. (More about Trinidad on Friday!)
From Trinidad we moved on to Santa Clara, described in Lonely Planet as the “edgiest” of all Cuban cities. I wasn’t that impressed. If anything it was de-pressing, and too rundown to be quaint. Despite the young population of students – there is an important University here – and the appeal of a grand Che Guevara monument, there’s not much to do in this town. The highlight was perhaps our stay at Hostal Florida Center, a modest but beautiful Casa with several guest rooms and an overgrown courtyard that transforms into the town’s best restaurant at night. This is where I found the cockroach in my bed, but for $10 a night you can’t be a chooser.
In the morning we drove North to Cayo Santa Maria, a cluster of little islands connected by one impressive 48 km long causeway called El Pedraplen. The idea was to spend both days at Playa Las Brujas, where the first ever hotel was built and things are still pretty laid-back, but instead we ended up at Melia Las Dunas the first night. Now, before you say poopoo, I will tell you that this is an adventure all in itself. Las Dunas is an all-inclusive, clusterfuck of a resort where a blue plastic bracelet is your almighty ticket to all-you-can-eat salad bars and orchestrated nightly entertainment that will make you question the very existence of humanity. The flyer says the resort is for 18-plus and older but there was a magic show and a clown – or was it a clown doing magic? – so I’m very confused… After breakfast we ran as hell to Villa Las Brujas and chilled all day on their lavish, quiet beach. We also had dinner there because, without the blue bracelet, you are nobody in Cayo Santa Maria.
That night we got hit by a huge storm. Our new digs were built on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but apparently not entirely resistant to torrential rains because while I lay curled up with the cuddly little house cat in my dry, toasty bed, Zani and Charlotte were wading in two inches of water in the room next door. But we didn’t care, nor made a fuss. We quietly paid and got back in our car. It didn’t stop raining until we got to Havana.
It was an extremely rewarding trip. Not only because I absolutely admire and adore my two travel companions – not having a phone means you only have each other to distract – but also because we went for the experience, rather than the holiday. We didn’t unpack, abandoned our dietary restrictions and braced ourselves for the all-out adventure. It could have been worse though. We could have been back packing, but then we’d probably still be waiting for the bus…