CUBA SELF - DRIVE IN ONE WEEK
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean with so much to offer. If you look at the map, it is a long narrow island. The diplomatic relations with the United States is getting better, however, don’t expect to find Starbucks or Mcdonalds in Havana, as probably will not happen.
If thinking about Cuba – two things you can have in mind the old cars and the cigars. But there’s a lot more to do on this beautiful island. If you have a limited time, you need to choose where to spend one week in the country, and also depends on the interest.
When preparing the trip, it was a difficult choice as we wanted to combine the beach and cultural attractions but impossible to do in one week. We’ve seen the beaches on this trip, but there was no time. We take a shortstop, take a fresh breath, then continue our driving. In this blog, I’ll share the itinerary we have in one week.
Flying To Havana
There are direct flights to Havana from any European airports. We departed this trip from Amsterdam with KLM Airlines, which is a direct flight of 11-hours. For most European passports traveling to Cuba, you need a tourist card. It may sound like a tourist visa but is not. This card is available in any travel agency for 22 euros.
Travel insurance is mandatory, but we haven’t had to show and did not ask about it. Also, you need to bring a copy of your return ticket as proof that you get out of the country; again, we haven’t ask about it. Havana is a fantastic city to start your travel through the country. However, we did the opposite way. We spent our days in Havana.
Havana Airport And The Cuban Currency
Jose Marti International Airport in Havana is the hub of Cuba’s aviation located 15 km southwest of Havana. There’s nothing fancy inside even a duty-free rarely to find here. But the most important thing there’s a currency exchange offices. There are also banks inside with an automated teller machine that accepts US dollars, Euros, Sterling Pound, and Canadian dollars.
The ATMs are on the right side of the arrival building. Be aware the security guard will not allow more than one person inside even you’re a couple.
The maximum we can withdraw at the ATM is 150 CUC only. We tried a considerable amount but didn’t work. I’m sure it is not our card as we set-up the withdrawn amount before going on this trip. But taking out cash several times a day is never a problem. It just sucks each withdrawal we do, we’ve charged twice: our bank and the Cuban bank, that’s the way Cuba earns a commission on foreign cards.
Car Rentals And Self-Drive In Cuba
When planning this trip, our priority is finding a rental car company. But finding a local company online is impossible. I tried filling up a form online – it sends me through an unfamiliar agency that is not trustworthy. For a specific reason, we book the car through a travel agency in Belgium who works together with Caribbean Tours.
Self-driving in Cuba, it doesn’t need any special permits, our home driver’s license is adequate to drive a car in Cuba. We carry our international license, but it was not necessary.
It’s easy if you can arrange a vehicle in one of the travel offices in your home country for hassle-free. When arriving at the airport, someone is waiting for us outside.
Using Offline Mobile GPS
Moreover, it is sensible to take all-in car insurance for 10 US dollars per day. That way, you don’t have to worry about anything, as you’re all covered—one thing to be aware the navigation system doesn’t work in Cuba. We use the free app MAPS.ME an offline route planner and perfectly works in Cuba.
Due to fewer vehicles in the country, traffic doesn’t exist and makes it easy for everyone. Highways are excellent with a speed limit of 100 kph. But the secondary road is poorly managed potholes and bumpy.
You know how to replace a car wheel. In case if you need to. We were lucky we didn’t have to do it, I have a good driver, Lol. One important thing – avoid driving at night. It seems street light doesn’t exist as well. In some places, people walk on a dark street at night. A shock of our life, we almost killed someone walking in a very dark road while we’re on our way from the airport.
Don’t Take Hitchhikers And Watch Out For Scammers
For your safety, ignore them. You will notice when driving at the highways, people stop you. Some wave with money – it means they’ll pay for the ride. I heard that some of the hitchhikers steal from you, so better to avoid them.
We’re held up twice, once on our way to Vinales and the second time during our drive to Cienfuegos. Two men were wearing an ID, and we thought they are from the road patrol because we have to pull out the road. These people are fluent in English and will tell you a good story.
One guy said to us he is the manager of a bus company, and one of his buses breakdown in Vinales. He needs a ride, but we refused and became aggressive.
We have been warned by the guy when picking up the car what to avoid when driving in Cuba. He said corruption and scams are the main problems for tourists in Cuba. We’re fortunate didn’t have any issues with the police during our trip.
Internet In Cuba
I’m aware of the internet before flying to Cuba. While anywhere in the world, even the poorest country, you can count for free wifi. In Cuba, the internet is hard to find. Sometimes you can connect by going to a luxury hotel lobby, but that’s not simple
To connect online, you need a card called ETECSA. You can buy these at any ETECSA offices for 1 Cuc (for an hour connection), but only works with a hotspot, that’s it – no hotspot, no connection. There is a limit when purchasing the Etecsa. Per person can only buy five cards a day. It also available in some hotels, but they’re charging double the price.
One Week Self-Drive In Cuba
We have an evening arrival in Havana plus we spend almost an hour at the office waiting for the car documents. But we have arranged a hotel in the old town for the first night. Perhaps if we arrived earlier, we wouldn’t waste time and drive straight to Vinales.
