Driving in Cuba
Cuba is a special country, with its very own rhythm and reality. If you travel through Cuba with a rental car, a certain ‘mindset’ will help you:
• Open yourself up to a country where things work differently from anywhere in the world
• Some patience will get you a long way
• Unleash the adventurous spirit within you
• A good sense of humour always helps
Each driver must be in possession of a valid national driving licence. An international driving licence is not mandatory. Don’t forget to bring your driving licence! Driving side / Traffic rules: in Cuba you drive on the right.
The roads are generally of reasonable to good quality and quiet, with the exception of the busy (main) roads in the Havana area. These are very wide, though.
Travellers who visit the east of the country (Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, CayoSaetia, Guardalavaca) should bear in mind that roads in the east are significantly worse than in western Cuba. For example: in the far east there’s a scenic drive between Guantanamo and Baracoa; the road that runs between Cajobabo and Baracoa is known as ‘La Farola’, a beautiful road through the mountains. However, it’s also a narrow road with hairpin bends and when it rains or has rained, there may be holes in the road. The same applies to the road between Baracoa and Guardalavaca (via Moa), which is partly unpaved. The following applies at all times: drive carefully, slowly if necessary. See driving as an experience / adventure in itself and not just as a means to get from point A to B. On all driving days, anywhere in Cuba, make sure you reach your final destination before it gets dark. If necessary, plan to drive all day long, especially if you have to cover more than 200 kilometres (125 miles).
When picking up your car you’ll receive information about the petrol stations that have been specially designed for foreign visitors. Fuel must be paid in cash in CUC. Credit cards are usually not accepted as payment for petrol (however, they are accepted as payment for the deposit and insurance for the car rental). If a credit card is accepted, you always have to show your passport. Lead-free fuel is called ‘Especial’ and costs about CUC 1.50 per litre (the CUC is currently roughly equal to the EUR). If you have large distances ahead we advise that you fill your tank all the way!
The signposting in Cuba leaves much to be desired: often one or more signs are missing, unless you’re in or around the tourist towns. Cuba doesn’t have an extensive road network, though, so there’s usually little to choose from in terms of which direction to go. The locals will literally be happy to help you on your way, even if it is in hands-and-feet language; outside the tourist centres Spanish is spoken almost exclusively! Language aids:
• straight ahead = recto
• continue straight ahead = siga recto / todo recto
• left = izquierda
• right = derecho
GPS systems are not present / possible in Cuba. However, GPS on your smartphone or tablet is allowed. Tip: www.maps.me. Detailed and completely offline maps for mobile devices.
Please note: download them before coming to Cuba, due to slow or no internet:
1) Download the app
2) In the app you download the map of Cuba for OFFLINE use
You can always get a flat tyre; look for the nearest ‘ponchero’ that can repair the tyre professionally, even if it’s in a traditional (read: old-fashioned) way. Never let just any helpful Cuban repair the car!
Although there are fewer hitchhikers than before - in the 1990s, when the country was in an economic crisis - you’ll still see hitchhikers on the side of the road today. At large intersections and exits (‘salida’) there’s even an ‘amarillo’, a traffic controller dressed in yellow, to match supply and demand: in Cuba the unwritten rule applies that you help your fellow man. Of course, as a foreign guest you’re not obligated to pick up hitchhikers. It can be a valuable experience, though, for example if you help older people or mothers with children on their way. Nevertheless, it’s always good to be cautious, especially in and around Havana, because there are also people who have had bad experiences with picking up hitchhikers, including robbery. Around Trinidad there’s a well-known scam involving hitchhikers (but it can also happen elsewhere in the country): the hitchhiker gets into your car and shortly thereafter you’ll have a flat tyre. The helpful hitchhiker then takes you to a ‘ponchero’ who charges you an arm and a leg for repairing the tyre. It’s a set-up between the hitchhiker and the ‘ponchero’: that friendly hitchhiker has put something under your tyres when boarding the car. It’s something to be aware of. With common sense and by being alert you will literally and figuratively come a long way.
The average speed is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) per hour on the main roads, with a maximum of 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour. On the secondary roads you’re not allowed to drive faster than about 50 kilometres (31 miles) per hour. At a normal travel pace in Cuba, you cover about 70 kilometres (43 miles) per hour on average. At all times remember: see driving in Cuba as part of your holiday itself and never rush on the road! Make sure you always arrive at your destination before dark.
On the wayAlthough there’s a lot less traffic on the Cuban roads than you’re used to in Europe, driving there is just as strenuous. In addition to modern cars gliding past you at 120 km/h (75 mph) and vintage cars that are doing just 50 km/h (31 mph), the road is populated by horse carts, cyclists, cattle running free and people who are leisurely chatting.
Because of the economic reforms in formerly strictly communist Cuba, all sorts of commercial private initiatives are now permitted, which you’ll be confronted with on the road: practically at all major intersections, people trying to sell cheese, fruit, ‘paladares’ (family restaurants, see under ‘Paladares’) and Casa Particulares (B&B’s) will appear out of nowhere. Usually the atmosphere is friendly, but sometimes it can be experienced as annoying. Pay particular attention in popular tourist destinations such as Viñales and Trinidad, where often too-enthusiastic attempts are made to convince tourists to come to a Paladar or Casa Particular: the owners even go so far as to point signs in the wrong direction, then propose to drive with you to show you the right way, which often leads to their own business. Don’t be fooled by these fanatical merchants; if in doubt, ask the ‘ordinary’ people on the street; the farmer on his cart, older people, mothers with children…
Paladares - eating at home with the Cubans
‘Paladares’ were once living room restaurants: those traditional restaurants where you eat at home with the Cubans can still be found throughout Cuba. Nowadays there are also paladares that have a true cult status, though. ‘La Guarida’ in Havana, for example, where the famous Cuban movie ‘Fresa y Chocolate’ was filmed, and where you won’t get in without a reservation. During your travels you’ll encounter paladares everywhere, and people advertising them are everywhere as well. The quality of the various paladares differs enormously, but it’s fun to try it out for a change!
In case of an accident or calamity, you should contact the police; the car rental company will give you the telephone numbers. You also need to contact the car rental company and our local representative. In the rare case of a ticket (if you stick to the speed limit and don’t violate the traffic rules, that probability is virtually zero) the police officer will write the ticket; the car rental company will deal with the fine and charge the costs to you. Never pay cash to a traffic cop / policeman.