First things first, driving through Cuba via its Carretera Central is not for the faint-hearted and those keen to get to one place to another as swiftly and smoothly as possible should forget about it and stop reading now. This highway is about taking it all in at a slow pace, traversing sometimes patchy and cracked surfaces, experiencing a bumpy ride in some stretches, but also observing provincial life from a rare angle that few tourists get a glimpse of. It means having time to spare, because it will take you some time to get from one place to the next (the speed limit on this road is 60km!) and because Cuba is such a large island that to cover all of it via this long and winding road you will need a week at least (if you plan to stop at a 4 to 5 places along the way). Or, you could combine it with the faster, smoother stretches of Autopista Nacional to make it a speedier road trip and have more time off-road to linger in the cities and towns of your choosing. In any case, the experience will be unforgettable, and there is more than one way to go about it. Let this blog serve you as a preliminary guide to an adventurous road trip along Cuba’s Carretera Central.
About Carretera Central
While some tourists (an increasing number of them, actually) are happy to rent a car and make their way to places in Cuba that are firmly on the tourist trail, very few decide to embark on the wilder kind of adventure that traversing the entire island would entail. The vast majority of travellers who rent a vehicle to make their own way through Cuba adhere to driving around the city they arrive into (usually Havana) and at most expand their mileage to an approximate 150 km radius. Those arriving in Havana tend to take the road to visit nearby beach resorts like Jibacoa and Varadero to the east and protected nature reserves in Artemisa and Pinar del Rio to the west. Few entertain the possibility of going further on their own.
The road is old (which will inevitably add to the old-world, vintage feel of the panoramas you’ll come across) and considered a feat of civil engineering because it was built in record time. It took just three years to complete and spans the entire island from tip to tip, which considering Cuba’s length and the many parts of rugged terrains that had to be smoothed out, the many bridges that needed to be built and the many hills and mountains it had to go around, it was indeed an enormous accomplishment. Let’s not forget also this was back in 1930 too!
So yes, the Carretera Central is admirable, it might be old and a little rough in some places, flaking a bit in others but overall it remains in good condition. You’ll have to negotiate with a pothole now and then but that applies to all of Cuba and any street in Cuba, so do take it with a pinch of salt and as part of the rough and rugged experience.
It takes ambitious wanderlust and a sense of adventure to embark on a fully-fledged Cuban road trip, a serious thirst for authentic discovery to even consider a journey like this through all of Cuba, but in all likelihood, it will be worth it. I’ve read numerous accounts of past bloggers and travellers who have enjoyed the experienced (including two women who went solo on a 3,000 km journey of the island, from tip to tip and back)and although precautions must be taken regarding traffic (being attentive and watching out for cattle, carts, bikes and sometimes, people), Cuba is a very safe place to embark on a journey like this. Regardless of road conditions, it will be something to remember, for a number of reasons. A bag of mixed emotions waiting to unravel.
The first step to a Cuban road trip - Size it up
Cuba is not like most Caribbean islands, it’s the largest of them all, and by a long shot, almost doubling the size of the second biggest, Hispaniola (split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and with a total land area of 105,806 square kilometres. To put it into perspective, to go around an island like Barbados would take you little more than an hour (if that!) and to traverse Cuba from tip to tip you would spend an approximate 15 hours on the road. Obviously, no one does that in one go, but the considerable distances between cities and landmarks, require that you do some advance planning, take a good look at maps prior to travel and spend a minimum of a week in the island to make the journey worth your while. For a more in-depth experience, stopping at each province, or at most of them, 15 days is ideal.
Of course, you don’t have to traverse the entire island from east to west for the experience to be an exhilarating one. Whatever route or shortcuts you take you will invariably enjoy scenic views that are as varied as they are picturesque and probably meet amazing people along the way. There’s no need to be over-ambitious and try to do all of Cuba (although you certainly can if you want) and instead you can choose to focus on the western or eastern half of the island or go for a combination of east, centre and west, within the radio you’re most comfortable with or covering the parts of Cuba you’re most interested in.
The Carretera Central - a revered feat of civil engineering
Nearly a hundred years old, Cuba’s Carretera Central (Central Highway) is considered one of the island’s seven wonders of civil engineering, an asset that Cubans feel proud of and continue to praise despite the many years that have passed since its construction.
