Defying the rep, Louise Jury sallied forth by hire car

The holiday company rep was adamant. It was a bad idea, a very bad idea indeed. Driving from the Cuban capital, Havana, to the carnival city of Santiago at the far eastern end of the island in something not exceeding 10 days would be virtually impossible, not to say uncomfortable and expensive.

The holiday company rep was adamant. It was a bad idea, a very bad idea indeed. Driving from the Cuban capital, Havana, to the carnival city of Santiago at the far eastern end of the island in something not exceeding 10 days would be virtually impossible, not to say uncomfortable and expensive.

We wouldn't make it for the Santiago carnival, he said. Why didn't we stay in Havana, drink the mojitos (rum cocktails), hang out in the picturesque Plaza de la Catedral? He had a point. I'd done that before, and it was great.

But I wanted to see the rest of Castro's Cuba before the old man dies, the Americans move in and the island changes for ever. Outside Havana there were sugar plantations and tobacco fields, waterfalls and beaches with unfeasibly blue water merging with the blue of the distant horizon. There were small towns where you had to attempt Spanish because no one spoke even a word of English, where the horse and cart was the main mode of transport, and where prices were still set in pesos, not US dollars, the currency almost every Cuban now demands from visitors.

With buses and trains so overcrowded that locals hitch-hike, car was the way to do it. So, ignoring the rep's warnings, my two friends and I resigned the best part of a morning to the lengthy business of hiring one and drove off.

"Smooth paved highways can deteriorate without warning and unmarked potholes or railway crossings may appear at any time," one guidebook warned, and the Autopista Nacional soon bore this out. Dark patches ahead might be oil, we learned, or they could be missing road. You took your chances and learned to swerve. But, though alarming, the Autopista was the M1 compared with the side road to the Bay of Pigs, our first night's destination.

In places, we were uncertain whether we had lost the road or whether the mud track through the edges of a village was the road. Friendly Cubans kept us on the right path: at one point a boy cycled ahead to lead us through, although his energetic weaving soon outstripped our careful bumping along the track. The car must have looked as if it were driven by a drunk, but in the middle of swampland, with only the occasional passing cowboy to lend a hand, it didn't make sense to take risks. The very real possibility of doing irreparable damage to our transport concentrated the driving skills wonderfully.

The first day began to establish the routine we came to follow - sightseeing, driving, lunch, driving, sightseeing, finding a bed and an enjoyable bar for the evening. We preferred the Cuban version of the b&b, the casa particular (breakfast extra), to tourist hotels: not only were they cheaper, they gave an insight into Cuban family life. Our rooms in Cienfuegos, off a courtyard of faded grandeur, had beautiful (and typically Cuban) coloured glass above the doors. In Remedios, our host, a friendly widower, had a giant photograph of Che Guevara in his living room and, in his bedroom, one of Castro. More common, though, were nude calendars, velour wall hangings of animals or gaudy, artificial flowers.

In an island where poverty limits the choice of food (a common joke is that the three worst things in Cuba are breakfast, lunch and dinner) we ate best when we took up the offer of dining at home. The choice was often limited but, against all received wisdom, our hosts regularly found fish for our party of non meat-eaters, even though pork or chicken are the Cuban staples. The best meal of the trip - surpassing several of the most expensive restaurants in Havana - was at our casa particular in Remedios, where the request for fish was answered with fresh lobster at $7 a head. That happened to be the catch of the day.

In the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron) we had set our hearts on being by the sea and so, rashly, chose the all-inclusive hotel by the shoreline. It was a reminder of how nearly two million people a year are now visiting the island, and why we had chosen an alternative route. The rum cocktails, like the live music, were part of the deal, but neither matched up to the real thing. Not everyone wants to discover the soul of a country, though: while we regarded the concrete breakwater in the bay as an eyesore, it created a safe bathing spot for families with children.

From the Bay of Pigs, our route took us to Cienfuegos, where neo-classical architecture survives in the middle of one of Cuba's largest industrial centres, and Trinidad, a United Nations World Heritage Site of cobbled streets between the sea and the mountains. A hitchhiker we picked up on the road from Cienfuegos directed us through the backstreets to the casa particular of his friend, Marie. Though simple and with occasional water shortages, our Trinidad home made us feel more like real locals than anywhere else we stayed.

Marie prepared us breakfast and dinner, the pigs in the neighbour's garden providing an entertaining chorus of noisy snorts. At her insistence, her son slept in our car for $2 a night to prevent it disappearing. We spent days swimming in the sea at nearby Playa Ancon, hiking to waterfalls in the mountains, and reading in the bar up the long, wide steps in the town centre as cowboys trotted past in the square below.

We lingered three days before making for the carnival in Santiago. On the way we passed through Sancti Spiritus, where streets were decorated with bamboo fronds and tin-can lids for its own carnival.

Seven days, and more than 500 miles, after we set off from Havana, we drove into Santiago de Cuba. A tropical deluge had delayed us, and it was nearly 8pm on the last night of the carnival. We abandoned the car and joined the crowds as brightly-lit floats and exotically dressed dancers snaked through the city centre. We had made it. Mojitos all round.

Getting thereLouise Jury booked British Airways flights and three nights at Hotel Tejadillo, through Worldwide Holidays (tel: 01202 743907; for £435.90. Captivating Cuba (tel: 0870 887 0123); The Holiday Place (tel: 0207431 0670); Journey Latin America (tel: 020-8747 3108); South American Experience (tel: 020-7976 5511).

Getting aroundCar hire in Havana via big hotels. From Hotel Inglaterra, an air-conditoned car costs about $55 (£39) daily.

Further informationCuba Tourist Board (tel: 020-7240 6655).