Driving in Cuba: Tips and Experiences from a Recent Traveler
Recent traveler to Cuba, Luke, rented a car for his adventure and learned so much about driving and cars in Cuba. He offered to share his experiences to make your trip a little easier. Read on for some great tips about driving in Cuba!
Before your trip, make sure to check out:
- You Can Still Travel to Cuba: Update 2017
- Cuba FAQ
- Cuban Tourist Cards and Visas
- Cuba Info for Americans
- 6 Airbnb's in Cuba You Need to See
- Our homepage on Cuba
Quick Tips for Driving in Cuba
- Cuban public transit has its limitation and there's lots of island to visit, so a car rental is valuable.
- Reserve your car in advance; it’s hard to get a last-minute rental.
- Reservations are not guarantees; you might wait a little to get your car.
- Your car will most likely be a cheap import and have a manual transmission.
- You won’t be renting a classic car.
- Cuba is a great place to learn how to drive a stick shift.
- Hitchhikers are everywhere.
- Farmers sell food on the side of the road.
- Driving is easy and there aren't too many cars on the road.
- Driving is generally best done during the day.
- Road signs are a luxury, and navigation is done by paper map (not Google Maps).
- Getting lost in Cuba is an amazing experience – plan to take the country roads.
- There are two types of gas; you have to get the modern kind.
- Returning the car is easy.
Why Rent a Car in Cuba
If you’re thinking about renting a car in Cuba, you should follow through and do it! It’s not nearly as challenging it may seem. In fact, although things are in many ways different than in other countries, once you’ve rented the car, driving in Cuba is quite liberating. The freedom to drive a car, a true luxury in Cuba, will give you the opportunity to explore the various corners of the island with far more speed than any other form of transport.
Renting a car can cost you anywhere between $65 - $120 per day, depending on the make. If you are traveling with friends, this makes your travel relatively cheap and easy. If you're on your own, it can be expensive, but worth it.
The pace of life in Cuba is very, very slow. It’s a good slow – the kind you should be seeking on a Cuban getaway – but recognizes that the slow pace of public transit in Cuba makes getting to your destination more of a nice reality than a planned event.
And for that matter, there are just so many little corners of the island, each worthy of a stop, that you can’t access unless you have a car. Moreover, Cuba is 780 miles long (roughly the diameter of Texas at it’s widest point), and it has more culture and variety in those little pockets than the entire United States. If you want to spend time exploring instead of waiting for the bus, a car is your best option.
Getting Your Cuban Rental Car
As with any other rental organization, you should reserve your car in advance, perhaps two months before your trip, or more. Cuba is far from the land of plenty, so rental cars are not nearly as abundant as you would find at an average airport in the United States. If you don’t reserve, it’s going to be quite hard in most cases to find a rental, and you will not have much choice in the car you rent. Choice is limited, so don’t expect a convertible or SUV anywhere in Cuba, even if a few might be on offer. Also don’t expect one of those cool classic cars (more on that later).
Luck is also something that’s quite important for getting your rental on time, so bring lots of it. By that I mean, if you have reserved, I’m confident you’re going to get some type of car, but you might be waiting a day or two extra on it and it may not be what you reserved. Remember Cuba isn’t the consumer market that the USA is and they must work with a small fixed supply of rental cars. The system is somewhat comparable to say, Italy (where supply isn’t necessarily the issue, just a complete lack of organization, whatsoever) and you don’t necessarily get your car on time. As I was trying to get a car myself in Havana, I observed a German tourist berate a poor car rental agent who clearly had no chance of delivering this gentleman’s rental car that day, but who was sincerely upset that he couldn’t fulfill the order and who knew it was his company’s mistake.
Alternatively, if you haven’t reserved a car, you’re still going to find one. In our case, we went to a few rental places until a local offered to help get us a car. This was probably our first experience with a wider Cuban phenomenon that one might call, “colloquial expertise.” Without digressing too much, I’ll explain that, when one asks a question of a person on the street in Cuba, or even looks like one is in need, there is always someone there hustling who is going to help you (or try to do so).
