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The ultimate driving guide to Cuba

The ultimate driving guide to Cuba

Trinidad to Camagüey
Exit Trinidad heading east along Calle Camilo Cienfuegos, which becomes the Circuito Sur for Sancti Spíritus via Banao. It’s incredibly scenic as you drop down into the Valle de los Ingenios (Sugar Mills Valley) and sweep past fields of rippling sugarcane. Be sure to stop at Hacienda Iznaga to buy lace tablecloths or blouses; and to climb the seven-story tower (CUC1) for a view of the valley.

The highway then dips and rises through the foothills of the Altos de Banoa, whose wild, barren crags seem to belong in the Scottish Highlands. The Circuito Sur becomes the Circunvalación (ring-road) as you arrive in Sancti Spíritus, permitting you to skirt the city if you wish. To explore the city center, follow the Circunvalación to the bus station and turn left onto Bartolomé Maso (Carretera Central); then left at the major intersection with Avenida de los Mártires, which takes you to Plaza Sánchez, where you can park and explore on foot. Visiting the city will steal an hour or two from a long day, so be sure to set off early in the morning.

Exit Plaza Sánchez to the northeast, turn right and follow the narrow one-way system back to Avenida de los Mártires and Bartolomé Maso, which leads back to the bus station. Cross the Circunvalación and you’re on your way to Ciego de Ávila. There’s no reason whatsoever to stop in Ciego. The Carretera Central runs through its core. Stay on the Carretera all the way to Camagüey. Drive with extreme caution. This section of the highway is heavily trafficked and many of the modern buses and trucks speed. There are constant hazards, including plodding ox-carts and bicyclists, plus the inevitable potholes.

There are no sites of interest whatsoever on the two- or three-hour drive between Ciego and Camagüey. And the only rest stop worth a mention is Finca Oasis, a rustic recreation of a farmstead, with geese and goats and a thatched roadside restaurant serving criollo food and snacks. There are gas stations in Ciego, near Finca Oasis, and at Florida, about 20 miles west of Camagüey.

Camagüey to Santiago de Cuba
The Carretera Central links the cities of Camagüey and Las Tunas. The route is lined with dusty, unremarkable cities, most of which have Servi-Cupet and Oro Negro gas stations. This is a long drive. An early start permits quick sightseeing: there’s not much to see, however, and you can explore Las Tunas (two hours east of Camagüey) in one hour. The Carretera Central runs through the center of town. At the traffic circle on the east side of town, take the Bayamo exit. The ruler-straight road passes through flat scrub country – some of the least developed and most impoverished in Cuba, though the rustic thatched bohios (peasant homes) are made more quaint by neatly-clipped cactus hedges.

You’ll approach the town of Bayamo from the west. The rout through the center of this old colonial city is complicated, but made easier by newly erected directional signs. Take time to explore around Parque Céspedes before continuing east on the Carretera Central. If you arrive at Jiguani before mid-afternoon, consider diverting north for a 30-minute drive to Dos Ríos, where national hero José Martí was martyred (a simple memorial marks the spot).

Back on the Carretera Central, continue east for Palma Soriano. The route is occasionally scenic, but there are no reasons to stop. At Palma Soriano, be sure to stick to the Carretera Central (follow the signs for El Cobre). Do not take the Autopista – an extremely dangerous, unmarked freeway that begins on the outskirts of Palma Soriano and leads to Santiago de Cuba. The Carretera delivers you to El Cobre, where you can explore the magnificent basilica (time permitting) before continuing through the scenic foothills of the Sieera del Maestre for Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa
To reach Baracoa from Santiago de Cuba, you’ll need to exit the city via the Autopista (the entrance is three blocks east of the traffic circle at the junction of Avenida de las Américas and Avenida Victoriano Garzón). Drive cautiously: the freeway has dangerous potholes and lacks markings of any kind. Take the exit signed for La Maya. The route leads past sugarcane fields and is quite scenic as it dips and rises and winds to Lay May and towards Guantánamo province. About 10 miles west of Guantánamo city, you pick up an arrow-straight section of badly eroded freeway intended to serve as a military runway during any firefight with the U.S. (note the berms at the side of the road intended to house jet-fighters). Keep your speed down, as traffic police (tránsitos) often patrol this section. In town, Avenida 5 del Prado crosses the Río Bano and continues towards Guantánamo.

East of town, the road is little trafficked. You’ll pass through a barren region preceding the airport and the entrance to the Cuban military base at Malones (photographs are not allowed) before climbing over a mountain ridge and dropping to the coast at Yaqueritas. This is a lonesome and poor area. There are few services: it’s wise to stock up on snacks etc. before leaving Santiago.

