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Driving in Cuba poses a few challenges, not least finding your way around. There are few signs outside major tourist zones and on roads other than the Autopista and Carretera Central. Buy a copy of Guía de Carreteras, available at hotels in Havana – it’s 99 percent accurate.
The hazards are many. Waywayd bicyclists. Trundling ox-carts. Potholes as big as the wayward cattle that sometimes appear in the midst of the road. And pedestrians (many of them hitchhikers) at the side of the road, few of which are lit at night. Many vehicles also lack functioning lights – another reason to avoid driving at night, if possible. Particularly hazardous roads include the Circunvalación that arcs around southern Havana; La Farola (the switchback mountain highway linking Guantánamo and Baracoa); the Autopista between Palma Soriana and Santiago de Cuba; and the mountain road from Trinidad to Topes de Collantes. And beware the railroad track that crosses the Autopista just east of Ranchuelo, in Villa Clara province, two hours east of Havana. The four-lane Autopista Nacional lacks highway markings and requires extreme caution. Farmers also line the central median and step into the fast lane, offering strings of garlic and cheese; give them plenty of room!
At all times drive with caution, and never exceed the speed limit. Foreign tourists are often found guilty by default in the case of an accident. Criminal charges may be levied in the event that anyone is injured, and a jail term is mandatory if someone is killed.
Cuba’s tránsitos (transit police) are efficient and, alas, over zealous. Puntos de Contról manned by the PNR (Policia Nacional Revolucionario) dot the major highways. Occasionally a policeman may try to subtly extort a bribe for some actual or conjectured infraction.
Havana to Viñales
West of Havana, the Circuito Norte leads past the Latin American School for Medical Sciences and Playa Salado, where there’s a dive center. This section of coast isn’t particularly scenic, and there’s little reason to linger. After 45 km, you arrive at a T-junction on the outskirts of Mariel (on your right is a cement factory belching out a ghastly pall); turn left for Mariel, beyond which the coast road begins to dip and rise, with the scenery building with every mile. The Sierra del Rosario rise on your left and the jade blue Atlantic shallows become speckled with the first cays of the Archipiélago de los Colorados. About 15 km west of Mariel, turn left for Soroa (the junction is unmarked). The serpentine road climbs through pine forest to a T-junction for Las Terrazas (13 km), or continue straight another three km for Soroa.
West of the Soroa turn-off, the coast road runs a few kilometers inland of the shore, with side roads fingering toward Cayo Paraíso and Cayo Levisa. Ten kilometers west of the small town of Las Palmas, turn left for Viñales. The only gas stations along the route are at Mariel and Bahía Honda, about 20 kilometers further west.
Viñales to Cienfuegos
From Viñales, follow the main highway south to Pinar del Río, where Avenida Martí (the main east-west street) becomes the Autopista. The journey to Havana takes approximately two hours. Unfortunately, the freeway system is poorly conceived and linking with the Autopista that leads east from the city is like trying to find one’s way through the Minotaur’s maze (more so, trying to bypass the freeway system by cutting across Havana province, where you are sure to waste several hours getting lost)! The easiest option is to take the Pinar del Río-Havana autopista to its end, then turn east for the Circunvalación; follow the Circunvalación east to the Autopista Nacional.
It’s a two-hour, lonesome drive to Jagüey Grande, where there’s a rest stop, gas station, and simple café. Turn right here. The ruler-straight road (one lane in each direction) shoots south to Playa Larga. It is lined its entire length with sedge and wetlands and with memorials to Cubans who died in the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The only services are at Boca de Guamá, with a small gas station, an excellent restaurant, and the crocodile farm. The village of Playa Larga, at the head of Bahía Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) has simple casas particulares plus the main office and ranger station for the Parque Nacional Zapata. From here, the badly eroded coast road hugs the shore, passing a few simple beach restaurants. In springtime, the route is made hazardous by legions of crabs crossing the road – snapping claws and razor-sharp shards of crushed shells cause many a puncture!
The village of Playa Girón has casas particulares and there’s a modest villa hotel at Playa Larga, but the hotel and restaurant at Playa Girón are currently being used exclusively for Operación Milagros (providing free medical treatment to impoverished Latin Americans). The paved road turns inland at Girón. You’ll pass rustic villages eking a subsistence from charcoal burning. The road is badly deteriorated.. At Bermejas, turn right for Yaguaramas (if you continue straight for Covadonga, you’ll regret it – this dirt road is a Swiss cheese of giant wallows and potholes. Beyond Yaguaramas, you’ll link with Highway 3-1-2. Turn east for Cienfuegos, another hour-plus drive via Rodas.
Cienfuegos to Trinidad
Exiting Cienfuegos isn’t easy. The two route options aren’t clearly marked. The easiest route is to follow Avenida 5 de Septiembre from Calle 37 (the main drag), passing the Necropolis en route to Rancho Luna. You’ll see Trinidad signed at the Servi-Cupet gas station mid-way to Rancho Luna; turn left here. It’s a lovely roller-coaster ride to the junction with the Circuito Sur – the coast road that eventually leads to Trinidad (to the right). There are usually plenty of Cubans hitch-hiking at the junction. For a short but intriguing diversion, turn left. After about two miles you’ll arrive at the Jardín Botánico Soledad, a 94-hectare botanical garden with fabulous collections of palms, succulents, and bamboos.
After exploring the garden, turn east for Trinidad. Ahead, the saw-toothed Escambray mountains soar ridge upon ridge. The massif forms a rain shadow. Sugarcane fades to parched golden grasslands munched by hardy, humped cattle. Further east, the mountains come down to the shore, where rivers have gnawed large ravines spanned by narrow bridges over rivermouths with little beaches. There are very few facilities along this stretch of road. An exception is Hacienda La Vega (two miles west of Playa Ingles) – it serves criollo meals and simple sandwiches; bring repellent, as the biting insects are fierce! The hacienda is a working cattle ranch and if you have time, you can take horseback rides.
The last bridge crosses the Río Yaguanabo. There’s usually a “Stop” sign here. Ignore it! It’s been put there by hustlers wishing to drum up business for casas particultares (private room rentals) in the city. As you power up the hill upon which Trinidad is poised, expect to be waved down by hustlers trying to steer you to specific houses. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that any particular house that you wish to stay at is full, or closed!