Cuba itinerary: a fascinating 12-day road trip

A fascinating Cuba itinerary with all the highlights for your road trip to Cuba! The Caribbean charm with tropical vibes will be so irresistible, you will want to cancel your return ticket without a doubt. Picture yourself in a country with a rich history and captivating culture, where you can dance until the late hours and sip on a nice rum or mojito! What to do in Cuba for 12 days? Get ready and fall in love with this 12-day road trip itinerary!

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Map of places to visit

How many days in Cuba is enough?

There are so many undiscovered gems in Cuba for you to explore! However, the minimum we recommend is to stay at least 10 days in Cuba to truly soak in the rhythm and colour of this impressive country. During these days you will have enough time to explore the lively streets of Havana, salsa around Trinidad and educate yourself about the historical richness of Cuba. Each extra day is another great opportunity to visit other parts of this Caribbean island. From the West to the East, you can easily spend 3 weeks on a Cuba road trip. For Cuba we have one piece of advice: ensure you visit all you want, before the country is changing slowly leaving some very unique characteristics behind.

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Transport in Cuba

Transportation in Cuba is a whole enriching experience on its own! In general, public transport as you know it from other countries is not the reality on this island. The services are unreliable, crowded or not always considered the safest options. Luckily there are other options to travel around for this Cuba itinerary because a road trip is a must on this magnificent island, especially when backpacking in Cuba. The four options we recommend here are:

  1. Taxi Colectivo: travel in Cuba with a shared taxi which will be cheaper to share the costs. It is a very popular way of travelling and easy to do. We saw some fun groups on the road having a great experience. They are mostly available from Havana. Ask a local how you can best spot them and do not forget to fix the price before the drive starts.
  2. Private taxi: a bit more expensive, but it will get you to places! The Yellow taxis (known as Coco Taxis) are for tourists. They are safe and you can negotiate for the best price.
  3. Viazul bus: the transportation we prefer and bringing you to all the best places to visit in Cuba. Compared to the taxi you will enjoy big touring car buses driving all around the island between the tourist destinations. The transportation is comfortable and also offers air conditioning. You can book online or at the offices close to local stations. If you book on location, try to get your ticket the day before, or latest 2 hours before departure.
  4. Rental car: a rental car will always be our favourite. However, in Cuba, it can be a little challenging to navigate. The road signs are minimal, and you might not have easy access to navigation through the internet. However, it does give you full freedom and it will save time during this 12-day road trip in Cuba to enjoy the days a bit more. Just keep in mind that your dream of driving an old vintage car as a rental will not be the case. The choice is limited so be on time. You can only book a rental car through governmental services: Havanautos, Cubacar, Rex, and Via Rent-A-Car.
  5. Private driver: a private driver can be a smart option to have the freedom, and flexibility to save time on this Cuba itinerary. However, in this case also with the safety of a local knowing exactly what to do and where to go. You can book private drivers easily locally. Or if you stay in homestays, ask the household. Guarantees that they will know someone reliable in their network.
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Where to stay in Cuba during the road trip?

‘Casa Particulares’ are the most wanted places to rest your head on a pillow during your trips to Cuba. A great Cuba backpacking experience! Yes, staying at people’s homes is unique and a great way to make a real connection with the locals. I feel so happy and grateful when I think of my time staying with the Cubans and their incredible hospitality and interesting conversations. Never will you hear from us on this topic of staying in hotels in Cuba except if in a resort area like Varadero.

Also here, online booking is limited. Things are changing and Airbnb and Expedia are now offering online bookings. We however did arrange first nights in Havana through a contact on Facebook. When you travel from place to place your current family will help and always recommend a casa Particulares in the next destination. The resort for Varadero was booked on the website of the hotel chain directly.

