Going rogue in Cuba and getting lost in its countryside, finding your way around cities, towns and villages means embarking on an eye-opening journey of discovery that while not always straightforward, it’s certainly enriching and most definitely unique. Yes, you will have to negotiate with one pothole or two as you go along, ask for directions here and there and get your hands on a good map, but even if you do get lost, it’s no major drama. Cuba is a very safe country, full of eager-to-help people. Approaching people and knocking on a local’s door will get you the help you’ll need, as remotely as you may have ended up getting stranded.
Driving your way around Cuba is an exhilarating experience and a totally recommendable one if you prepare well for it and know what to expect. This is what this guide is all about, giving you the tops tips for a smooth driving journey and an even better experience.
1. Rent a car well in advance of your trip
It might sound like common sense but in the case of Cuba doing this prior to your arrival in the island is not just important, but essential. Cuba has a very well-known and often-talked-about scarcity of vehicles and with an increasing demand for tourist rentals, the island can barely cope and availability quickly runs out. To ensure you get your hands on a car, arrange your rental as much in advance as you can, especially if you’re after a certain model, as the best models are the quickest to go. Booking online is easy and straightforward. Head to transturcarrental.com to find the widest variety of car models available in the island.
2. Forget about driving a classic car
The sooner you can bust this myth the better. If you were putting your hopes on driving an old timer through Cuba’s atmospheric streets, best abandon those dreams fast as it won’t be possible. The vast majority of Cuba’s classic cars are privately-owned and given the painstaking lengths, they go to keep them running owners are overzealous about handing them over. And rightly so, given that these machines require expert maintenance and inside, handling them requires a deep knowledge of the vehicle and extensive practice in dealing with its many peculiarities. You can, however, rent a classic car with driver to get you around Cuba, but driving one yourself is strictly off the cards.
3. Budget for it
Renting a car in Cuba is not exactly cheap, it’s not prohibitively expensive either but budget ahead to avoid surprises. It also helps to book in advance, the sooner you do it the more likely that prices will be more competitive. If you are happy with economy models you will find brands you’ve never heard of, like Geely, a Chinese make that abounds in the island and which is the cheapest (starting from around 70 CUC - roughly £50 - per day depending on season) plus a daily insurance fee. Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay the rental in full when booking online. A car rental in Cuba will be more expensive than an average rental anywhere else in the world and if you want premium quality, follow my first advice - book as early as you can!
4. Don’t expect brand new cars or a lot of choice
Cuba’s fleet of cars available for rental is modern and perfectly safe. But don’t expect to find the latest models or spanking new cars as the majority of vehicles have a good few years of use on them (some more than others, again, you get what you pay for). If you want to drive your way around in style, REX is the best company to rent from, with the finest selection of Mercedes Benz, Audis and other high-end international car brands. It’s also the most expensive, but you also get the best service and drop-off points that don’t incur an extra charge (other agencies will require you return the car to the same location you picked it up from, otherwise they will collect an extra fee if you drop it off at a different branch).
5. Be mindful of extra charges and seasonal variations
Read the small print in detail. Apart from the daily fee you will likely pay an extra amount in insurance and might incur an extra fee for dropping your car off in a different location. There are three different costs to be mindful of: two insurances (a collision damage waiver and theft insurance) which amounts to between 15-20 CUC per day, a surcharge for an extra driver (around 10 CUC per day) and a security deposit on the spot, which will be charged to your credit card and reimbursed if the car is returned undamaged. Bringing a credit card with you is a must, no credit card, no car rental.
The likelihood of the car model you want being available will highly depend on the season (and so will the prices!). In peak tourist season you can expect to pay double than what you would in low season. In terms of seasonal fluctuations, May, June, September and October are generally considered low season month, with the rest of the year falling into high season. Remember, the best models run out the quickest! Again, time is of the essence when booking a rental in Cuba.
6. Choose wisely
All car rental companies in Cuba are state-owned. They are named differently but the real difference lies not in the brand but in the service they offer and the market segments they cater to. Havanautos, Cubacar and Viacar offer cheap to mid-range options. Of the three, Havanautos has the largest fleet while REX is the most elite of all catering to the luxury market. They all operate under Transtur’s umbrella and can be booked via their website transturcarrental.com. While being the most recommended, Transtur (you can see availability in real time) is not your only option, you can book rentals in Cuba through other third-party websites.