At Cajobabo, the road beings a long, snaking ascent over the Sierra del Puriscal. Keep your eyes on the road – La Farola – despite the fantastic vistas. The road is very narrow. Honk your horn on the blind corners. And maintain a safe speed, especially on the downhill section and in rains.

Baracoa to Guardalavaca
Years have passed since road engineers laid the formerly paved road between Baracoa and Holguín province. It shows! This road is in abysmal condition for most of the way, with the tarmac having washed away completely in many sections, along with the foundation. Much of the year entire sections are reduced to a bouillabaisse of mud. Even in dry season, at times you’ll be crawling along in first gear. Get an early start on the day. The denuded section begins almost as soon as you leave Baracoa. At least the scenery is fabulous.

Passing into Holguín province, the scenery takes a dramatic turn, with pine forest and scrub replacing lush tropical humid forests. Soon you’ll see signs warning that photography is prohibited. Ostensibly this is because the next 10 miles or so are a major industrial zone that includes Empresa Comandante Che Guevara, Cuba’s largest metal—ore processing plant. The real reason, you’ll quickly surmise, is that this is one of the most badly polluted zones in the world — not something the Cuban government wants shown to the world. You’re now back on paved road approaching Moa.

If you want to visit Fidel’s birthplace at Sitio Histórico Birán, turn left immediately west of Guaro, but be warned that this is a badly deteriorated road. The alternative is to continue on the paved road to Cueto, then left at the major road junction (there’’ll be lots of hitchhikers) three miles west of town. Just before the Loynaz Echevarría sugar factory, cross the railroad tracks and turn left for Birán — the next four miles are abysmal, with potholes big enough to swallow your car. To continue to Banes and Guardalavaca, retrace you steps to Guaro and turn north for Banes, beyond which the well—paved road winds up through the lovely Grupo de Maniabón before dropping down to Guardalavaca.

Guardalavaca to Cayo Coco
You’ll want an early start today for the long and relatively unremarkable drive west to Cayo Coco. The main highway (one lane in each direction) that runs 32 miles from Guardalavaca to Holguín is thick with traffic and requires defensive driving. Not least, there are plenty of speeding tour buses and slow—moving trucks. Holguín itself has narrow streets and hordes of traffic, including swarms of bicyclists. From Plaza Calixto García, the main square, Calle Frexes leads west to the Carretera Central. Follow this busy main highway west to Las Tunas then turn north and follow the signs for Santa Lucía. You’ll link up with the Circuito Norte — the north coast road. Turn west. You have a long drive ahead as you pass through Camagüey province via Cubitas, Brasil and Esmeralda. This route is far more scenic than the Carretera Central, and has less traffic; the section from the las Tunas—Camagüey border to Cubitas, however, is quite boring. There are no sites worth stopping for. The road is well—paved for most of the way.

Beyond Esmeralda, you pass into Ciego de ávila province. Finally, just east of Morón you’ll reach a major junction with lots of hitchhikers. Turn right for Cayo Coco. The road has little traffic, but most of it comprises speeding tour buses — use caution. Passing Laguna La Redonda and Comunidad Celía Sánchez (there’s no reason to stop at either), you’ll arrive at the toll booth and police checkpoint on the south side of Baía de Perros. Have your passport ready for the police.

Cayo Coco to Havana
Retrace your steps across the pedraplen and turn west onto the Circuito Norte. Almost immediately you enter the run—down and sprawling port town of Caibarien. You can skip the town by taking the town center by following the circunvalación on the town’s southeast side. Still on the Circuito Norte (Ruta 4—321), you’ll find yourself heading inland, arriving after only a few miles in Remedios. At the Y—fork, take the right—hand along Calle Andres del Río, which leads to the central plaza. Park on the south side of the plaza, in front of the Restaurant Las Leyendas. You’ll want about one hour for strolling.

Exit town along Calle Andres del Río. The 45 km to Santa Clara are among the most scenic in Cuba as you pass through the tobacco—growing region of Vuelta Abajo. The road is in relatively good condition, delivering you in Santa Clara. If you want to visit the Monumento y Museum Che Guevara, turn left onto the Circunvalación on the side of town and follow it all the way around to the west side of the city, where the exit for the monument is signed; it’s on Plaza de la Revolución, immediately east of the ring—road.

To continue to Havana, return to the circunvalación and retrace your steps east, exiting at the first exit on the right for the Autopista. It’s about three hours on the freeway to Havana.

‹‹ Previous       ››   Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. 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
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert |

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

  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.

Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz  

Rave reviews…
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever

“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“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           February 2010

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