Cuba’s Central Highway is the island’s largest motorway, stretching for a total of 1,139 km and passing through every province except Cienfuegos (there are ways to get to it if you want to stop here but it will mean a major deviation). Built between 1927 and 1931 by Henry Kaiser, under the governance of president Gerardo Machado, this two-way highway is divided into two stretches, both of which start in Havana. One runs west and the other goes east. Kilometre zero is found inside the majestic Capitolio de La Habana, on a marked spot on the floor that many tourists (and locals) take a photo next to.
At present, a few, more modern extensions are also considered part of the Carretera Central (code N-1) like the stretch from Pinar del Rio to La Fe going west and the Santiago-de-Cuba-Guantanamo-Baracoa section to the east, with the latter having been built in the 60s. This extends the road’s size to 1,435 km and makes it truly reach each corner of the island, from its westernmost tip to its easternmost end.
A small ritual to kick things off
Right at the heart of the Capitolio, under the dome, in the Salon de los Pasos Perdidos (Lost Steps Hall), Kilometre Zero is highlighted by the placing of a gigantic 24-carat diamond. If you want to start your journey right from the beginning this is the place to come to first, do the ritual of asking the diamond for a safe journey and be on your merry way.
Funnily enough, the Carretera Central doesn’t start here but the avenue facing the Capitolio (Paseo de Marti) does eventually lead to it. If you trace it with your finger on the map, you’ll see how in some stretches (especially in small towns and villages) it appears to change name and it could look as though it becomes another road, street or avenue, but rest assured it’s the same road and if you follow it with your eyes you’ll see it revert back to appearing as “Carretera Central” once again.
At the time of its construction, it linked the capital of six Cuban provinces: Pinar del Rio, Havana, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, but nowadays spans 14 out of 15 provinces in Cuba, with the only exception of Cienfuegos
Driving straight through the heart of Cuba
The Carretera Central might be relatively old but it’s also full of charm and enchantment. You’ll pass through scenic bridges, verdant fields, picturesque towns, humble villages, busy cities and isolated stretches. You’ll have to stop to allow for cattle crossings (mostly in rural parts of the road and more likely in Cuba’s eastern half), give way to pedestrians and likely ask for directions at some point, which is no problem as most Cubans will be happy to help.
You’ll circle beautiful mountain passes and get to photograph countless propaganda billboards along the way. You’ll feast your eyes on glistening lakes, tall palm trees and lush hills. You’ll see rural life unfold before your eyes, and busy city life in towns that look as though taken out of a book, and humble sellers on the sides of the highway selling fruits or wares. In other words, you’ll get to the heart of Cuba to feel it all, the good, the bad, the surprising, the unexpected, the outrageous, the wacky, the cringe-worthy, the admirable…the real Cuba, that can only be seen through a personal lens.
A good map is of the essence
Please, whatever you do, bring a good paper map with you, GPS guidance is possible via your phone if you download the CubaMaps app prior to arrival in the island, but in case your phone runs out of battery, it’s always good to have a physical map as a backup. Also, for planning your trip ahead of travel to Cuba, don’t rely on Google Maps, in the case of the Carretera Central it’s full of inaccuracies. Best look at a physical map and check the recently launched (as of May 2018), up-to-date and precise CubaMaps website at cubamaps.travel, from which you can also download a handy app to your smartphone or tablet. As a GPS-based app you won’t need an internet connection to use it once in Cuba. It’s only available for Android users, though, so iPhone owners will have to search for an alternative Cuba maps app on the iTunes store. Standalone GPS devices are not allowed in Cuba and will be confiscated in customs, so don’t bring one.
In terms of a physical map, you can browse bookshops (or embark on an online search) to find some of the newest, most up-to-date editions but one of the island’s best, most comprehensive Cuban road map is National Geographic’s Cuba Adventure Map, a complete, all-encompassing map that’s both waterproof and tear-resistant, so it can withstand virtually whatever you throw at it. It’s also regularly revised so contains accurate information and guidance, showing expressways and major routes, as well as distance markers and secondary roads for those feeling like going a bit off the beaten path.
A good alternative for a speedier journey - Autopista Nacional
Newer, faster, better, Autopista Nacional (A1 and A4) was built in the 1970s by Fidel Castro and although it was never finished (its construction came to a sudden halt with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dramatic impact it had on the Cuban economy) it’s considered the island’s biggest, because of its width. It’s nowhere near as long as Carretera Central but it has more lanes (eight, although in some places it is reduced to four) and hence why Cubans also refer to it as “Ocho Vias” (Eight Lanes). Here the speed limit is bumped up to 100 km/hour (120 km in some parts) which means you will get to places in almost half the time.
