We've always travelled FIT with me doing the pre-trip planning. It was our first trip to Cuba and didn't quite know what to expect. We also don't speak Spanish. That said, I'd read up enough to know where we should visit ... Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, Camaguey, Trinidad and Vinales. The plan was to spend a couple of nights upon arrival in Havana, then fly one-way to Santiago de Cuba. Pick up a rental car and drive back to Havana. We had 3 weeks in total to see the real Cuba whilst mainly staying in casa particulares.
Having read a few instances whereby the national car agencies try to rip off tourists, I decided to email the infamous Jorge to help me with some bookings. As expected, Jorge's meticulous, thorough and answered all my (naive) questions. He didn't try to change my plans, instead just gave a few good pointers.
So we flew LHR/HAV on 1 May 2008. Jorge booked us into a pretty casa in old Havana for 3 nights. The location was brillant ... we walked everywhere, taking in the usual sights. We hired one of Jorge's guides for a day and he helped us "get a feel of the place".
On 4 May, we arrived bright and early at the domestic airport for the one way flight to Santiago de Cuba. As luck would have it, the flight was cancelled. The airline official didn't think it was important to offer an explanation or an alternative flight. Perhaps our lack of Spanish didn't help either. Whilst deciding what the next course of action should be, a young Cubano started talking with me. Ronald too was on the same flight. To cut a long story short, he arranged with the airline official to fly us to Guantanamao. From there, the 3 of us grabbed a cab to SDC. No doubt Ronald's a "hustler" but we were more than happy to play the game.
Ronald's originally from Baracoa but lives in SDC. He showed us SDC in a friend's 1955 Chevy ... what a great way to travel!
After a couple of days in SDC, we picked up the rental car which Jorge had organised. We drove with Ronald to Baracoa. I must admit his presence was well appreciated ... we would have been lost countless times! We now realise that directional signs are far and few between.
We stayed in this amazing casa in Baracoa ... the food prepared by the owner was delicious (sadly this was the only place in the whole of Cuba with food this good!). Whilst we're on the subject of food, do remember to pack "power bars" if you're staying in casas or on the road a lot ... grocery shops are practically non-existant!
From Baracoa, we drove to Holguin. Long, difficult 10 hour journey ... half the journey was spent on gravelled roads. We had a flat tyre along the way but Ronald was apt at changing it. Spent a couple of non-descript nights in Holguin.
We left Ronald in Holguin and continued with our road trip. Next stop: Camaguey. For the first time in a week, we decided to stay in a hotel. For CUC52 a night, the Gran Hotel was magic! Camaguey's a pretty little town ... easy walking around the "turista routa".
From Camaguey, we headed to Trinidad. This town's exactly what the guidebook says it is ... "like a movie set". Spanish colonial and again easy to walk around. We spent a day in nearby Playa Ancon ... that Carribean sea's gorgeous!
Our next destination, Varadero, was not on the itinerary (coming from Asia, beaches were not essentials). We only went there because the drive from Trinidad to Vinales would have been too long. Varadero, strangely enough (for us anyway) wasn't as bad as I expected. We stayed in a hotel in town which serves as a training centre for would-be F&B and Front Office personnel. Upside is that it's only 70m from a quiet, beautiful beach.
Vinales was our final stop on the road trip before heading back to Havana. Except for an unwelcomed visit by a tarantula in our casa bedroom, this pretty town exceeded my expectations.
If I did a Cuban road trip again, I would certainly visit Havana, Trinidad and Vinales. Driving was a challenge ... as Jorge (who met us again at the end of the trip) said "driving in Cuba's an education, not a vacation". No wonder the locals with whom we came in contact with laughed when we told them we were driving practically the whole length of the Island!
We still wouldn't trade this wonderful, frustrating, informative experience for the world. Just have to pack a few more "power bars" ... and tissues, wet wipes and soap! :D