After spending a few months in southern Mexico, I fly to Havana for a road trip of just under a month through its unique way of life, its paradisiacal beaches, its mountains tinged with tropical forest, its mythical cities with Hispano-colonial architecture often unbridled colors and especially its inhabitants, as if blocked in a temporal interlude, between beautiful American, carrioles and carriages. The story has left its mark in most cities of the country and the simple fact of strolling in cities like Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Baracoa, Santiago or the unconditional Havana, is a beautiful and enchanting moment. In the weeks to come we will talk about the magical mountains of Viñales and the Sierra Maestra or the Escambray Massif, but also the heavenly beaches of Cayo Coco or Guardalavaca and Varadero. At the time of the tourist boom, Cuba remains a destination like no other, distilling not only good rum, but also a very special atmosphere, where both the difficulty and the joy of life, the present and the past. We come to taste the warmth and kindness of the Cuban people who, if they have lost their ideal, have never lost either hope or a smile.
seafront of La Havana
"The city of a thousand columns" is an architectural beauty uncommon. The old town has also been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine ... The waves crashing on a long dyke and the "Malecón" meeting with some sinners and tourists scrutinizing the sunny horizon; children playing baseball, football and other games in dilapidated streets under the eyes of one or more mothers supervising them from the top of a balcony; men playing dominoes in hot parts in front of decaying building facades; tourists looking for T-shirts stamped with revolutionary images; a worthy old man smoking his cigar in front of his old American car; a Cuban waving her fan near an over-crowded bus stop that will arrive late. Havana is surely the city of all paradoxes, where luxury and absolute disrepair rub shoulders, as if the city had stopped living one morning in January 1959. And despite the fact that the city seems to be left behind. abandonment, habaneros do much better than survive; they plunge heart beating in resourcefulness, in dream and sharing.
The city of Trinidad south of the main island is surely one of the biggest attractions of Cuba. This city with totally preserved Spanish architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, is unique in its kind, as if the city was stopped on a summer evening in 1850! It is necessary to get lost in the alleys and to admire the pretty low houses in pastel shades, the paved streets ... The old city center of Trinidad is full of old palaces as beautiful as each other. Do not forget to take a look at the Plaza Mayor. Trinidad is also famous for its festive atmosphere where tourists and locals are unleashed on the rhythms of Cuban music. For those who are not satisfied with an evening in one of the bars of the city, take the direction of "Disco Ayala" high slightly overlooking the city. It is rare that I give good addresses, but this nightclub is in a cave! I also had a very big crush on the Escambray Massif located a few kilometers west of the city. The massif of L'Escambray is certainly the mountain range with the most beautiful and especially accessible hiking. Trinidad is one of the inevitable trips to Cuba and will leave you anyway, an unforgettable memory!
The Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is dotted with iconic sugar loaves: the famous "mogotes" which are small rocky mountains rising here and there in the middle of tobacco fields. Some will find the Town of Viñales too touristy and it's true. The proximity to Havana makes it one of the most touristic places in the country. But it's possible to avoid all the tired horse rides that make you visit the same tobacco farms as the competitors. Some guides offer rides at reasonable prices in the mogotes. And with a little luck, as you walk between the fields of tobacco or sugar cane, you can exchange and discuss with a villager without the contact being altered by the thirst for money, even if I want to understand the desire. For example, avoid the "Prehistoric Fresco" which can be seen as one of the biggest tourist scams in the country. If not for the rest, enjoy life and the region of Viñales, surrounded by Península de Guanahacabibes, which is a biosphere reserve complemented by the fifty or so dive sites of María la Gorda, by some Cayo in the North as well as by fields producing the most famous tobacco leaves in the world around the city of Pinar del Rio. The Viñales Valley is one of Cuba's natural jewels and holds some of the most surprising landscapes in the country!