Our guy, a suave entrepreneur named Lucas, took us to a rental facility nearby (actually in the Museo de la Revolucion). After waiting an hour, we were told there would be a car for us after lunch (as in other hot climates, pretty much every business shuts down at lunch). Upon our return, they decided that car wasn’t available but there was a car for us in Miramar, and a short taxi ride later, Lucas got us to the car rental shop and we had a car. We, of course, had to wait about 40 minutes to get the car (just get used to this in Cuba, and don’t pressure people while waiting – they hate it), but we were happy to be on our way.
Also in hindsight, if I'd had more cash on hand, I’m confident that a solid ‘tip’ would have gotten us that car instead of driving out to Miramar. But as Americans can’t yet use ATMs in Cuba, the money you enter the country with is what you have, and we didn’t want to spare much on tips. All in, it took us about 5 hours to rent a car without having planned in advance.
The Type of Car You Will Rent
As I mentioned, don’t plan on renting one of those cool classic cars. Those are as much collector's items in Cuba as they are in the USA, and they are often used as taxis. The best looked after ones are usually on show and they display them at nice hotels in Havana as high-ticket taxis for tourists.
The most common rental car brand we encountered was Geely, but there are Renaults, Opels, even the occasional VW, Mercedes, or Audi. Geely seems to be the cheapest and there are several models available. Not knowing this make, I honestly couldn’t tell you much about them. At any rate, most were 4-door sedans, some larger than others. Air conditioning is available but not guaranteed and because of the difficulty in just getting the car, we considered not having it. If you’ve reserved a car with AC, I’m confident that if your car’s AC is not working, you could obtain a small credit (so make sure to check this before leaving). Luckily, we did get a car with AC because it was June and hot as heck. In the drier and cooler months, AC might not be as necessary.
Consistent with most countries other than the USA, Cubans primarily drive manual transmission cars. If you prefer an automatic transmission, this could significantly limit your options, but they can be obtained so again make sure to reserve. Remember, however, that if you arrive and they don’t have the car with automatic transmission for you, you might wait a day or two unless you are willing to take one with a manual transmission.
On the bright side, there's probably no place better suited than the open roads of Cuba to learn how to drive a stick shift, so get a free lesson or two before your departure and you’ll be just fine. One thing about the cheap car we rented was that it was exactly that - an absolutely cheap car. The good news is that this and other cheap makes are easy to learn on and have forgiving transmissions – seriously, it was like driving a toy car. When I returned home and jumped into my Honda Civic, I felt like I was driving a Porsche 911 Turbo with rack and pinion steering.
At the time of rental, you will also be required to agree in writing that you will use only the ‘especial’ gasoline grade, which I believe is octane 95. Remember those classic cars we spoke of? They can operate on older octanes of gas that are not as refined as the octanes we put in our cars today, so Cuba has a plentiful supply of it. You’ll need to take note of this at gas stations.
You’ve rented a car. Vamos!
We spent a total of 10 days in Cuba and if I could do it again, I’d have gone for 3 weeks. Our initial thought was to fly from Havana to Santiago de Cuba (far east end of the island) then drive back, but we couldn’t get our flights timed right. Thus in setting out from Havana, we went as far as Trinidad (center to center-west of the island) before we had to turn back. If we’d had three weeks, I’m certain we’d have made a full island road trip.
City vs. Country
As Havana is the most developed city on the island, it also has the most developed roadway system and plenty of cars on it. Don’t worry though, the traffic is nothing like L.A. or NYC. It’s quite easy to get around, and Cubans drive at a tranquillo pace, so do like the Cubans and take your time.
When you need to park the car, you can do this in most places in cities, with Havana being again a little more challenging that others just because it’s the big city. We found a parking garage and for $2 per night had the car securely locked up. It wasn’t a major deal but it was good peace of mind.
Take note that in the cheaper neighborhoods, the streets can be a little on the rough side with obstructions in some places (literally giant piles of trash or construction material because the street is torn up). It was surprising in Havana to see a 1-2 foot trench dug into one side street to lay some type of waste or drain pipe without any warning signs or barriers. We realized quickly that the lack of warning signs is commonplace in Cuba, and although it’s a little awkward at first, you really get used to how freeing it is.
