The Coastal Road to Santiago de Cuba
The Sierra Maestra stretching down to the rocky beaches and black sands of the south coast, against the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean, is one of the most dramatic sights in Cuba. To trace the coastline to Santiago de Cuba is to take the scenic route; it's a roundabout way to get to your destination, for sure, but well worth it if you're a fan of rugged, bravura landscapes. The road and bridges suffered damage from the 2008 hurricanes, but are still passable -- ask about the status of the road in Niquero, Pilón, or Santiago before setting out on your trip, and take it slow. It takes around 8 to 9 hours from Pilón to Santiago and is the most scenic drive in the country. If you're pressed for time and headed to Santiago, the inland route from Bayamo is much more direct.
The coastline is remarkably absent of any sort of villages or installations for long stretches at a time: It's just you, the open road (watch for rockslides), and the sea to your right and Sierra Maestra to your left. While you can usually make the trip in any normal sedan, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for the added clearance, if nothing else. The beaches, such as they are, range from passable soft gray stone to forbidding big black rock.
A smattering of large resort hotels are located at certain points along the coast, and while it's a stretch to describe them as beach resorts, they do offer splendid sea views, a host of watersports, and plenty of trekking opportunities. Most are package tourism confines, aimed largely at seniors. Canadian charter planes fly direct to Manzanillo, then the hotels bus in groups of 100 vacationers or more for an inexpensive, weeklong, coastal Cuban vacation. Whether those guests arrive expecting fine, white, powdery Caribbean sand we don't know (we certainly hope not). Although we were initially turned off by the notion of an all-inclusive hotel hovering illogically on "beaches" that suffer so in comparison with those along the north coast, we do admit that there are a couple of hotels that wouldn't be awful places to vacation, as long as your expectations are simple, such as the Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, Carretera Granma Km 12.5, Pilón (tel. 23/59-7081; www.hotelescubanacan.com).
From Marea del Portillo, the road continues another 40km (25 miles) or so to Santiago de Cuba province. The views take in desertlike landscapes, the massive dry mountains of the Sierra Maestra, black rocky beaches, and large waves crashing ashore; it's a highly scenic drive. The only village of any real size is Chivirico, a small fishing settlement about 75km (47 miles) outside of Santiago de Cuba. The best hotel en route to Santiago de Cuba is the all-inclusive Brisas Sierra Mar Los Galeones (tel. 22/32-9110; www.hotelescubanacan.com), a massive, multitiered hotel overlooking a sandy brown beach. Though the overall facilities are fairly impressive -- there are four restaurants, five bars, two tennis courts, a fitness room, and a large swimming pool -- the rooms are standard and uninspiring, with ugly flowered curtains and tiny TVs. There are plenty of better all-inclusive hotels in other parts of Cuba, but this place does combine well with a visit to Santiago. Rates are CUC$118 to CUC$148 double, all-inclusive. Los Galeones (tel. 22/32-6160) is a small, pretty hotel that has been recently refurbished; the hotel is located atop a peak, and offers outstanding views. From here, it's another hour or so to Santiago; see chapter 11 for full coverage.
The Road to Baracoa
Guantánamo province, by virtue of a Cuban song seemingly known the world over ("Guantanamera") and an attention-getting, anachronistic U.S. military base, gets more ink and initial interest than it probably deserves. The easternmost province on the island only has one true draw, but it's one of the highlights of Cuba: the tiny tropical town of Baracoa. The only real reason to stop over in the sweltering and unappealing city of Guantánamo is to visit the distant lookout trained at the contentious American naval base isolated on Cuban soil. That's as close as you'll get -- and honestly, outside of the novelty factor, there's nothing much to see.
The parched landscape of the southern coast begins to change gradually in color along the spectacular 40km (25-mile) road La Farola, which courses southeast of Santiago and wends its way through the mountains along the route to Baracoa. Things get more and more lush, with thick tropical vegetation and beautiful views at every turn. Be forewarned: In addition to its beauty, this is a tight and winding road with a seemingly endless series of white-knuckle hairpin turns. Baracoa, isolated from the rest of Cuba before the building of the road, is a beguiling little town, known for its chocolate and coconut and connections to Columbus. It's been known to bewitch more than a few travelers into staying much longer than they'd planned.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.