We don’t drive on every trip, but a car rental in Cuba led us to a roadside cafe overlooking the jungle, fun conversations with a rural fruit seller who showed us letters he’d received from around the world, seeing horseback riders carry two live pigs each to their New Year’s Eve party, an offer to sell Jay a restaurant/orchard (of course you’d have to divorce your wife and marry my daughter), and land on the doorstep of a Soviet-era spa. I’d definitely rent a car in Cuba again. That said, we’d rate the experience in the top two most challenging driving experiences compared to other countries where we’ve rented cars. Driving is dangerous no matter where you are, but driving in Cuba takes special vigilance.
Overall, there are many fewer traffic related deaths in Cuba than in the US, but this statistic is skewed by having many fewer cars on the road in Cuba because of the poor economic conditions. I highly recommend keeping your driving experiences to the daytime. There are lots of people who use the roadways at night. Most of them are unlighted (horses, bikes, walkers) and, despite public education efforts, some of the remainder are less sober than you’d want them to be.
Car Rental in Cuba, the Summary:
Side of the Road: Right side
License: Home license is sufficient
Lesson Learned the Hard Way: Don’t drive at night
- You can get off the beaten track and away from the tourist center
- You are on your own schedule
- Your car may be much more comfortable (with more breathable air) than taxis
- You can pick up and get to know some of the many people who line freeway on-ramps waiting for a ride
- It’s always an adventure!
- It’s relatively expensive
- There are often poor road conditions
- Sometimes the vehicles sharing the road are in poor condition
- Missing out on great conversations with taxi drivers
- You have to find safe places to park
- Sharing the road with horses, bicycles, and barely functioning cars from the 50’s
We rented a Peugeot SUV through Havanautos. Our Peugeot was easily one of the nicest cars we saw on the road. We paid $629 USD for a week, so not particularly cheap, and we paid ahead online. Our package included unlimited mileage, a great map, a leaky rear left tire, a broken horn, and a loud clunk inside the right front wheel. Overall it was a great car and the minor issues didn’t keep us from having a great time.
Where did we drive
We tend to avoid driving within cities when we can, opting instead to walk or take public transportation of some kind. We saw much more of the country via long-distance taxi, but here was our driving route:
- Santa Clara ⇒ Camajuaní ⇒ Remedios ⇒ Pedraplén a Cayo Santa Maria
- Santa Clara ⇒ 474 to Manicaragua ⇒ 152 through el Parque Natural Topes de Collantes ⇒ Trinidad
- Trinidad ⇒ 12 to Cienfuegos ⇒ 112 ⇒ 1 to Santa Clara
Road and signage quality
The quality of the roads varies from great to downright dangerous. The Carretera Central and Autopiste are pretty good for the most part and cars (if their state of repair allows) go fairly fast. Here is a video that was taken on the Carretera toward Las Terrazas. In many other places you will be dancing with massive potholes, washboards, and other obstacles. Vehicles (and this includes horse-drawn wagons, oxcarts, bicycles, and other things on the road) go a wide variety of speeds and have the same breadth of ideas about the rules of the road. Defensive driving is key at all times.
Signage is sketchy and there’s no checking GPS to see if you are on the right track. The best way is to stop and ask frequently. If you’re flexible and have some time on your hands it isn’t too big a deal.
Getting gas is pretty straightforward. There are station attendants and CUCs are generally accepted. It is probably best to get the ‘especial’ grade for rental cars.
You’ll probably want to pay someone to watch your rental overnight (about $2CUC) unless it is in a locked parking lot. It may seem strange to pay for someone to watch an inanimate object, but it is a great way to get a little money directly into the hands of people who need it and on the other, they’ll usually clean your windows for you. If you are staying in a casa particular (and we recommend that you do), ask your host about the best place to park.
So, in sum, if you are an adventurer we’d call car rental in Cuba cool, not crazy. Just do it!