The Five Best Drives in Cuba
Cuba was made for road trips. The roads here are reasonably well maintained and the scenery is beautiful — you’ll pass forested mountains, jade-colored Caribbean coves, and tiny Cuban villages. Cuba is, however, a big island and it makes sense to focus your driving on the country’s best routes. Fortunately, we’ve already done all the work for you. Our travel team explored the entire island and has compiled a list of the best routes through Cuba. Have your music and map ready, it’s going to be one heck of a trip.
Since you’re interacting with both locals and the landscape the entire time you’re driving, road trips are one of the best ways to learn about a country. You’ll undoubtedly have to stop and ask locals for directions, and will surely get lost at least once or twice. You’ll pass beautiful places that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and will have the freedom to go where you want, when you want. And don’t forget about all of the photo-ops you’ll enjoy along the way.
Our travel team rented a car in Havana and hit the road for 6 weeks, driving over 4,000 miles (6,430 km) in Cuba. Needless to say, we are big fans of road trips, and we’ve compiled our favorite drives below. We promise that you won’t be disappointed with any of these routes.
Marea del Portillo to Santiago de Cuba
This is one of the most dramatic and unique drives in Cuba. Beginning in the tiny resort town of Marea del Portillo in eastern Cuba, this route leads along Cuba’s southern coast in one of the most remote parts of the country. It’s kind of like Big Sur, a place where the mountains meet the ocean. The road hugs the coast the entire route, with the Sierra Maestra rising to the north. It is absolutely gorgeous.
The road is rugged and terrible in places, especially close to Marea del Portillo. You’ll have to slow your speed to drive around potholes. In some places, the road has crumbled into the ocean (there’s still plenty of room to drive), and in other areas there are bridges that have collapsed (but you can easily drive around them). This route isn’t for speedsters or the faint of heart, but it is also totally doable. The first few hours are bumpy and slow, but the closer you get to Santiago the better the road gets.
Along the way, you’ll pass a handful of small local villages. Most villages lack tourist facilities, but you’ll still be able to find food and drink if you need it. Regardless, it’s best to stock up on water and snacks before heading out. The largest towns are Uvero and Chivirico. The drive takes about 6 hours.
Santiago to Baracoa
Keep going east past Santiago and you’ll find yourself in more beautiful territory. The route from Santiago to Baracoa is diverse, exciting, and scenic. As you leave Santiago, you’ll pass agricultural fields until you get to Guantánamo. Just past the city, the road curves around the Bahía de Guantánamo, which is home to the famous U.S. naval base. You can’t get too close to the actual base, but you can get views of it from a hilltop lookout at the Mirador El Gobernador. This simple restaurant has a viewing tower equipped with several pairs of binoculars — use these to peer out towards the base. The road past Guantánamo dips towards the coast, and soon you’re passing small coves that are perfect for swimming. The water here is clear and warm, and there aren’t many people. You could easily have an entire cove to yourself.
At Cajobabo, the road heads north into the mountains. The Sierra del Purial rise steeply, and the road – known as La Farola – twists its way up into the mountains. The construction of this road began during Batista’s term, but it wasn’t completed until the Revolution—an important feat, as it connected Baracoa to the rest of Cuba. The highway winds through valleys and has several hairpin turns. There are also a few pull-offs where you can enjoy lovely views of the mountains and coast. Near the summit, you’ll pass through pine forests. As you descend towards Baracoa the terrain gradually becomes more tropical. In total, this route takes about 6 to 7 hours to drive.
Viñales to Cayo Levisa
The Viñales Valley is one of the most spectacular places in Cuba. Huge, rounded mountains, known as mogotes, rise around tobacco farms and small villages. The road from Viñales to Cayo Levisa passes some of the most scenic parts of the valley, and what’s more, it leads to a beautiful little island.
The small town of Viñales lies in the heart of the valley, all of which is protected within the Viñales National Park. The road to the coast leads north out of Viñales and into the valley. This area is home to beautiful karst scenery that isn’t found anywhere else in Cuba. As you drive past the mogotes, you’ll see craggy cliffs and eerie caves. Farms pop up along either side of the road, with green tobacco plants and corn waving in the breeze. Farmers wear huge sun hats and tend to the land. The soil here is a lovely reddish loam that stands in start contrast to the green surroundings. Needless to say, photos from this drive tend to be gorgeous.
The road twists and turns as it makes its way toward the coast, passing a handful of small villages along the way. You’ll share the road with men on horseback, bicyclists, and people waiting for rides. The Cuban bus system is notoriously terrible, so most people try to hitchhike wherever they’re going. If you’re feeling hospitable and want to practice your Spanish skills, feel free to pull over and offer them a ride.
The road opens up the closer you get to the coast, and you’ll soon see signs for Cayo Levisa. Follow these signs to reach the ferry landing, where you’ll park your car and board a ferry for Cayo Levisa. This beautiful island has a white-sand beach and is a perfect place to spend a day while staying in Viñales. There’s also a hotel here if you’d like to relax on the beach for a few days. The road from Viñales to Cayo Levisa takes about an hour and a half to drive.
Cayos de Villa Clara to Cayo Coco
Cuba’s two most notable island destinations are connected by a gorgeous section of road. A drive along it is a great way to pass a half-day while visiting these islands.
East of Remedios, the road runs a few miles inland from the coast. It passes through the Vuelta Arriba, one of the country’s top tobacco-growing regions. The road is fairly straight and there aren’t many cars. You’ll pass tobacco farms and huge rows of palm trees. The entire route feels tropical and remote, like something you’d expect to find in the Caribbean. Like other agricultural areas in Cuba, the road here can be shared with horse-drawn carriages and farmers herding cows. Take it slow when you pass these animals; you don’t want to spook them.
You’ll pass several small agricultural towns along the way. These can provide you with valuable insight into small-town life in Cuba. You can stop for drinks and snacks in any of these towns, and there are a few places to fill up your car with gas. In the town of Morón, you can stop and visit the Museo Caonabo and Museo de Azúcar.
Both the Cayos de Villa Clara and Cayo Coco are connected to the mainland by a manmade causeway — a narrow section of road that crosses the ocean and leads to the islands. Mangroves appear alongside the causeway, and you may be able to spot flamingos and other birds pecking around in the shallow water.
This route takes about 3 to 4 hours to drive.
Cienfuegos to Trinidad
The high road from Cienfuegos to Trinidad passes through the Sierra Escambray. This is the second-highest mountain range in Cuba, and the road leads through tremendous mountainous scenery. Much of this area is protected within the Topes de Collantes Natural Park.
As you leave Cienfuegos, you’ll pass the Soledad Botanical Garden. This wonderful botanical garden is over a hundred years old and is filled with an impressive range of plant species. You can stroll along its many trails and see cacti, fruit trees, and massive bamboo clusters.
Continuing on, the road eventually turns toward the coast and heads into the mountains. Before long you’ll pass the turnoff for El Nicho. This small reserve is home to a waterfall and several natural pools. It’s a perfect place to break up your drive with a short hike and a swim. There’s also a small restaurant here.
Past El Nicho, the road gets increasing more mountainous and rural. You’ll enjoy steep, forested ascents and will drive past tiny villages. If you get lost, just ask someone for way to Trinidad—they will happily point you in the right direction.
The road keeps climbing through the mountains. Just before reaching the summit, you’ll pass the Casa de Café. Stop here for a super-fresh cup of joe. At the summit, you can enjoy fabulous views of Trinidad, the Valle de Los Ingenios, and the Ancón Peninsula. The road then twists down the mountain to Trinidad. The entire drive from Cienfuegos to Trinidad takes about 4 to 5 hours.