As you leave the city, things change quickly. There are cars and buses that head out towards the suburban beaches, but beyond that, you’ll find that you’re almost immediately in the country and no one else is around. Leaving Havana towards the east, you’ll drive the A1. This 6-lane highway (3 lanes in each direction) was built to connect Havana with Santa Clara and from what I’ve read was the first of its type, completed in 1979. Even if well-built when first constructed, there appears to have been no upkeep since then because the roads are rotting away. While driving, I would zigzag down the highways to avoid bad spots. While Cuba doesn’t have harsh winters or heavy traffic, it seemingly also doesn’t have a maintenance crew out there. At any rate, you can drive all over the road because there will be nearly no cars around you. Maybe one car passes every few miles, but also maybe not.
Now that you’re in the countryside, you’ll see many sugarcane fields and equally as many unplanted fields. What’s most surprising though is just how many odd things you will encounter on the side of the road. This was the source of our favorite car game, “Name 20 things you find on the side of the Cuban road.” Our roadside list included:
- Hitchhikers. Lots of them.
- Farmers selling cheese and dried onions
- Crates/boxes (primarily as roadside seats)
- Horses and carts
- A guy riding a riding lawnmower (pretty much in Cuba if it moves, it’s a valid form of transportation)
- Broken down cars
Short of the hitchhikers and people selling food, most of this is just daily life passing by on the highway (i.e. farmers moving their livestock or people riding a bike to get from town to town). That being said, hitchhiking is an important part of life, too. Remember that cars are not in ready supply, and the poor folk in the country definitely don’t own cars. Buses don’t serve much of the countryside, as they primarily go from city to city, so a good passerby is the best mode of transport that country folk can find.
While you’re driving through Cuba, you’re going to find loads of hitchhikers hoping that someone will stop. We never stopped to pick up any hitchhikers, but I’m to understand it’s not a dangerous thing. You’re just going to end up with someone who wants to tell you all about themselves (in Spanish most likely) and ask you all about yourself for the duration of your trip. Moreover, if you’re looking for adventure, it might be something you consider doing.
Equally as aggressive on the side of the road are the farmers selling food. They walk out onto the highway with big wooden boards holding homemade cheese and dried onions hanging on strings. It’s hard to believe that it’s worth walking out to a car that’s screaming by at 65 miles per hour, and this really makes you appreciate just how poor the farmers are who are hoping to sell a string of dried onions. Again, we never stopped, but I can’t imagine they’re hoping for much more than a few pesos.
When to Drive
Forget streetlights. You’re on your own in the countryside. I reckon had we stopped at night and camped in a nearby field, we’d have seen some great stars. We were recommended in Havana to drive by the “luz del dia” (daylight) - this is because of the conditions of the road and possible livestock that may wander in your path.
Honestly, had I to do it again I would have driven the highway by night. If you go at a medium speed, you can handle anything with your lights, even some of the roads near the beach that we traveled. I would probably stay off the tiny country roads at night, just because you don’t know what conditions you might find, but otherwise, you’ll be fine.
Cuba does not offer data plans for mobile phones (or maybe telecoms just aren’t capable?), so once you’re out of a place with WiFi (every public square in a city), you will not be able to use apps on your phone. Navigating in Cuba is done the old fashioned way, with actual paper maps. If you were born before 1990, there’s a decent chance that you learned how to drive before the advent of Google Maps, so you’ll have to revert to those old skills. But regarding Google Maps, there is one trick you can employ. While using WiFi in town, plot your course, and even with no data connection, Google Maps will follow the course you plotted on the route and provide you your geo-location. I’m not sure how this works, but I know that it does (we did it at times).
Nonetheless, navigating with a map is part of the adventure, just like going on a hike while camping. We scored 2 free maps (one in German) from our taxi driver in Havana; I’m sure they’re not hard to find and I do recommend you grab one while in town. One final note, sometimes the signs posted are not so clear, especially when coming into a few beach towns here or there, so make sure to follow your directions and be alert. The main roads lead to the big cities so it’s quite easy to get on your way, however, we even made a bad turn on a main road.
