News and Facts about Cuba

The other side of Cuba by car

From Times Online
September 10, 2008
The other side of Cuba by car

The brochure image is of cigars, Castro and Havana. Find a whole new
Cuba by hiring a car and heading off

All those salsa-dancing waiters and crumbling cigar factories don't half
make for a good photograph. I filled a 2GB memory card with them on my
first trip to Havana.

But when I got back, my images looked just like my friend Jo's (who'd
been to the city on a day trip from Varadero Beach, her package resort),
and like Alex's (who'd stopped in Havana for the night while on a
Caribbean cruise), and like Melissa's (who'd flown to the capital for a
hedonistic city break of salsa and fat cigars).

I wanted the shots nobody else had: empty sands; green palms as far as
the eye can see; and not a cigar tour in sight.

Yes, Havana is sensational. The architecture will move you; the live
bolero music in every cafe will have you dancing at three in the
afternoon; and the sheer buzz of Habana Vieja will still be ringing in
your ears when you climb back on the plane home. But Havana is not the
complete picture – it's merely one lovely pixel.
Cuba finally goes five-star

Cuba is set to be overrun by glitzy resorts. But it already has a couple
of five-star hotels

Beyond the city are unknown beaches fit for the pages of holiday
brochures (thankfully, you won't find them in any), colonial cities
every bit as handsome as Havana (but full of Cubans, not Gringos), and
landscapes so deep (with layer upon layer of banana fields, villages,
sugar cane and jungly mountains) that it's like looking into an Escher

I returned to Cuba with two friends to share the driving and took a
week-long roadtrip starting in Havana, heading southwest to Cienfuegos,
a Unesco World Heritage city, then to Trinidad, a living museum of
Spanish colonial times, before relaxing in Ancón – for Mojitos and
hammock time.

Within minutes of driving outside the city limits, we were lost. There
are no road signs in Cuba – perhaps part of Fidel's plan that all
road-users be equal. Even though our expert agent (there aren't
many that tackle this part of Cuba) had described how to get onto the
highway ('left after the mango crop, then straight past the goat
herder'), we were still baffled.

Hidalgo, a cyclist taking refuge beneath a bridge from the blistering
heat, helped us out when we pulled over to ask him for directions. Maps
scribbled, he held out his palm for some pesos. Fidel's road users may
all be equally lost, but clearly some know how to capitalise on the

The A1 highway lay like a concrete table-runner before us. It was eight
lanes wide, yet we saw only a smattering of cars (Ladas and the odd
1940s Buick, pumping out smoke from a garden hose acting as a makeshift
exhaust pipe).

We forked off, after an hour, to a smaller road, curling through tiny
tobacco towns on the way to Cienfuegos. Life here is serene, slow and
self-sufficient, a cine movie of horses and carts, women fanning
themselves in doorways, and fence posts in soil so fertile, they start
sprouting papaya.

So it seemed odd when we passed gaudy billboards screaming 'Patria O
Muerte' (Patriotism or Death) and 'Bush, el Fachismo' (you can work that
one out for yourselves). These political messages didn't seem to affect
people's lives in any way. It's as if is an embarrassing,
rich old uncle who everybody has to humour (the type who snorts when he
laughs and eats all the sausages at a party) until he totters off this
mortal coil and everybody can finally enjoy their inheritance boon.

Cienfuegos was timidly beautiful. This is the spot that Graham Greene's
Agent Wormold called 'one of the quietest ports in the world' (Our Man
in Havana). It was also a favourite spot for Greene. It's quiet, it's
true, but this modesty charmed us after the manic capital. At La Union
, we drank icy Cuba Libres in the open-air courtyard bar, feeling
like visiting diplomats from another era. Sepia shots on the wall
depicted past general managers and scenes from bygone Cienfuegos; if it
weren't for the Nokia in the barman's shirt pocket, it could have been 1950.

We ambled across the main plaza, hurrying from the shade of one palm
tree to the next. The glorious theatre – Teatro Tomas Terry – and museum
have been painstakingly restored and, as in Havana, what amazes are the
colours: marigold orange, Barbie pink and every shade of green, from
spearmint to newly-laid lawn. On the Malecón, the waterfront drag, kids
queued for barbecued pork and cans of Cuban-brand cola, or cycled past
on bikes, trying to catch the eye of the girl they fancied. It was a
tranquil way to spend two days. We moved on reluctantly.

