There’s no better way to get a local perspective on life in Cuba than behind the wheel of a car.
Even though Cuba’s roads – even the highways – can be in bad condition and signage for drivers is scarce, the open road will open your heart to an island filled with wonders. From a one-day drive out of Havana to idyllic Viñales to the ultimate two-week grand tour of the whole island, here are seven of the best scenic road trips across Cuba.
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1. On the road through western Cuba
Best road trip for quintessential Cuba
Havana–Viñales; 148km (115 miles)
There are plenty day-trip options if you’re spending some time in Havana, but if you only have a week or less on the island, this journey to Viñales is a must-do to discover the quintessential Cuba. Secluded natural reservoirs, homegrown local food and world-class tobacco plantations await, all under three hours from the Capitolio Nacional.
Leave in the morning, taking the A4 west, and sip your first coffee at the eco-village of Las Terrazas. Go on for a few kilometers to admire the still lake at El Palmar while chatting with locals. Back on the road, drive 18km (11 miles) west until you reach the waterfall in Soroa, then loop to the north before rejoining the A4. When the soil gets redder and triangle-roofed thatched houses start to appear on the roadside, take a right at the exit in Ovas – and prepare to be amazed by Viñales Valley. Stop at the Mirador del Valle for the photos of the mogote rock formations in all their splendor.
Planning tip: Save a couple of days to drive around Viñales at a slower pace, making time to go hiking, cycling and exploring its caves.
Set a slow pace for your Cuban road trip to really savor your experiences © Gary John Norman / Getty Images
2. Sun-and-sand road trip
Best road trip for sandy beaches
Havana–Varadero; 140km (90 miles)
Havana’s favorite beaches unfold along the coastline of Habana del Este and northwestern Matanzas Province, and Varadero’s stunning 20km-long strip of talc-white sandy beaches are an ideal venue for a few days’ R&R.
Just 20km (12 miles) east of Havana’s center, the Playas del Este – including Bacuranao, Tarará, Bocaciega, Mégano and Santa María – allow for a full day of relaxation and sunbathing. Continue on the Via Blanca highway to enjoy lesser-visited coves at Canasí and the fittingly named Puerto Escondido (Hidden Port), where you’ll find some of the best snorkeling near Havana. There’s greenery aplenty as you traverse the flatlands of Llanura Habana–Matanzas before reaching the bay at Matanzas and finally the Varadero peninsula. Stop to take in the view from Mirador de Bacunayagua, at Cuba’s longest and highest bridge.
3. Villa Clara causeway coast jaunt
Best road trip for coastal scenery
Santa Clara–Cayo Santa María; 116 km (70 miles)
This road trip connects Villa Clara Province’s historical landmarks with the superb coastal scenery of the northern keys, cruising by a picturesque colonial town dating from 1515 and along a 48km (30-mile) causeway.
Start at Che Guevara’s mausoleum in Santa Clara, stopping at the vast square guarded by a bronze statue of El Guerrillero. Next, drive north to the small fishing “capital” of Caibarién – it’s hard to miss the giant crab sculpture at the town’s entrance. Farther north, park near Remedios’ central square and enjoy the slow-paced beauty of local people chatting outside restored colonial mansions – a stark contrast with the luxurious all-inclusive resorts of the keys that lie 60km (37 miles) ahead. Some of Cuba’s most spectacular beaches punctuate Cayo Las Brujas, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Santa María, less than an hour from the mainland on a winding causeway.
Linger a day or more in the frozen-in-time colonial town of Trinidad © Manuel Romano / Getty Images
4. Circuito Sur
Best road trip for coastal scenery and colonial villages
Cienfuegos–Sancti Spíritus; 153km (95 miles)
This drive between Cienfuegos and Sancti Spíritus passes along the Circuito Sur highway with the southern coastline on one side and the dense vegetation of Sierra del Escambray’s mountain range on the other. Along the way, you’ll visit small, nearly deserted beach coves, verdant mountains and the Unesco World Heritage–listed Valle de Los Ingenios.
After leaving Cienfuegos’s city center, take the Circunvalación onto the Circuito Sur and wind your way southeast. The condition of the two-lane road will ensure a leisurely pace: watch out for potholes, bicycles, mopeds and pedestrians on the tarmac. After passing Playa El Inglés, make a pit stop at pebbled Playa Yaguanabo, which has gorgeous views of the Caribbean Sea. Drive on for another 25km (16 miles) before reaching the stuck-in-time colonial town of Trinidad. Spend time here strolling its cobbled streets and visiting its 19th-century mansions by day, and dancing to salsa beats after dark.