7. Carry a thorough check of your car before taking the keys
As soon as you’re given your car check it thoroughly to avoid potentially costly misunderstandings when returning it. Check the tires are in a good state, check that there are spare tires in the boot, as well as a jack (essential in Cuba, as the condition of some roads means that punctures are inevitable). For extra peace of mind, take a few photos of the car itself so that in the event of a dispute you can prove the car already had marks. Don’t forget to ask for the rental company’s most recent telephone number, in case that you need assistance in the middle of the road they will have to provide it.
8. Savvy up on road rules
You should know that in Cuba drivers have to be at least 21 years old. You’ll be driving on the right side of the road and speed limits range between 40 km per hour to 100 km per hour in the main highways (in the case of Autopista Nacional the limit is bumped up to 120 km in some stretches. For more minute details on road infringements you’ll have to read up, but overall you’ll find driving in Cuba very easy, as long as you remain attentive at the wheel, don’t drive too fast and follow all of these 20 tips.
9. Limit GPS devices to your phone or tablet
Forget about your TomTom or bringing a car navigating system to Cuba. Not only will you not find one that works on the island, they are also not allowed. If you were to bring one such device be prepared to have it confiscated by customs upon arrival. However, the GPS on your smartphone is fine, it’s only standalone GPS units that are not permitted. This is not to mean you won’t be able to rely on GPS guidance during your time on the island as there are ways around this if you have a smartphone or tablet, which takes me to our next section.
10. Bring a good map or download an app
Don’t wait to get to the island to find a good map of the island. While you might be lucky and come across one in a souvenir shop, don’t put your hopes in that happening. You’re better off browsing online for a good and reasonably sized map of Cuba either online or at specialist bookstores. National Geographic’s Cuba Adventure Travel Map is one of the best - if not the best - and most complete, up-to-date Cuba maps on offer.
Alternatively, you can download one of two apps available on the Google Play store and have them on your phone or tablet for easy, electronic guidance wherever you are in Cuba. You won’t need any data to use them as both are GPS-based and don´t require an internet connection. Most recently, (actually launched just this month) Cuban tourism authorities introduced the newly-developed CubaMaps website and app, which beyond having accurate maps also include highlights with extra information on attractions and places of interest. It´s only available for Android devices, so the alternative for iPhone users is the Cuba Offline Map, available on both iTunes and the Google Play Store on the latter it´s named Map of Cuba offline.
If all fails, don´t worry too much, you won’t ever be lost in Cuba for too long, a local will always be happy to help and point you in the right direction.
11. Fuel up (as often as you can)
Getting gas in Cuba is relatively easy, there are plenty of stations to be found islandwide and many are open 24 hours. That being said you won´t come across a petrol station as often as you would in most of the world, so the golden piece of advice here is not to let your tank get to minimum lows before fuelling up again, as you never know when you will find the next station. You´ll often find two types of gasoline:”normal” and “especial”. The only special thing about “especial” is that it´s the purest form of gasoline available (95 octanes), while the “normal” is a watered-down version. My advice? Pick “especial” every time if you don´t want to risk damaging your rented vehicle. On a final note, credit and debit cards are accepted at most petrol stations in Cuba, but you should always carry enough cash in case the machines are out of order or there´s a power cut. This is Cuba, after all.
12. Get familiar with the signs
The major problem with road signs in Cuba is the lack of them! The other problem is how confusing some of the few signs that are in place can be to foreigners. Some can be misleading and divert you from the place you intended to reach, others might leave you wondering what they mean. One good piece of advice would be to ignore them and trust your map instead (in the case of signs that point to places), another even better one is to do your bit of research online and learn about the most common Cuban road signs to avoid getting into the kind of trouble that could land you a fine with the police. Cuba adheres to (and is one of the few American countries to have ratified its use as of 2018) the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, so googling that (it´s on Wikipedia) will show you all the Cuban road signs you´ll need to know.
13. Expect the unexpected
Road damage is a given throughout the island. From massive potholes (they come in all sizes but some are so big you may get stuck in them) to fissures and cracks on road surfaces, you need to watch out for irregular terrain. Some of the worst offenders are actually found in cities, with many parts of Havana (especially municipal outside the beaten track like Guanabacoa or Lawton) being authentic minefields! Highways are much better overall but you still need to keep an eye out, some holes may be hidden in puddles after it has rained.
