Wednesday – Thursday 13-14 April, Cuba days 8 & 9: Driving the loop Cienfuegos-Trinidad-Santa Clara.
We are off again on a driving tour, this time with an over-night planned. Our aim: to see Cienfuegos and Trinidad, 320Km southeast of Havana.
In the morning traffic it takes us a bit of time to cross Havana, but soon we are on the A1 highway which, like the A4 we took 2 days ago, is a sprawling 6-lane-wide road, with very little traffic. It’s quite a long drive today, but other than continually changing between the vaguely marked lanes as we seek the least uneven road surface, it’s actually a relaxing drive through nice countryside. Again, no sight of any towns or villages yet every over-pass bridge has its gaggle of people waiting in the shade with some trying to hitch a ride.
After about 80Km the road passes along the edge of a huge area of Park Nacional Cienada de Zapata, which is about 50Km square and stretches all the way down to the southern coast. On google maps it’s a huge area of absolute wilderness. Along the roadside it presents itself as dense lush green jungle with the occasional cluster of beautiful royal palms. It is in complete contrast to the northern side of the road which has very few trees and just dry dusty cattle fields in scrubland. Quite the visual demonstration of what recent human footprint has done to the natural vegetation.
2 hours later we are off the highway and heading on the smaller road which leads down to Cienfuegos on the south coast. Actually, it is not on the coast. Cienfuegos has developed as a port town on the side of the huge inland Bahia Ciefuegoes and from our first view of it, it looks like it’s a town on the side of a lake. When we had last aimed to sail to Cuba, back in 2020, we had planned to check-in to this town after our visit to Grand Cayman. But alas, Covid happened, and we ended up locked down in Cayman then scurrying back to USA before the hurricane season started.
So one of the first things we want to see is the yacht-club and marina where we would have sailed into. There are quite a few yachts in there, mostly catamarans, plus some anchored out. The marina docks look good, and the yacht club was a beautifully kept colonial house, complete with a big swimming pool in the gardens. But as we sat sipping our lemonades on the club terrace, we were subjected to horrible loud music from the pool area including a DJ who just loved the sound of his own voice. And we wonder, yet again, why in general anyone could like this new blaring rap and reggaeton type music – if you can even call it music! We must be getting old ☹
Overall, the part of Cienfuegos next to the water felt a bit like a communist holiday town. Slightly inland, the old town had the most beautiful plaza (square) with the usual perfectly preserved Spanish architecture. All very interesting but not yet really developed for tourism. We maybe should have spent more time there, but having checked and found the only hotel was $400 per night (!) we decided to continue to drive all the way to Trinidad, which is another 80Km further SE, and try our luck there.
The country road to Trinidad takes us along the coast and next to the scenic hilly area that is Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes. Apparently, there are lots of pretty walks in this area.
We enter Trinidad early evening, and our first impressions are not good. As we try to drive with Google Maps directing us to the center, the grubby edge of the town merges into the old historic town with very rough and narrow cobble streets with very poor dwellings and absolutely no vehicles in sight. As we pass people sitting on their doorsteps we feel all eyes upon us, and not a sign of a tourist anywhere. Eventually we reach a barrier and can go no further. Is this really the Trinidad everyone raves about, we ask each other? After struggling to turn around, we decide to head further to the outskirts where we see hotels marked on Google. And what do you know, we suddenly find the nice (read: cleaned up) part of Trinidad.
We try the first hotel, the Iberostar Heritage, which is a grand affair claiming to be 5-star. They have rooms available but like the hotel in Cienfuegos, they only accept credit cards at the official exchange rate. This would mean one night would be over $500! But the next hotel along quotes in local currency allowing us to use our unofficially converted local money with the equivalent price of just $40. And the hotel and rooms seem just as nice as the Iberostar. Luckily, we got the last room available. The next people in, just seconds after us, left disappointed. We did also consider staying, as many do, in a Casa Particulares. Basically inside someone’s house. We did go and see one and although a very simple setup, it might have been fine, but we really don’t like the idea. Plus, it’s not often we stay in a hotel so it was quite a treat for us.
In the evening we wander up into the old town and we are immediately impressed. It’s beautiful and a huge contrast to the other side of town that Google had stumbled us into. Unlike Havana, and totally unexpected, there are amazing restaurants around every corner and most with very good live Cuban music. At last, we experience what we seem to have missed in Havana and spend the whole evening enjoying various music in different venues, only to finally flop into bed by midnight, exhausted but very happy.
The following day, Thursday, we again head up the hill and into the old town, visiting several small markets where finally we find some nice items to buy as presents. We also happen to find a particularly amazing artist shop run by 2 very talented girls who have painted all that is on display. Most of their paintings are portraits of Cubans in a modern style. We fall in love with one such painting, but at 1.2×1.2m we debate all morning if we should buy it and where we would hang it in our small apartment. We do end up buying it and vow we now need to buy a house with a wall big enough to present it!
During out walk around, browsing and taking photos of the picturesque streets, we also debate staying another night. But then decide to head back to Havana, via the town of Santa Clara.
The road to Santa Clara was another drive through wonderful countryside on good and virtually deserted roads with the usual bush fires which we have previously mentioned, every few kilometers.
Once into the center of Santa Clara, we found yet another classic plaza (square) surrounded by the usual Spanish architecture. After a brief walk, we found a restaurant in a pleasantly restored old building then needed to head off, to limit the amount of time we would be driving in the dark to get back to Havana.
The drive back was easy, all on the A1 highway and we ended up back in Havana mid-evening. On the way through the town we stopped briefly at the restored oil factory that has been converted into a funky night-scene: The Fabrica del Arte Cubano. We didn’t stay long, just enough to browse around and get a feel for the place, and we have previously described it in our blog on Havana.
All in all, like out trip to Vinales Valley, we loved this road trip, doing the Cienfuegoes-Trinidad-Santa Clara loop. Trinidad was without doubt the highlight but in general both days were very enjoyable.
The following day, before we handed the car back, we caught up with our remaining “to do” items in Havana. Most notably a city tour in an open topped classic car – a 1951 Buick. Then it was time to start planning our departure from Cuba. That will be the next blog: sailing to Key West.