But if Cienfuegos was lovely, Trinidad was a beauty-pageant stunner.
Five hours' drive from the capital, it is what Havana would be if only
it could afford to get the decorators in. The architectural palette is
made up of those shades that first appeared on colour television sets
before they knew how to turn the tone down: mango green, blinding
turquoise and canary yellow.

The Roman Catholic church on Sanctisima Trinidad Square is immaculate,
family houses are lovingly painted, even the old American cars are in
good nick. Hardcore Lonely Planet-ers might call Trinidad 'too pretty'
compared with dishevelled Havana, but there's no denying the standard of
living is better here.

Until we came to Trinidad I didn't know Cubans could be fat – I thought
the low salary would make over-eating impossible. But at Estela,
we ate pork chops, black , , grilled fish, chicken legs and
giant tomato slabs alongside rotund Cubans, skinnier French tourists and
visiting Spaniards.
Cuba finally goes five-star

Cuba is set to be overrun by glitzy resorts. But it already has a couple
of five-star hotels

* Why you should go to Cuba now

At home in Cuba

Eschew the hotels and take advantage of the country's excellent casas

* You haven't been to Cuba yet?

* Daily Doc: currency in Cuba

* Cuba up in smokes


* Off the beaten track in Cuba

* Our MI5 writer in Cuba

* In search of Cuba's best coral

* You haven't been to Cuba yet?

* A tour of Cuba

A paladar is a family-run, state-sanctioned (the enterprise
was only made legal in 1995), authorised so that tourists can experience
'real' Cuba. They can have no more than 12 seats and must function out
of the family home. The brilliant part of this set-up is that you might
be eating chicken à la Cubana while granny is knitting nearby, or – as
in Paladar Estela – you pass through the front room to get to the
courtyard restaurant. In Estela's, we nearly tripped over a life-size
plastic statue of dying Jesus being held by a weeping Mary. No flying
mallards here.

From our hotel balcony in Trinidad, we could see the sea each morning.
Live trova bands, shaded squares and street markets had kept us in town
so far, but now it was time for a splash in the Caribbean. Ancón –
named Cuba's most beautiful beach by boards and locals alike –
is just a 15-minute drive from Trinidad.

We stopped first for lunch at El Grille Caribe, an unmissable shack on
the only road to Ancón, with a giant lobster sculpture marking the spot.
After lunch, we swam in the sea, drank Cristal beers and slept beneath
the shade of giant almond trees (a holiday's just not a holiday until
you've fallen asleep at four in the afternoon). The beaches were empty
save for Cuban families swimming in the late-afternoon sun or a handful
of other intrepid tourists (usually French or Spanish) who'd made it
here too, in hire cars from Havana.

You might not recognise Cuba in my latest snapshots. In some, it could
be an Andalucían city, in others a West Indian island paradise or a
Central American jungle. I like them though. Best of all, there's no
British tourist in the background smoking a cigar. He's still in Havana.

Travel brief

Go packaged

Trips Worldwide (0117 311 4400, is one of the
few UK operators to offer holidays beyond Havana and Cuba's package
resorts. A week, with three nights in Havana and four in Trinidad,
starts from £1,285pp, including flights from Heathrow and car (staying
at the hotels below). Or try Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315,

Go independent

Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747, flies from
Gatwick to Havana from £548. Or take a charter from regional airports to
Varadero, from where you can easily join the A1 highway to Cienfuegos –
compare fares at Santa Isabel
( is a gorgeous courtyard-style hotel in Old
Havana; doubles from £87, B&B. La Union ( is
the best hotel in Cienfuegos, with a pool and old-fashioned feel;
doubles from £45, B&B. Grand Hotel ( in
Trinidad is a Spanish-owned chain property, but has lovely rooms in a
Neo-Classical building; doubles from £82, B&B.

Getting around

Driving in Cuba is easier than the guidebooks would have you believe;
petrol stations are plentiful and roads are Tarmacked (though often
pot-holed). Rent from Rex across the island (; a
week's hire starts from £226. Make sure to travel with plenty of UK
cash. Cuban banks add an 11 per cent charge to all exchanges with US
dollars or any US-based credit card company (ie, Visa, Mastercard or
Amex). UK debit cards are not accepted.

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