The Road Less Traveled
Leaving Santa Clara for Trinidad, we accidentally took the highway west back towards Havana, driving about 30 minutes west instead of east. Remarkably, this is when we became real travelers, veering off the beaten path and into the heart of Cuba.
At first, we were utterly dismayed by our mistake. We worried that we had wasted too much time and we felt momentarily defeated for our lack of navigation skills. It was then that we made a unanimous decision to make up lost time in the best way - by getting off the highway and following a country road back towards our destination.
I am convinced that there is nothing more important to do on a trip to Cuba than to drive country roads around the island. I’ll tell you, it was as if we went back in time about 150 years. Occasionally we’d encounter a completely random government building (e.g. a big concrete compound or some odd factory) or another driver, but otherwise the only signs of the 20th Century that we found on our country drive was the occasional farm tractor and a few bicycles.
We drove over hills and down through gullies, crossed small rivers and cruised around lakes. The drive was slowed at times by horse drawn carts in the street and even just freely roaming horses, a practice common in poorer countries because farmers cannot afford to feed them (as an aside, the horses always look highly underfed in these cases). At one point, we were also slowed down by a completely random road that had been recently oiled and covered in large rubble.
During our countryside adventure, we stopped at the edge of one hillside road, the land giving way below to a shallow slope that ran down towards a stream. A tribe of goats sat in the grass with their brown hides glistening in the sun. As we stood there, there was no sound besides that of the goats chewing grass. Somehow it felt like the most pristine place I had ever been; it was just this simple little farm on the side of the road with pristine grasses and nature existing at it’s best. I’ve never been happier in my life about getting lost.
Amidst the gentle farmland stood the occasional tiny towns, the bigger ones with upwards of 30 houses on a single street. Forget restaurants or stores here, there weren’t even power lines. A few folks here and there sat on their doorsteps and took in the sight of our bright white car. The way in which people waved at us made one feel like the automobile was just invented; I wondered if people later told their friends that they had seen a car drive by.
While I do highly recommend the country drives, be aware that gas stations are not easily accessible. You’ll find them in more populated areas, but not so much in the countryside. Make sure to have a full tank and follow the rule to always fill up when you find a gas station.
As I mentioned earlier, some gas stations don’t carry the newer gas. We were shooed away from one major service station on the highway simply because the locals recognized that we had a newer car. Even if we had wanted to use the lower gas, they knew better and sent us on our way.
Don’t expect any modernity at a gas station. First off, fuel pumps are quite outdated, some more than others. They reminded me of the pumps from the 1980’s when I was just a kid – they’re quite mechanical (by this I mean not digital). Also, there’s no McDonald’s or fast food at the gas stations. There are some simple luxuries like ice cream, however, I was severely disappointed that there were no napkins available to clean my hands with. There do happen to be some completely random things for sale at service stations, the type of sundries one finds at a Wal-Mart or random drug store and which seemed out of place for a rest stop. There’s also plenty of cheap rum for sale.
Finally, to my complete shock, sometimes when buying gas, one needs to show identification (i.e. your passport). The attendant at the window will record your information and how much gas you’ve purchased into a paper binder. I cannot for the life of me fathom why they would do this but it fits incredibly well with the entire pace of Cuba. Random passport checks are the norm. On our drive to Cayo Las Brujas (north side of the island –beautiful beaches), we had to pay a toll and show our passports to drive out onto the long overseas highway bridge (similar to what you have in the Florida Keys). Same goes for the parking garage that we used in Havana.
Returning the Car
Given that it can be hard to get your car on time at the start of your trip, the car rental operators are incredibly happy to get their cars back because they need to redeploy them. In our case, we got a refund for an extra day that we didn’t use, and we didn’t have to fill the car up with gas.
Take the Ultimate Road Trip
Considering the lack of infrastructure in Cuba, you’ll do well to rent a car and take the best road trip of your life. If you’re interested in camping, there’s even plenty of places to stay along the way, and the car will get you to every small beach, every mountain hike, and into each town for a night of salsa dancing. Plan a few extra days on your trip so you can venture off the beaten path and discover the Cuba that awaits you.