Road trip: 12-day Cuba itinerary

Day 1-3: colourful Havana

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Day 1: Welcome to Havana

On the first day, just take it easy after a long flight and many first impressions. Walk a bit around, sit on the main square (Parque Central) to observe the vibrant surroundings and find a perfect rooftop bar for the one and only; Cuba Mojitos! The rooftop bar I visited was Ambos Mundos Rooftop Bar, with beautiful views over old Havana and one of the favourite places of Ernest Hemingway, a famous writer. What I noticed quickly, is that people talk easily with each other and open up to you – especially when travelling alone. Not just Cubans, no also other tourists. Quickly another female solo traveler asked if she could join my table, and we shared our impressions of Cuba immediately. It was not a first-timer for her. After falling in love with the country during her first trip, she came over multiple times for salsa trips!

If you would like to have some evening entertainment right away to feel the Cuban Rhythms, visit the famous shows “Buena Vista Social Night” or “Tropicana”.

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Day 2: Museum of the Revolution & Old Havana

Morning: Museum of the Revolution

Old Havana here we come! First, when starting this itinerary or visiting Cuba you want to understand the country, culture and historical stories. Therefore, this exploration day kicks off at the captivating “Museum of the Revolution”. Discover the ins and outs of Castro, Che and the revolution of this nation. The museum doesn’t only tell stories, they are still very visible as well! The historical scars are showcased in bullet holes from an attack on the building, vehicles used and the boat used by Castro and Che to arrive in Cuba to start the revolution.

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Afternoon: A walk in Old Havana

After some educational time, you continue the day walking through the historic and picture-perfect streets of Old Havana. Camera out and do not miss out on the following sightseeing in the heart of the city: Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Cathedral de San Cristobal, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Plaza de San Francisco,  El Capitolio (Capitol building) and Calle Obispo (famous street).

The stroll through old Havana will go beyond just sightseeing. It will show its soul to you with the colourful surroundings, locals living their lives and music and dancing around!

Day 3: A walk on the Malécon

As you already discovered the old town, it is time to visit Havana’s coastal road. The famous boulevard Malécon! A 7 KM journey that you can easily walk or do with a private driver in a vintage car. The walk shows a different side of Havana. A more non-touristic one, especially walking back through the “inside streets”. With a famous sight at the end: Hotel Nacional. Another building with a captivating history of both famous people and notorious figures from the world of gangsters and (American) mafia. Did you expect that?

To ensure you optimize the 12-day road trip in Cuba, it is best to visit the Malécon in the morning First. And afterwards grab the bus (or other transportation) to the next destination: Viñales.

Malecon Havana, Boulevard Havana

Day 4-5: all green in Viñales & tropical in Cayo Levisa

Leave the city vibes behind for now on this Cuba itinerary and be welcomed to Pinar del Rio, a province in Cuba with lush landscapes and breathtaking views! You will be greeted by nature, tropical feelings and yet another cultural and traditional Cuban highlight: Cuban Cigars!

Day 4: Cayo Levisa

Firstly, escape to the island paradise of Cayo Levisa. Arrange a private driver through your local contacts to bring you to the boat in Palma Rubia. Once jumping off the boat on the small island Cayo Levisa, you do not have to do anything else than lounge on pristine beaches, enjoy fresh seafood, hear the wind blow through the palm trees and entertain yourself with some water activities like snorkelling. Relaxation, that is what this 12-day Cuba road trip is also about!

Day 5: Valle de Viñales

The second day is all about the Valle de Viñales. You can explore on your own, however, it is easiest to arrange a tour. No matter if that is a solo/private tour or in group. The locals can help you with this yet again! It is worth visiting the beautiful viewpoint near ‘Hotel Los Jazmines’. From here you will also see that the area is surrounded by limestone hills (mogotes) and is very peaceful. What is this itinerary for Cuba without a UNESCO site? The most fun is to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site with a guide to get the most information and for translations. Especially when visiting a tobacco farm or Coffee plantation. Want to do it uniquely? Many tours are horseback riding tours!

Day 6-8: salsa & outdoor activities in Trinidad

We are going to a place in this Cuba itinerary that exceeded all expectations and where we would easily stay a few days longer, Trinidad – salsa heaven! It is not around the corner, but that is worth the drive. Do not forget to enjoy all the scenery of the Cuban landscape and areas that seem more off the beaten path.