Back on the road, continue to the beach strip at Peninsula Ancón before heading to Sancti Spíritus, one of Cuba’s first colonial villages (founded 1514). On the way, stop in the Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) to witness its ruins of dozens of 19th-century sugar mills and slave quarters.
5. A drive on the wild side
Best road trip for wildlife watching
Havana–Playa Girón; 215km (130 miles)
This road trip winds through the core and along the pristine coastline of the majestic Ciénaga de Zapata, the Caribbean’s largest wetlands. Departing from Havana, take the Autopista Nacional (A1) for an hour and a half before taking a right at Entronque de Jagüey Grande. Stretch your legs at the visitors’ center in Boca de Guamá, where the little ones will enjoy a visit to the crocodile farm, the hummingbird feeding project or a boat trip to Laguna del Tesoro. Continue south and you’ll encounter a cenote, snorkeling sites, bird-watching trails, and seaside villages with helpful local people and some of the best seafood in Cuba.
Planning tip: The towns of Playa Larga and Playa Girón make great bases for exploring the area or diving in the amazing sites just offshore. Casas particulares (private homestays) are your best bet for accommodations here.
The winding curves and steep drop-offs of La Farola are not for the fainthearted © Alexandre G. ROSA / Shutterstock
6. Easternmost Cuba discovery
Best road trip for diverse landscapes
Santiago de Cuba–Baracoa; 226km (140 miles)
The most easterly region of Cuba offers quintessential landscapes of rugged mountains, zigzagging roads and epic coastline. La Farola, which traverses Guantánamo’s section of the Sierra Maestra for 40km (25 miles), is one of Cuba’s signature driving routes – but it’s not for the fainthearted. Expect narrow curves and precipitous inclines.
From Santiago de Cuba, follow the Autopista Nacional (A1) north for about 12km (7 miles) and then take the first right turn for the Carretera Central toward Guantánamo city. After a quick glimpse of the Cuban side of Guantánamo – with its small shopping boulevard and dusty Parque Martí – continue southeast for a trip along the southern coast. Expect a cacti-dotted semi-desert region with ocean-sprayed rocky terraces, stone beaches and intermittent riverside oases.
Just 16km (10 miles) after Imías, turn left toward the zigzagging La Farola road. This drive takes in lush forests and impossibly winding curves up to Baracoa. This town – dating to 1505, it was the first Spanish settlement on Cuba – was cut off from the rest of Cuba until La Farola was built in the 1960s. Thanks to rich local traditions, scenic vistas and endemic wildlife, a visit to Baracoa feels nearly like a trip to a different country.
7. The full west-to-east route
Best road trip for a Cuba grand tour
Havana–Baracoa; 1094km (679 miles)
This grand tour crosses almost all of Cuba in a single, epic road trip, starting in Havana’s hectic streets and ending at Baracoa on the island’s easternmost tip. Allow plenty of time to stop in provincial capitals for a taste of local life in these beloved cities.
You’ll drive through the flatlands of Occidente (western Cuba to Villa Clara) to the mountainous landscapes of Oriente (eastern Cuba from Camagüey onward). Essential stops include French-inspired Cienfuegos, historical Trinidad, cultural Santa Clara, maze-like Camagüey and picturesque Bayamo. Along the way, you’ll enter the humid and hot region of Santiago and Guantánamo, with its mountainous Sierra Maestra and landmarks associated with the famous 1950s guerrillas.
Planning tip: In each place, take time to chat with Cubans; at a minimum, asking for directions will be a necessity as signage is nearly nonexistent on most roads. The more you interact with locals, the more you’ll discover the quirky corners and secluded natural wonders that make up the heart of Cuba.
Wherever you drive in Cuba, take a slow pace and expect to share the road © Mark Read / Lonely Planet
Tips for driving in Cuba
Roads in Cuba are usually in poor condition, with many potholes and few road signs. Expect a slow pace on any road journey. Cuba is arguably better explored with a guide-driver so that you can focus on the scenery instead of the road itself. When renting a car, make sure to book ahead; additionally, it is recommended to pay a “guardian” – known as parqueador – to watch the car at night. As street lights are scarce everywhere, including major cities, count on avoiding the road after dark.
Cuba’s ubiquitous classic American cars operate as taxis, and these can only be rented with drivers included – usually for rides within city limits, though occasionally for inter-city transfers. Many drivers offer day trips from Havana.