DAY 1 - Havana
If you plan to start your trip here, it’s better to wait for the car until you leave the city. Havana is a city that you can explore on foot. Free parking is likely not available. We were staying for one night in a hotel next to paid parking. To leave the car overnight cost 5 CUC only, so I don’t know how much they charged for the daytime.
Stop By At Las Terrazas
We start early on the next day. On the way to Vinales, you’ll find this hilly Nature Reserves in Pinar del Rio Province. An approximately one-hour drive from Havana if you have a car, well worth stopping by.
The town name (Terrazas) terrace derives from a laid out of pine trees Cuba’s first Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra del Rosario, established by UNESCO in 1985. Also, you will find the oldest restored coffee grindstone built-in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti.
The area is also home to fauna and flora. Visitors can enjoy the rural setting — an ideal day trip from Havana. Outdoor activities are offered, such as rowing a boat, canopy tour, hiking, etcetera. If you plan on staying the night, there are several hotels and restaurants in nature reserves.
Day 2 - Vinales
The Cuban cigar, the beautiful valley, is fantastic! A must-see in Cuba.
But for me, it’s too crowded. A lot of people from Havana spend their time, especially at the weekend, so avoid those days if you can. The charming little village listed as the UNESCO World Heritage in 1999.
There is not much luxury here—the locals were living from crops: vegetables, coffee, fruits, and tobacco. A visit one of the Finca (farmer) is a must if you want to know how the Cuban cigars produce here.
Things To Do In Vinales
- Visit a farm – see how the cigars rolled manually. You can purchase the cigars, and a lot cheaper here than elsewhere in Cuba.
- Horseback riding – explore Vinales Valley while on the back of the horse.
- The Cuevas del Indio – very touristy, most visitors in Vinales are going to see this cave.
- Cycling – offers countryside scenery
- Mural de la Prehistoria – it maybe not worth it, but while in Vinales go and see it
Sleeping And Dining In Vinales
Even though it’s a small town, but there’s a selection of accommodation in Vinales. There are hotels and Casas Particulares (licensed bed & breakfast). But we choose to stay outside for parking. Hotel Los Jasminez lies about three kilometers from the center. The views of the valley were superb. But we happened to be here at the weekend, and there were a lot of locals.
Dining in the town center
Incredible lots of restaurants in the center, we have difficulty choosing one. While wandering in the market, we meet a local man who likes to talk to tourists. And while in conversation with him, we ask if he can recommend a good restaurant, and he pointed us to a place called Paladar La Cabana.
However, it was not easy to find, looks like hidden from the main street, we have to ask for the exact location. It’s a buffet restaurant, a mix of western and local food for the price of 15 CUC, eat all you can. They offer free wifi what a surprise!
Day 3 - Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos may not be on everyone’s list. But you will regret if skipping the city. Coming from Vinales is a long drive through the scenic coastline road, which is 416 km.
The long trip will let you see on the way what’s the life of the Cuban people outside the big cities. En-route is Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs), where the Cuban invasion begins. Another worth to sneak is the museum (Museo Giron) explains about the assault in the Bay of Pigs.
The beautiful Cienfuegos got its name (Pearl of the South), with its neoclassical architectural buildings. It feels like stumbling into a different world, also, fewer tourists. It is, in fact, one of my favorites on this trip.
Things You Can Do
- Parque Jose Marti – there’s a lot of features around and truly beautiful.
- The historical museum
- Castillo de Jagua
- Paseo El Prado also called the (Calle 37) – line up with traditional colonial-style buildings
Sleeping And Dining
There are so many Casa Particulares (B&B) around that you can ring as most of them don’t have a website. We were staying in Casa Juanchi Cienfuegos – it’s bed and breakfast with super friendly owners. The location is not in the center but walking distance.
A simple house with beautiful gardens and the owners were quite good with English. And the sumptuous breakfast that includes in the room rates were plentiful.
For Dining – if you like with view, I recommend the Pelicano Restaurant. It’s a bit pricey place, but the rooftop was excellent. The owner of the B&B recommended this restaurant.
Stop By At Topes de Collantes
On the way to Trinidad, we took the road from Cienfuegos through La Sierrita to San Blas. The national park Topes de Collantes in Sierra del Escambray in the second-largest Park in Cuba.
The area with steep slopes densely covered in pines is a home for waterfalls and caves. Hiking is the majority thing to do if you want to see the waterfalls which are only accessible on foot.
The visitors to Topes de Collantes can only follow the official routes. There’s a guided tour offered in the park, but if you’re going to hike independently in one of the permitted official trails, you have to pay for it. Nothing’s free in Cuba; the price starts from 5 to 20 CUC.
The visitor center is an excellent place to start where you get some information about the park. Moreover, you can buy your ticket as well. Getting to the park is not easy. Either you hire a taxi in Trinidad as many people do or rent a car for one day or booking a tour.