Second city of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is the capital of the province of Oriente, and the "cradle of the revolution." Here nothing is hugeless, no skyscrapers, no gigantisms real estate, but a very nice old historic district that holds in a handkerchief, one or two busy shopping streets and a population much more mixed than the regions of the West. Its pace of development less frenetic nevertheless gives it some advantages. It is enough to travel about twenty kilometers along the coast in one direction or the other to discover an entirely different world, dotted with wild coves swept by the waves, historic coffee plantations and hills to the rich past. My favorite spot in the area is the Baconao National Park, east of Santiago, which offers magnificent views both inland and on the coast. "The Gran Piedra" being one of the best views of the national park. Santiago de Cuba is often the gateway to the Oriente. This unspoilt region and very little tourism is the happiness of the most adventurous travelers!
Santiago de Cuba
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
Surely the best surprise I had in Cuba. Baracoa is a small town of 82,000 people, stranded between the mountains and the sea, at the eastern end of the main island. On the wet and windy hillside of Cuchillos del Toa, Cuba's oldest and most isolated city has an original atmosphere. Baracoa is accessible by road only recently and we breathe here, the authenticity of the country. Here you just can find few sandy beaches, but a timeless place located in the middle of a magical nature. It is a city at first very unhelpful especially if we come from the western part of the island of Cuba, but we are caught up by a deep feeling that makes us want to discover more about this mysterious region . North of the city, you will see Mount Yunque, a mountain shaped inverted anvil placed between the 2 clearest rivers of Cuba: Tao and Duaba. Farther north, still after a few kilometers on a broken road, is the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park between hiking in the rainforest, waterfalls and swimming in the bay. South of Baracoa is "La Boca de Yumuri", a beautiful canyon at the bottom of which you can walk along a river. If you are rather lazy or tired of your hikes, take the direction of the beaches Maguana and El Manglito, both located about twenty minutes from the city. If you like wilderness, places with a soul, authentic and unspoiled places, then head towards Baracoa.
Between Playa Girón and Trinidad, Cienfuegos and its 163000 inhabitants, is nestled in the hollow of a sheltered bay. The "Pearl of the South" is a historic and industrial city that has many assets. When you leave the animation of its main arteries, we find ourselves almost in the calm atmosphere of a small village with on the horizon, the mountains of the massif of Escambray. Do not miss El Parque José Martí, the main square, but also a lot of monuments such as the theater, the Palacio Ferrer or the Palacio del Valle. A less known hideaway than Trinidad which is a few kilometers away, but just as nice, and surprising!
Boxe in Cinefuegos
Welcome to Cayo Coco, the fourth largest island of Cuba. Here nothing really interesting that inspires us the real authentic Cuba, but a multitude of "all inclusive" hotels along the coast. The island is an important refuge for flamingos and seabirds, but what tourists, mostly Canadians, come for here is the 8 beaches and more than 22 km of fine sand in tropical heat.
Varadero is a 20-kilometer stretch of land entering the turquoise blue sea at 1:15 am east of Havana. Here was built the first hotel on the island in 1940. Today, Varadero is the most tourist area of Cuba with these beautiful hotels along the coast and the international airport. There is not much authenticity here and for good reason, the peninsula has been banned from the premises since the crisis of 1990 and is re-opened only recently. Opinions are shared here; for some it's Cuban paradise, for others, Varadero lacks charm. It is true that those who seek only the sun and azure water will be in paradise! One of the best places to finish a road trip through this beautiful and surprising country that is Cuba.
Beach of Varadero
Halfway between Santiago and Santa Clara, Camagüey is a charming city nicknamed "the city of churches". The colonial city center is nice and lively, pretty narrow streets invite to stroll. Founded in the early 16th century, the city was located on the north coast of the country. Undaunted by the incessant attacks of pirates, it was moved inland in 1528. City of art and bastion of the Catholic religion, Camagüey is the third largest city in the country. Camagüey is much more than the gateway to the Oriente, it is also a city with colorful houses filled with flowery parks and charming churches where it is good to stroll for a day.
Guardalavaca is one of those tourist Ghettos that I do not recommend to visit! It is reached by car from Holguin and it is 80kms from four almost deserted roads. The city is divided into 3 parts: the beach and the panoply of all-inclusive hotels, the center and its two restaurants as bad as the other, and a housing estate for employees. We go around quite a bit here and we might rather leave it to Canadian tourists wanting to escape their freezing winter.