Cuba is an endlessly fascinating place and once you have spent time in Havana, it's time to see what other places have to offer. We visited a number of towns that are all easily accessible from Havana. Each has a different character and gives an insight into what makes travelling in Cuba special. Some aspects are endearing, some infuriating but all are uniquely Cuban!
Before you even start you will realise that the transport options are particular as well. The most common options for tourists are Viazul, the comfortable state owned tourist busses or taxi - either a regular private taxi or a 'coletivo' taxi shared with other tourists which is most often an old American car. You can also rent a car and these are some of the few new cars on the road. The traffic on the motorway and larger roads is not heavy however you need to keep an eye out for potholes, bicycles, hitchhikers and people selling onions! Cubans in contrast often hitchhike or use busses which are lot less comfortable and cost less than a dollar for a trip that costs $25 on Viazul.
Trinidad de Cuba
It's not for nothing that Trinidad is the most visited town after Havana. It's Cuba's best preserved colonial town with cobblestoned streets, houses painted in pretty colours and salsa dancing until the early morning. All that you imagine Cuba to be!
The town, which recently celebrated it's 500th anniversary was built by wealthy sugar barons however when the bottom fell out of sugar production in the 19th century the town went to sleep until 1980 when it reinvented itself as a tourist destination and got heritage listed by UNESCO.
Allow a couple of days to wander the streets and explore the old mansions, many of which have been turned into museums or restaurants. Make sure to squeeze in a siesta so you have energy to enjoy the cheap mojitos, live music and of course dancing at Casa de la Trova after dinner. And if you feel like a change of pace there is easy access to both beach and mountains. We spent an afternoon relaxing on the beach at Playa Ancon and trekked to a waterfall in the Topes de Collantes hills. You can also ride a steam train to old sugar plantations in Valle Los Ingenios.
Santa Clara is famous for it's pivotal role in the revolution. It was the first town to be ‘liberated' in 1959 when Che Guevara launched an attack on a train carrying Batista soldiers. Most of the sights are linked to Che and for anybody interested in the history of 'La Revolucion' a visit is a must.
The main reason we stopped there for a few days was to experience a regular Cuban city with less focus on tourism. The city has a prominent university and hence a large student population and we are told it's where the 'next big thing' happens first. Live events include, drag shows and rock concerts, neither of which are Cuban mainstream. However as modern as the city may be, transport is still old-fashioned with horse drawn carriages a standard. We even saw kiddie sized carts pulled by a goat!
Santa Clara is home to one of Cuba's humorist magazines and on the way to the bus station we passed a 88 metre long mural of somewhat political cartoons put together by a collective of satirists: 'Los Humoristas declaring war on war'. It was the only display of its kind that we came across and it seemed pretty progressive in a country with such tight political control.
Cienfuegos, dubbed Pearl of the South, was founded by French immigrants, a 'mere' 200 years ago which makes it one of the newest cities. The centre has a relatively sophisticated atmosphere and is liberally sprinkled with beautiful architecture. There are also more shops than we saw anywhere else - although shopping in Cuba is totally different from what we know. Pretty much all shops are state-run and the range of goods severely limited. Items we consider standard are often not in stock and when they are you won't get any choice between brands. Rum is one of the exceptions to this. Always in plentiful supply, at one service station on the motorway rum and beer were the only items on sale - neither coffee, water or juice was available!
The central Plaza Jose Marti is the most charming square we saw on the trip. It's surrounded by elegant 19th century French-style buildings and even has its own Arco de Triunfo!
The other area to check out is Punta Gorda, an upscale residential area overlooking the bay. Home to some very impressive houses in French, Italian and Moroccan style that have been restored. As everywhere in Cuba, most visitors opt to stay in a Casa Particulares (B&B). Here many of the Casas are palatial in style (although not with that level of luxury) and staying in one offers a great opportunity to see the houses from the inside.
The Vinales valley, east of Havana is unspoilt and one of the best places to get out into nature. Flat-topped limestone mountains add drama to the landscape and although the tiny town is heavily visited it retains a simple charm.
Activities are distinctly rural; horseback riding and treks through the valley or visiting caves and tobacco farms. The centre of town is quiet in the morning but by afternoon and evening the main street fills up with visitors back from their day trips and looking for food, drinks and music.
The area is famous for producing the world’s finest tobacco and we enjoyed the colourful explanations from Alfredo (at his small farm just outside town) of how the tobacco leaves are dried and then treated with a mix of cinnamon (for colour), honey and rum (for flavour and aroma) and lime juice to protect the leaves.
Cuba is bigger than you expect, it's 1100 km long. The eastern part of the island is less visited however road conditions makes for a slow journey. The drive from Havana to Baracoa, where Columbus first made landfall, is 20 hours. Plenty of time to consider all the things you hate and love about travelling in Cuba! For anybody who makes it all the way to Baracoa by land I would definitely recommend one of the trice weekly flights back to Havana. You've earned it!