Cuba as a country may have moved to the left – but on the roads they drive on the right. Joking aside, driving in Cuba is not straightforward, but also not as difficult as some sources may have you believe.
If you really want to get to the more far flung (and less touristy) parts of the island it’s a good idea to hire a car and once outside of Havana the roads are fairly traffic free and easy to navigate. You will also save a great deal of time not having to take the state approved tourist buses (Viazul) – because they are constantly stopping to pick people up and drop them off it ends up adding a few hours to the journey time. We were rather enraged to see thoughtless hotel guests stroll out leisurely to the bus after keeping us waiting for an hour on more than one occasion!
Cuba is a poor country and so the state of the roads will reflect this. That said it’s perfectly possible to see most areas without the use of a 4×4. Take some local advice on this. For instance if you want to see the stunning beaches of Cayo Jutias (north from Viñales), there’s a long dirt track to bounce along which would be better attempted in some sort of four by four. The reality is though in Cuba that you might not get too much choice. Also, if you have a vision of yourself driving around in one of the amazing classics cars for which Cuba is famous, this won’t happen as most of them aren’t roadworthy to the standards expected by a car rental company.
The Challenges of Driving in Cuba
- No easily accessible internet means no GPS. It’s back to the old style virtues of navigating by map.
- The language. Even if you’re reasonably proficient in Spanish you may find it hard to understand Cubans. Their language has evolved a dialect of its own. That said they will be likelier to understand you than you them.
- Signs are a bit hit and miss. You may find them all too available until that crucial turn that you drive past.
- Availability of rental cars. Cuba isn’t prepared for the high volume of tourism it’s been receiving recently. That means a shortage of accommodation and rental vehicles. There are also numerous stories of people booking a car which doesn’t actually materialize on arrival.
- The price. Your tour operator may dissuade you from trying to get a car – not only are there only a few companies and not enough vehicles to go around – but this pushes the price up.
- Hitchhikers. It’s common to give lifts in Cuba. You may feel that you want to spread the love. But although Cuba is very safe in terms of violent crime – scams are quite common.
- Railway lines are everywhere. There won’t be any safety gates so take care when crossing them.
- Driving at night when poor lighting and drunk drivers combine to make the roads unappealing.
What you need to make a success of Driving in Cuba
- Book a hire car well in advance. Same goes for every aspect of your Cuba trip. Tourism is taking off in Cuba and it’s no last minute destination.
- Download a map before you go. Options include the CityMaps2Go app by UlmanPro or the Open Street Map website which covers the whole island. If you can find a good paper map, great.
- Work out which type of fuel your car takes before you set off. Cuban gas stations are like everything else in Cuba – confusing. Rental cars are supposed to use 94 octanes but it’s hard to find so make sure you stock up while you’re in the city. 90 and 87 octanes should work fine if you can’t find 94. Gas stations are less common on the North West coast of Cuba.
- Learn some handy Spanish phrases. Don’t rely on people speaking English because they often don’t.
- Know the law. The speed limit on a Cuban highway is 100km per hour.
- The basics. The single-lane carretera central connects the whole country from west to east, the A4 connects Havana with Pinar Del Rio and the A1 runs east of Havana to the center of the island.
- Stay alert. Animals in the road are not uncommon – usually horses and cows.
- Parking. This is usually done on the basis of giving a local a tip to watch over your car, even though Cuba is a very safe country to visit.
- Look out for scams. People are often desperate for money in Cuba and so scams are borne out of necessity. This could even happen at a rental company. Also, if while driving any Jinteros signal you to pull over – keep driving!
Cuban phrases for driving
- motorway – autopista
- where – dónde
- right – a la derecha
- left – a la izquierda
- police report – denuncia (you’ll need a copy of this if you have an accident)
- to turn – girar (pronounced ji-rar)
- straight ahead – todo recto
- street/road – calle (pronounced cay-yeh)
- exit – salida
- lift – botella (for a hitchhiker)
- near – cerca
- far – lejo (pronounced ley-ho)
- north, south, west, east – norte, sur, oeste, este
- before – antes (pronounced ant-tes)
- to arrive – llegar (pronounced yeh-gar)
- I am looking for – busco
Renting a car in Cuba
You won’t find any of the main car rental agencies in Cuba- certainly not the American ones! Here are some of the state run companies
In order to rent you just need your passport and driving licence. Check the car thoroughly before you drive off – check there’s a spare tire and everything works including the windows and the seat belts. Also note that many rental companies offer a driver with the vehicle which is a good option is you don’t feel 100% confident!
You’ll pay the full amount for the rental car when you book online, then for a full tank of gas on arrival and the mandatory surcharge for insurance (hold on your credit card. Make sure you don’t take a US card). Rental cars have a distinctive red background licence plate so look out for this. Most of the cars are manual transmission. Not many take diesel but do ask about getting a diesel if you want to save money as it’s a lot cheaper.
Be sure to leave the car in a safe place as it’s common for parts to be stolen (to supplement the old classics. If you have a radio take it out and lock it in the boot overnight.