Day 4 - Trinidad
Trinidad will be approximately one hour driving from Cienfuegos if you are going straight. But we have made some detour, so we only arrived in the afternoon. Here I feel the real Cuban vibe; it has a different atmosphere but very touristy.
The city has been on the UNESCO World Heritage since 1988. The houses from the 19th century are the main attractions. It reminds me of Antigua Guatemala. However, none can beat Trinidad for its colorful houses.
Moreover, you can visit the beach in Trinidad. It locates outside the center, but doable with bicycles. That’s the most awesome thing in Trinidad if you have enough on historical sights, you can go to the beach and relax.
Things To Do In Trinidad
- A stroll on the historical center
- Go up to the roof of Palacio Cantero. It has an excellent view of Trinidad. You pay 2 Cuc inside, but it is worth it!
- The beach (Playa Ancon and Playa La Boca) – if you’re fit, you can reach the beachside with a bicycle as most people do.
- Topes de Collantes nature reserve park – for hiking, caving, rivers, falls, canyons.
- Valle de Los Ingenios – about 15 min from Trinidad center
Sleep And Dining In Trinidad
As a famous city in Cuba, there’s no shortage of any lodging in Trinidad. Prices vary on the location – how closely you want to the historic center how expensive the room.
Trinidad is not that big; really, we were staying outside the town center as we’re looking for the parking. The historic town is car-free, only accessible on foot. So our only option of staying outside the old city. We were staying in Casa De La Trinidad– the location is a short walk to the old town.
Dining is never a problem in the city center of Trinidad. Unbelievably how many restaurants around, but I’ve done some research beforehand, and it seems, according to Lonely Planet, the famous for dining in the city is Taberna La Botija.
But you have to come so early to get a table. It’s a popular dining place in Trinidad, especially for the tourist. I can understand why it’s so famous. The tasteful food and the large serving are genuinely worth it.
Stop at Santa Clara
After breakfast, we check out in Trinidad and drive back to Havana. On the way, we stop in Santa Clara to see the memorial of Che Guevarra. Santa Clara is one of the chosen places as the location in remembrance of Guevara’s troops taking the city on December 31, 1958, during the Battle.
The massive monument is visible from the main road, so pull off on the side and crossed the street. On-site, there is a museum dedicated to Guevara’s life and an eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro in his memory. Underneath, you can visit the tomb of Che Guevara; it’s strictly guarded and prohibited for a photo.
Day 5 - Returning The Car In Havana
We still have two nights in Havana, but we don’t need a car. As I mentioned above, the tourist attractions in the old town are mostly within walking distance. For tourist attractions outside the center, there are buses or a taxis for a low price.
Tourist Attractions Outside The Center
The first thing we’ve done when arriving in Havana, we first went to the tourist attractions that locates outside the center.
Cojimar a small fishing village in Havana, where Ernest Hemingway memorial erected. Most people forget this village, how incredibly lovely wandering the area where no many tourists around.
TROPICANA – locates outside the main center of Havana, approximately 15 minutes drive. A cabaret where evening shows proposed. We didn’t see the shows, but it was worth only to visit and have some drinks inside.
Morro Castle is the icon of the city and surely not to miss in Havana. It’s a reasonably touristy spot. But it’s a big area if you try avoiding the people and find your space for the picture. There are several look-outs, a fantastic place to wander around.
Day 6 & 7 - Havana
Havana is a lively place with a good vibe. The people were funny and friendly. But one thing disturbs me, plenty of old buildings that almost knockdown. In some areas doesn’t feel safe walking through underneath. But I think it’s the charm of Havana.
Despite everything, it’s a very touristy city. The capital of Cuba attracts a lot of European travelers, either for individual, adventure, and luxury trips. Tourists are part of the Cuban economy; you will not find free attractions. Everything is payable, even as a customer in a bar, you also have to pay for a toilet. Thus always carry some coins with you for the bathroom.
Things To Do
The old town was on the list of UNESCO World Heritage in 1982. There are several things to do:
- The Malecon – a 7-kilometer long boulevard
- The Capitol – 10 Cuc entry; a guided tour inside. A must-see in Havana.
- Museum Revolution – 8 Cuc entry; here you’ll find loads of history during the Cuban revolution
- Old town square – where you’ll see valuable colonial houses.
- Morro Castle – the icon of Havana
- Cojimar – a small fishing
Where To Sleep And Dining
It’s overwhelming where to stay in Havana. Choose a place that you can go on foot. If you looked online, most of the hotels located in the city center are mostly pricey. I’m a little shocked when I saw the room price.
Thus I opt for a little cheaper, still cost 60 euro per night for a basic room. We were staying at La California – Boutique Apartment situated in the old town of Havana. Its a walking distance to the historic center and close to the Malecon.
For dining in Havana, heading to Bishop Street (Calle Obispo), these are one of the busiest streets in the old town abundance of restaurants and bars. And some of them have free wifi; you’ll see some boards outside. Just one thing that most of the restaurants you have to go up to the rooftop, and it’s a long way through a stairway.