Road Trip Across Cuba

A U-M lecturer shares her road trip experience.
By Stephanie Vidaillet Gelderloos

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Read time: 5 minutes

Earlier this year, while sitting in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, enjoying La CASA’s [email protected] Culture Show, I got a text from my cousin Tosha, “We are going to Cuba in June.” Both Tosha and I have roots in a small, remote town in Cuba called Baracoa, and neither of us had ever been. As soon as I saw the message, I texted in my own family chat, “Tosha is going to Cuba, and I’m going too.”

Map of Cuba
Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

I returned home to a somewhat bewildered husband. He said, “Uh.. are you sure now is a good time to go?” The truth is that I wasn’t sure. The country had just opened up after being closed for over a year due to COVID. However, my heart was set. Tosha’s husband was also voicing similar doubts, yet we won them over. We made quite a solid travel quartet, and I was confident that we would have a good trip.

View of Baracoa and the Bay of Honey from our Casa Particular
View of Baracoa and the Bay of Honey from our Casa Particular.

Travel to Cuba is very restricted, but there are exemptions. Having relatives in Cuba is one such exemption. Tosha and I began planning our trip. Very few airlines fly into Cuba, yet we got our flights set; Tosha and her husband were flying from Fort Lauderdale on JetBlue, and we were flying from Miami on American Airlines.

Getting to Cuba was relatively easy, but getting all the way to Baracoa from Havana was not. We had three options: the train (which breaks down often), a Viazul bus (that takes 21-22 hours), or we could rent a car. Being American and well-versed in road trips, we decided to rent a car. We opted for a Jeep because we knew the roads would be bad, especially considering that the last 40 miles into Baracoa were not paved.

My husband Jacco and I in Baracoa with El Yunque.
My husband Jacco and I in Baracoa with El Yunque.

However, renting a car was not the way to go. Our Jeep had mechanical issues that couldn’t be fixed in time, so we wound up with a small Peugeot 301, not exactly what we needed. Also, getting the car was troublesome. It simply wasn’t there when we arrived to pick it up at the scheduled time. It arrived over 4 hours later.

There is a gas shortage in Cuba, so getting gas on the road was difficult, and we often had to continue driving, praying for another gas station soon. Also, Cuba is currently experiencing long rolling blackouts twice a day. This made it even harder to get gas as pumps don’t function without electricity. After finally arriving in Baracoa, a 615-mile journey that took 26 hours total, we started making arrangements to take the Viazul bus back to Havana. That was the right choice. The bus was comfortable, left and arrived on time, and was pretty cheap.

Me in Playa Barigua.
Me in Playa Barigua.

During our time in Cuba, we stayed in what are called “casas particulares.” They are similar to an American bed and breakfast. Americans are prohibited from staying in hotels owned by the Cuban government, and they cannot stay with family members unless they were born in Cuba. Therefore, casas particulares are the way to go. They can be found and booked on travel sites like Expedia. They are very reasonably priced. We paid 30 Euros per night for very comfortable accommodations at Villa Paradiso in Baracoa.

Baracoa is well known for its incredible natural beauty. It is a small town nestled between mountains and the sea. Christopher Columbus landed there on his first voyage, and he wrote in his log about Baracoa’s famous flat-topped mountain, El Yunque. The city sits on a small peninsula right on the Atlantic Ocean, and the beach at Bahia de Miel/Bay of Honey is about 2 miles from the city center. Another ocean beach, the famous Playa Maguana, is a short drive from the city. The entire area is surrounded by glorious, crystal-clear rivers like the Rio Duaba and Yumuri, both favorite swimming spots for locals.

Frog

Encyclia howardii flowers from Humboldt National Park
Images of a full-grown Iberia frog and Encyclia howardii flowers from Humboldt National Park.

Finally, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Humboldt National Park, is close by. The park is known for its incredible biodiversity. My husband especially enjoyed his birding expedition there with a local guide arranged by our casa particular host. He saw several Cuban endemic species, including the world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird.

The president has recently changed some rules regarding Cuba. One of the changes includes authorizing flights to Santiago de Cuba, only a 4-hour drive to Baracoa! That would make travel to this unique, pristine gem easier. However, it was worth the arduous journey to see this natural treasure and the home of my ancestors, and Tosha and I would do it all over again! Hopefully, we could convince our husbands to join us.

Our quartet at the Alto de Cotilla, the highest point on the famous La Farola mountain road.
Our quartet at the Alto de Cotilla, the highest point on the famous La Farola mountain road.

If you want to learn more about travel to Cuba, you can watch my YouTube playlist: Traveling to Cuba – Advice Before and After Our Trip.

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