Day 6: Travel day to Trinidad

A long drive from Viñales to Trinidad is waiting today. Moving on from the west side of Cuba, we will now focus on the city in “the middle” of the island. Depending on your type of transport, you can expect a road trip of easily 7 hours. Once you arrive, it’s time to explore the colonial town and have the first salsa experience at the main square: Plaza Mayor. Surely, all locals will show their moves on the open-air dancefloor.

Tip: you could include an extra stop in Cienfuegos. Famous for the “Bay of Pigs” and convenient for a travel break.

Day 7: Explore Trinidad & salsa

The magic of the first evening in Trinidad is just a glimpse of what awaits! I am sure you feel incredible energy to experience more and more on this Cuba itinerary. Immerse yourself in the vibrant streets where every corner shows another beautiful scenery. May it be colourful colonial buildings, classic cars, very old trucks or horse carriages. Your camera will be working overtime here.

Explore the shops and museums near the main square, or perhaps upgrading your Spanish skills with a local class is more for you! Trinidad offers the perfect setting and opportunities for this. Make sure to keep the evening free for a salsa class! Let the locals guide you to the best spot to learn how to dance away to the rhythms of the music. Don’t be shy, in Trinidad everyone would love to teach you the art of salsa!

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Day 8: a day for activities!

Time for a little bit more adventure with other activities? What about saddling up for a horse riding expedition through the lush greenery? Our journey was truly fun with stops at a sugarcane factory, panoramic views and maybe the best of all: a refreshing swim in a picturesque waterfall.

If horses are not your thing, there are other activities to consider. Such as a bike tour, visiting Playa Ancon for a beach day or dive, or visiting Mirador de La Loma del Puerto with the well-known Manaca Iznage tower.

Day 9-12: beach time in Varadero

The wish to visit Varadero hinges on your travel preferences. Are you a resort and beach enthusiast or more drawn to the authentic Cuban experience? Varadero is a true holiday area, built to entertain tourists. After the adventurous road trip in Cuba, and before returning to reality and work, a beach pitstop in Varadero can be highly needed. However, if you are not interested in this, you could better extend your time in one of the other places or perhaps add a detour to Cienfuegos as mentioned earlier.

Tip: in Varadero, you generally do not stay in Casa Particulares. Book your hotel or resort through Expedia, Airbnb or on the hotel website directly.

Day 9: Travel day to Varadero

Even if you will return to where this Cuba itinerary started, in the Western part of Cuba, this travel day will not be more than half a day. Great to sleep a little bit longer in the morning after a wild salsa night in Trinidad, or to enjoy a slow breakfast or stroll in the city. If you wish to have more beach time, you can of course also depart early to Varadero and jump in the turquoise waters after lunchtime.

Tip: it does not have to be the case, however, it is worth mentioning that the resorts in Cuba can be of lower quality than what you are used to in other countries. Do not compare your 4-star resort in Cuba to other places. Accept the Cuban influence and culture and enjoy your time to the fullest!

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Day 10: Beach time!

Did anyone say lazy, relax or unwind? It is a beach day today! The beaches in Cuba will feel like a highly needed dream. White sand, turquoise waves and the Caribbean sun… what else do you need? Dream away with all the memories made on this trip and give yourself the well-deserved time for yourself by reading a book, enjoying the music or getting that wanted tan.

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Day 11: Time for water activities

This Cuba itinerary cannot go without a dive into the aquatic wonders of Cuba! What about going on a snorkel trip to discover some pretty coral reefs? Or be active with water sports like windsurfing or paddleboarding? The Caribbean Sea invites you to make some splashing and unforgettable moments on the water.

Day 12: Departure day

Yes, it is time to leave this beautiful island. The end of this 12-day road trip in Cuba. Another last drive will take place from Varadero to Havana unless your airport for departure is Varadero. What do you say, is your memory box filled with enough Cuban love? We are sure it is!

Ready to salsa during this must-do 12-day Cuba itinerary? Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

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