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The ideal first timer Cuba itinerary

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If you want to see Havana, and most people do on their first trip to Cuba, then definitely fly into Havana, because two weeks is not adequate time to see both ends of the island. And there's great snorkelling and diving at both ends. Reserve the car before you go. Most visitors are reporting that rental cars, which are not cheap in Cuba, are less expensive if rented in advance since on location you have to pay 11% commission for your creditcard transaction.

What you want to do about lodging is make a reservation for your first few nights only, and after that, play it by ear, or when feeling more comfertable reserve there where you like through our hotel page. Reserve the first night because it is necessary to write on your tourist card where you are staying the first three nights (although you don't really have to stay there even one night, since they don't check, but you DO have to write something in).

Also, while many people recommend, for all kinds of reasons, staying in private homes (casa particulares) licenced to rent rooms to foreigners, this is not necessarily the best option for your first night, for the simple reason that since the homeowner has no way of collecting a deposit from you in advance, therefore doesn't know if you will show up, you can't be certain they won't have given the room to someone else who got there before you. Obviously that would not be a real problem if you had arranged to spend your first night in a hotel. I must say that if you reserve the first night in a casa and the owner gave away your room, he/she shall always have another reasonable alternative casa particular for you, you won't sleep in the streets.

said, that's not how I personally would do it. What I would do, this assuming your arrival is in the morning, is pick up my reserved car in the airport of Havana, plus my maps n my hand (see the advertisement above). Then I would drive not into Havana city, but right away west on the Havana-Pinar freeway to the Soroa exit (less than 2 hours), and overnight either in Soroa, which is 7 km off the freeway, or in the Las Terrazas biosphere reserve, which is 17 km from the freeway. In Soroa you'd have the option of staying in a licenced casa or the villa ("villa" in Cuba means tourist lodgings made up of individual cottages rather than hotel-type rooms). In Las Terrazas you'd have the option of staying in the upscale Hotel La Moka, in a lovely green setting, or at the ultra-basic Campismo Rio San Juan, 1 km away. The campismo consists of teepee-type huts scattered across a meadow which overlooks a river which falls into a series of lovely pools that are great for swimming.






Next day continue your trip to Vinales, just two hours from Las Terrazas. It is in a valley in the Rosario Mountains and consists of some of the loveliest and most unusual scenery in Cuba. Great for hiking, horseback riding, cycling, and caving. While there, you might choose to drive to Cayo Jutias, an offshore island connected to the mainland by a 2 km long causeway. There are no hotels or villages there, just an open air restaurant, restroom and change rooms. Plus a long beautiful beach where you can snorkle.

Then (when you get tired of the peacefullness in Vinales) drive back to Havana, entering the city not on the Pinar Havana freeway, but on the Mariel Havana freeway, which follows the coast, as the Mariel freeway will run into Avenida 5 which will take you through the Almendres River tunnel and right onto the Malecon. In short, you won't need road signs, which do not exist anyway, just be sure the ocean is always there on your left, and you'll easily find your way into Havana Vedado, Centro Habana, or Habana Vieja, wherever you want to stay. But be aware this road is not that great in condition, so take your time that day. With a car you're better off picking a hotel or casa in Vedado, where there's a chance of finding parking for the rental car. But for the real Havana experience Centro Habana or Habana Vieja is a more exciting area to stay.

And because you've got a rental car and be economic, don't stay in Havana more than one night. Next morning head for the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) for snorkelling and diving if you like. It's about a 3 hour drive from Havana. There are many nice little cove beaches along the east shore of the bay, and also along the open-ocean beach that runs east from Playa Giron. In Playa Giron, for lodging, you will find both Hotel Playa Giron, with cottages facing the beach and open ocean, and also, in the village 1 km away, lots of licenced casas.

When you've done all the snorkelling/beaching you want there in the Bay of Pigs area (which is within the Zapata Swamp National Park), and visited and maybe eaten some crocodiles at the crocodile farm cafetaria, then you would likely want to drive on to Trinidad, which is another two hours.
15 km from Trinidad is the long Playa Ancon, it's more dived out than the Bay of Pigs, and very convenient to Trinidad. Or you can stay on the waterfront, in either one of the three big hotels, or else in a licenced casa in the village of La Boca.






When you've done with Trinidad, you might want to drive over the Escambray Mountains (for the scenery) to Santa Clara, and back to Havana on the freeway from there (Trinidad - Santa Clara takes about 2 hours, but maybe 2 more if you want to stop in Topes de Collantes for a hike in the cloud forest. Santa Clara to Havana takes about 3 hours. However you schedule that drive back, just be sure you are back in the city before dark, because driving Cuba's highways after dark is not recommended. Lots of slow traffic, even on the freeway (slow traffic in the Cuban context meaning, bicycles, horse-drawn conveyances, tractors, etc), and most of it will not have lights. Also many pedestrians, most of them hitching. Picking up hitchhikers in Cuba is recommended, as they can be a great help in providing directions in a country where signage is sparce to non existant. (Although the exits I've mentioned, to Sorora/Las Terrazas and also to Playa Giron/Bahia de Cochinos are both well-marked). When taking hitchhikers put away all your belongings since in a poor country ... don't give the Cuban the opportunity to steel something from you.

How many days you stay in each place only needs to depend on how long it holds your interest (and how much time you have). I have recommended going first to rural and small town areas where it's easiest to get a hang of how things work than in a city like Havana. But you will want to at least touch down in Havana early in your trip, so you will have an idea of how much time you want to take for the city at the end of your trip. Another advantage of leaving it to the end of your trip is that you can drop off your rental car when you get there, as it will be economic and more convenient to get around the city by taxi. Unless, of course, you want to keep the car for getting Playa Jibacoa, which is about an hour's drive east of Havana. Varadero, Cuba's number 1 tourist destination, is a little further, like two hours from Havana, and has beautiful beaches to relax.







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