The bad news? It doesn’t cover all of Cuba. Construction stopped in Sancti Spiritus, shortly after passing over the Zaza river, where it reaches the town of Taguasco. It is at this point that a conventional road links the highway to Carretera Central, from which you can continue the rest of your eastern-bound journey. Autopista Nacional is abbreviated as A1 from Havana to Pinar del Rio, and A4 from Havana to Sancti Spiritus.
Final tips for an as-smooth-as-possible ride
Check your car rental thoroughly
As soon as you’re given your car rental in Cuba. Look at the state of tires, check you’ve got spare ones in the trunk, as well as basic emergency tools like a jack (essential). It’s also a good idea to carry this check in case that upon returning the car rental, the company asked you for these items back and you never saw them in the first place, it’s your word against theirs, you’ll lose and be unjustly charged. So, check, check, check and take pictures if need be for extra peace of mind. For further tips on renting and driving in Cuba, look at my other blog, Top 15 tips for driving in Cuba.
Check routes ahead of travel - take advantage of shortcuts
It goes without saying that common sense dictates you should have at least looked at the map a few times before arriving in the island, and you should have at least a rough idea of your itinerary and where you want to go. That way you won’t waste time planning once there, driving around in circles and aimlessly wandering while you figure out what to do next. Come prepared and with a fairly established plan (that you can ditch last minute if you want) but which will make most of the journey easier.
If you plan on going to Varadero departing from Havana, you might want to ditch the Carretera Central in favour of Via Blanca (A2), a 150 km highway directly linking the Cuban capital to Matanzas. A great shortcut saving you time and a special one at that for another reason. The biggest reward of driving through this highway will be the crossing of the spectacular Bacunayagua Bridge, Cuba’s highest bridge. You’ll want to stop for photos.
Dealing with Cuba’s traffic police
Patience is key here, as is good manners and a pinch of salt. Chances are that if you get stopped and they say you’re at fault for committing some sort of infringement you can try and argue politely but in the end you might have to own up and pay up (the cost of the fine will be deducted from your rental deposit so you don’ t have to hand over any cash). You should be aware that overtaking vehicles by crossing a solid line will land you a fine in Cuba, along with other local infringements you might not be aware of, so it’s easier to agree with the police and let it go in most cases.
In any case, police stopping tourist vehicles is very rare. If they ask for a hefty fine and you are sure that you haven’t done anything wrong, ask for their identification number, motorbike number plate and say that you’ll denounce their unfair behaviour. Remember that you’ll only have to stop if signalled by a policeman in uniform and with a motorbike (known as “caballitos”). Ignore anyone else, either a policeman on foot or a civilian trying to pass up as an official authority to take advantage of you and your tourist wallet. Occasionally, policemen may stop you to fumigate your car, it’s just a preventative measure against pests like mosquitoes in some areas, so nothing to worry about.
A note about hitchhikers
As you journey through the heart of the island you will invariably notice people making the signal as you approach to give them a lift. Cuba’s dire lack of transport forces many Cubans to beg for a ride that will get them closer to home and some will be so desperate they might make you deviate from your journey while insisting they’re guiding you on the right path to where you want to go. Instead, they’ll be taking you to where they need to go. Don’t get too mad at them, they’ll likely have been waiting for hours under Cuba’s relentless sun and don’t know where their next chance for a ride will pass. That’s not to say you should act as a charity on wheels and deviate from your path every time. You would never get to where you need.
The key here is being selective about who you take if you decide to do so (if you feel uneasy about the prospect of taking on a stranger you don’t have to do it, by any means, it’s just a kind gesture). Most groups of hitchhikers are found in junctions and crossroads, and some will even wave a bill in front of you as though offering to pay for the ride. The thing is where there is large groups of hitchhikers many will approach you and. Avoid stopping for groups that make you pick and choose who to take. Instead, try and help out lonesome figures on the road who appear more helpless, women with kids and the elderly. You might fight it a unique ride full of candid stories and will be helping out the locals enormously. Think about it as a form of sustainable tourism and giving back to the local community.