Make the most of your time
Most visitors are surprised that it can take a full day to travel between cities in Cuba - this island is deceptively large
. For shorter trips, plan your Cuba itinerary around Havana and the scenic west; two weeks or more allows you time to reach the Afro-Cuban stronghold of Santiago, with plenty of stops along the way. For those traveling independently, daily Viazul tourist buses
are comfortable and air-conditioned; while drivers will find roads poorly signposted but pleasantly free of cars. Many Cubans hitchhike to get to work; you could pick up an impromptu guide!
Below are our top three Cuba itineraries - click on the blue map pins for more information about each place.
One of Cuba's most overlooked spots, this little seaside town gives way to some of Cuba's most dramatic landscapes: river-filled rainforests, towering mountains, glorious waterfalls and the flat-topped El Yunque mountain - ideal for hiking. Baracoa's unique character has been preserved by its geographical isolation; until the 1960s it was only accessible by boat.
Bay of Pigs
The scene of the US military's spectacular failure, most people visit this region purely for the name. However, the bay's most spectacular attraction is arguably its endemic flora and fauna, along with a "cenote" - a deep, collapsed pool, where you can snorkel with fish. The battle was fought out at Playa Girón - today home to a small museum and peaceful beach, popular with divers.
The labyrinthine streets of Cuba's third-largest city were designed to confuse invading pirates - hence its nickname "the Maze". But if you're worried about getting lost in the medina-like maze, tour Camaguey by bicitaxi. There are numerous hidden plazas, large earthenware water pots and pretty churches are characteristic - as is the Ballet of Camaguey, the best outside Havana.
Separated from the mainland by a breezy half hour ferry journey, you'll feel like a real castaway on little Levisa's 3km beach. Wander along the mangroves, gaze out to the impossibly blue sea, have lunch at the little cafe or take a snorkelling trip to a nearby reef - there's little to do on Levisa other than relax, and sip a fresh piña colada.
The "Pearl of the South" is set on a beautiful bay, and its colonial architecture - including pretty palaces - has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hang out with the locals along the Malecón, discover Cienfuegos' French colonial history in the Museo Provincial, or relax with a boat trip across the bay or a visit to the botanical gardens.
The Caribbean's best-loved city, Havana's old quarter is a UNESCO site. This living movie set is as exquisitely atmospheric as they come; people pedal round cobbled streets, classic cars cruise the Malecón, musicians strum and sing on every street corner and sloppy Spanish echoes from every half-empty, crumbling home. Check out the cultural centres, artists’ studios and well-preserved theatres.
María La Gorda
Few make it out to the isolated peninsula of María La Gorda, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of mangrove swamps and empty beaches. Some of Cuba's best scuba diving takes place off these shores, but you can also take treks into the surrounding forest that protects the world's smallest bird, the tiny bee hummingbird. Divers should have reasonable experience – some prefer to bring their own equipment.
History buffs and Che Guevara fans tend to make a beeline for Santa Clara - the scene of the final battle of the revolution, and the final resting place of Guevara. The town is pleasant but otherwise unremarkable; the real draw here is the Che Guevara Memorial, the huge Che statue, the Che museum and the site of a train derailed by the guerrillas, with exhibits inside the actual carriages.
Santiago de Cuba
Steamy Santiago has Cuba's hottest climate - and its hottest culture. Edgy and urban, Santiago proudly divides opinion - some revel in its fiery Afro-Haitian culture and well-worn city centre, too far from Havana for the limited wealth to filter down. Others are shocked at the hardship and hawkers. The bullet-riddled Moncada Barracks are a legacy to the revolution that never happened here.
Sierra Maestra NP
With Cuba's highest peaks, the Sierra Maestra features some of the island's most stunning scenery, ideal for multi-day hikes and mountain biking. But there is historical appeal here too - the steep valleys have sheltered guerillas since the earliest colonial invasions, followed by escaped slaves and finally Castro and his fellow revolutionaries - whose wooden, wartime HQ can still be seen.
A read draw for birders, this forest is ideal for day hikes with naturalist guides. Sample the fruit that falls from the trees, trek up to the viewpoint and finish off with a dip in the dreamlike natural pools, frequented more by Cubans than foreigners. The forest also hides a darker secret - the remains of coffee plantations with tiny stone huts built by the slaves who were forced to live in them.
This eco-community was one of the communist government's 1960s projects. Residents were moved from the surrounding land - which could then be protected - into purpose-built housing around a picturesque lake. Today, this village is full of painters, sculptors and woodworkers, as well as Cuba's only vegan, eco-restaurant, where meals are cooked in a solar oven.
Topes de Collantes
The Escambray Mountains protected by this nature reserve are a giant playground for adults and kids alike. Canyon down a waterfall, ride horses along a river, spot rainbow-coloured hummingbirds, visit coconut plantations and swim inside an open cave. If you need an energy boost for that - then you're in luck. This is also the home of the best coffee in Cuba - visit a coffee farmer for a fresh cup.
Founded by the Spanish and later used as a base for French settlers fleeing nearby Haiti, Trinidad's colourful history is reflected in its perfectly preserved architecture, the ruins of the surrounding sugar mills, and Afro-Cuban religions. The plaza comes alive with salsa rhythms at night - this is one of Cuba's best live music destinations. Don't miss the nearby Playa Ancon - a pleasant cycle from the city.
Valle de Viñales
The laid-back, agricultural town of Viñales is surrounded by "sugarloaf" limestone mountains, organic farms and tobacco plantations. You could spend days in this UNESCO site - exploring hidden caves, horse riding to tranquil lagoons and listening to salsa in the plaza each evening. Banana leaves peek out from behind casas and donkeys and oxen slowly draw carts through the streets.
Beaches, forests & cities: 2 weeks
Havana > Viñales > Cayo Levisa > Soroa > Trinidad > Sierra Escambray > Havana
Backroads & beaches: 8 days
Havana > Viñales > Bay of Pigs > Trinidad > Escambray Mountains > Topes de Collantes > Santa Clara > Havana
Complete Cuba: 22 days
Havana > Bay of Pigs > Cienfuegos > Santa Clara > Trinidad > Camaguey > Santiago de Cuba > Baracoa > Havana
Driving times in Cuba
The following times give you a rough idea of the driving and flying times between the main attractions in Cuba.
- Havana – Viñales: 3 hours by road
- Havana – Baracoa: 1.5 hours by plane
- Viñales – Santa Clara: 7 hours by road
- Viñales > Maria la Gorda: 3 hours by road
- Santa Clara – Trinidad: 2.5 hours by road
- Trinidad – Camaguey: 6 hours by road
- Camaguey – Santiago de Cuba: 7 hours by road
- Santiago de Cuba – Baracoa: 5 hours by road
- Santiago – base of Sierra Maestra: 3 hours by road