Everything You Need to Know About Driving in Cuba
As much as bookings to the stuck-in-time island have exploded, tourist infrastructure struggles to keep pace—here, it’s nearly impossible to train-hop between cities, buses don’t run on schedule, and even domestic flights are unpredictable. Driving allows for unparalleled freedom to explore, but it’s a complicated process just to get your car booked.
Luckily, Travel + Leisure has you covered, both when it comes to renting a car in Cuba and navigating the constantly-changing rules associated with visiting in the first place. Before finalizing your plans, make sure you know the latest on traveling to Cuba without a group (and still qualifying for a people-to-people trip), that you’re up to date on the latest hotel developments on the island (which will soon offer you the choice between authentic-feeling homestays and more comfortable luxury digs), and that you’ve got the 101 on commercial flights to the island nation.
We’ve also come up with the perfect day in Havana—a short video that’s part of T+L’s new Overnighter series, highlighting the must-see spots in major cities around the world. Consider it Part One of an epic journey to Cuba, which might get capped off with a road trip like the one I recently wrote about in T+L’s May 2016 issue. It hits colonial cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos before making a pit stop for underwater adventures in the Bay of Pigs. (For travelers that would rather have a bespoke experience planned for them, there’s also this eight-night trip of a lifetime from Black Tomato, planned in collaboration with T+L editors.)
Regardless of the format or length of trip you choose, make sure that you budget some amount of time to drive beyond Havana and get a taste of Cuba’s verdant landscapes. Vintage car or not, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Here, a few tips for navigating the road.
Use an Agent
Yes, you might be used to bidding for your rental car on Priceline or booking the best available model with your Hertz Gold card. But that won’t fly in Cuba. Do yourself a favor and book through a service with English-speaking agents and an on-the-ground presence, such as Cuba Travel Network—it will reserve your car with one of the state-run agencies and troubleshoot in the all-too-likely scenarios that your paperwork gets “lost,” the brakes on your Chinese-made Geely CK don’t work, or you run into trouble on the road.
Don’t Expect GPS to Work
Google may have just gotten clearance to build up Wi-Fi infrastructure in Cuba, but service won’t be reliable for quite a while. There are real challenges to navigating without GPS or cell phone service—but there’s a wild freedom and even nostalgia to it, too.
Pick the Right Map
Invest in a detailed print map before arriving in Cuba, ideally with gas stations clearly marked, as they can be considerable distances apart. This excellent one, by National Geographic, can be ordered online ahead of your travels.
Be Mindful About Parking
The “T” on a rental car plate designates that you’re a tourist, and your car can be an easy target. With that in mind, you should only park in lots that have attendant supervision; these informal operators will look after your car for a CUC (convertible peso, pegged 1:1 with the US dollar) or two. Cuba is a safe country to travel around, but given its poverty, theft is not uncommon.
Stay on the Main Roads
Even for travelers who are comfortable going off the grid, it’s much smarter to stay on Cuba’s major highways.
Have Realistic Expectations
Hitting the back roads can mean entire stretches with scratched out signposts, herds of goats obstructing the road, deep potholes, very steep slopes, and washed out bridges.
Embrace the Challenge
Driving in Cuba is an adventure all its own, but it’s a rewarding one if you know where to go and you’re up for a few unexpected bumps in the road. If there’s one thing to always bear in mind, it’s this: no matter what, a mojito will await wherever you arrive.