If you plan on driving beyond cities and take the highway in more rural, less developed parts of the island you should watch out for livestock, as cattle are often seen spilling onto the road.
14. Help out a hitchhiker or two
As you’ll soon notice, Cuba’s public transport is severely lacking and in some inland areas virtually non-existent, so Cubans have done of hitchhiking a vital part of daily life, an act of survival if you will. That is not to mean you should feel obliged to take everyone who asks for a lift, it might prove too time-consuming. If you’re hassled by many people at once (it will happen at crossroads) it’s best to ignore and keep rolling, it’ll be too hard to discern who you should help above all others so the best thing is to keep going. Be selective and do help out those that seem like they need it most, especially vulnerable people like women with kids and the elderly. Hitchhiking is perfectly safe in Cuba, the most they could do is deviate you from your original path in a bid to get home quicker. But other than that, having a local be part of your ride will add to the experience.
15. Don’t lose your rental papers!
Keep them safe and don’t lose them! If you lose your rental contract they will charge you, and the fine will be 100 CUC and more! So, do look after them.
16. Request child seats in advance (or bring your own)
If you come with kids, there´s no guarantee that you´ll get a child seat, as most rental companies do provide them but you need to ask in advance at the time of booking and there´s no guarantee that there´ll be one available for you to use once you get to Cuba. In Cuba, you´ll find that child seats in cars are virtually non-existent, and there´s no legal requirement for a child to be in one. If you want extra peace of mind, bring your own.
17. Avoid driving in the dark
The poor lighting makes it very dangerous to drive at night in Cuba, all the more so in highways, so don’t attempt it unless extremely necessary, and even then, only do so if ýou are in a reasonably well-lit area (with a few exceptions it most likely won’t be, at least anywhere near European street lighting standards). Plan to get to your overnight lodging before dusk to avoid potentially disastrous accidents. Locals do drive at night, yes, but they know the place like the back of their hands and are used to the low visibility. Don´t try it yourself.
18. Expect to pay for parking
Yes. Always. Public parking in Cuba is free in theory, yet thefts were so common in the 90s that a business was born out of the necessity of keeping one´s car safe. People called “parqueadores” started popping up in parking areas and looked after cars in exchange of a small fee. Their presence guaranteed that a car would not be stolen. What started as an optional safety measure, now works like an unwritten rule, and everyone pays the “parqueador” for parking in Cuba. Don´t think that because you´re a tourist they´re trying it on, locals pay all the same (albeit in CUP and not in CUC, that´s the only difference). It´s a small fee for you (1 to 2 CUC usually) and gives you added peace of mind.
19. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Seriously, driving in Cuba isn´t for amateurs, and asking for directions is very frequent on Cuban roads, even among locals. No one here is shy or proud about getting help to get to one place, as they are all aware of the poor signage which is often confusion. Instead of wasting petrol and going in circles to prove to yourself that you can do it on your own, just ask the next person you see, and double-check with another one further on to make sure you´re on the right track.
In the event of a breakdown or tire puncture, you might find locals actually approach you to give you a hand. Take it!
20. Enjoy the experience!
OK, so this last one is an extra bonus I’m throwing in and probably the most important piece of advice. While it’s always good advice to be vigilant at the wheel and you should definitely concentrate, you will find many stretches of road in Cuba with very little traffic, so do take the time to just enjoy the views, soak up the atmosphere and take in the scenery and cityscapes you pass through. There is no rush here, you´re on Cuban time, take it easy. Let walkers, bikes and carts go first, remember that even in cities there are few pedestrian walks, so watch out for street crossers.
In many parts of the Carretera Central (Central Highway) you will feel like you´re on your own, as not many Cubans own a car and you might go miles without spotting other vehicles, with the odd bike or truck instead. In many cities and towns, the slow traffic and little traffic means that you´ll find it a breeze to get around. Adapt to the rhythm, and if ever you get too frustrated, just take few breaths, look around and let it all sink in with a shrug, this is Cuba, so just go with the flow. An experience like this isn´t likely to happen twice in a lifetime. Embrace it!
The perfect Cuban road trip
Still rearing to go? If the tips (and warnings) above haven´t put you off driving around Cuba on your own, then you´re the kind of traveller who will probably get the most out of a truly authentic Cuban experience. Be assured that your adventurous spirit will be rewarded with the most amazing views, encounters to forever cherish and an overall cultural enrichment that goes soul-deep. It doesn´t get any more Cuban than this.