How to travel around Cuba? Is it worth renting a car?
If we want to see more in Cuba than the places we can reach by Viazul, we have two options: car rental or hitch-hiking mixed with local means of transport – from buses to converted to something like camionetas buses. The latter is more interesting, much cheaper and much more time-consuming. We, due to lack of time, decided on a more expensive but more flexible option – we rented a car in Cuba, or rather what I will describe below – before leaving Poland.
Car in Cuba – booking process
Renting a car in Cuba is neither simple nor cheap. Checking the car’s availability is difficult – everything is done via forms or emails, you have to wait a few / several hours for a response. Asking about the possibility of picking up the car in another place (there are about 20 places in Havana) makes it necessary to create a new reservation. The whole process takes quite a long time. There are pages on which you can fill out a form similar to the one you fill in Europe, but even the availability of the car on these pages does not guarantee anything. They are simply brokers who, based on our form, will email the rental company, taking a commission for it.
Cuba car rental companies
The most known companies are Havanautos, Cubacar and Gaviota. We booked through Havanautos. The company is not recommendable, but I don’t think other companies have better feedback. Cuba’s customer service is dreadful anyway. We registered on their website. It is important that the account was set up by the driver and that he paid with his card, otherwise, the reservation may be cancelled. After creating the account, we choose the car we are interested in, the period for which we want to rent (min. 3 days) and the pick+up location. We sent an inquiry and waited for confirmation of car availability. If available, you should pay by card. The price is displayed in dollars, but we paid in Euros anyway.
If the car is not available, I suggest looking for it by changing the pickup place within the given city, e.g. from the centre to the airport or by changing the pickup time. Insurance is compulsory, the price already includes full insurance on Havanautos. In the event of minor thefts, the driver covers damage up to 300 CUC. In the event of car theft or accident, the insurer covers the damage. An additional driver costs 3 CUC / day, and if you want to pick up at the airport, their charge 20 CUC more. We get the car with a full tank of gas and give it back empty. This is a bit unfair because the stations are not at every turn, so giving the car with an empty tank is almost impossible.
However, the biggest problem is the low availability of cars. Cars must be rented two months in advance in the high season. You may be sure, that you will be not able to rent a car while you are in Cuba. And it’s expensive – a car in Cuba is still a luxury. We rented an economical car (5-person Geely – described on pages as 4 passengers, which can be a bit confusing). It cost 250EUR for 4 days – with full insurance. Well, almost full, because if someone breaks the mirror or steals the wheel, you still have to pay. The insurance covers accidents – whether it is your fault or not, we are protected. Before you pick up the car, you also need to deposit 150CUC at the office – it may be blocked on credit card or paid in cash.
Pick up from the rental company
To collect the car you have to come with a bit of patience and time. We had our car booked at 11:00, so we showed up at the rental office at this time. On the spot they told us that the car is not there yet, he does not know when it will be, so we have to go for a walk and he will call when the car appears. With slight irritation I informed you that we do not have a Cuban phone number, so he will not inform us by phone, we are not going anywhere and we feel cheated. He did not care at all. He left leaving us in the waiting room with the other waiting people.
A Cuban lesson of patience
We were lucky, after an hour there was a car. Someone just gave it back and we were about to take it over. The condition of the car left a lot to be desired. It was dirty from the outside and inside, battered and scratched on each side. We started to take pictures of the car when they informed us that we will go with the driver to another office from where we would rent the car. A bit strange, but let it be.
So we went with the driver, and after half an hour we started to leave Havana, so slightly irritated we asked the driver: “where are we going?”, “To Atlantica” he answered. “But what is Atlantic? Where are we going? ”It turned out that we were going to the Atlantico hotel on the way to Varadero, because there was no car for us at the office in Havana, so they would gladly rent a car for in Atlantica. The driver thought we were going to Varadero later, so it would be our way. It is a pity that no one asked us about the plans because we actually planned to go to Cienfuegos, in a completely different direction. We arrived at a small rental near the Atlantico Hotel. We ask a rental employee why we could not rent a car in Havana, since we have indicated this in the reservation?
“There was no car for you in Havana, you had to come here because there is a car here. You’ll get them in a minute,” he said
“But we just arrived from Havana in the car we are about to rent!”, “No, you did not”
I feel like I’m in a hidden camera. We gave up, we want to take the car as soon as possible.
More pick up problems
The driver first goes to refuel, returns after half an hour. We’re taking photos of the car again and checking that everything works. Lights don’t work. The employee wants to ignore that, but we insist on doing something about it. The driver goes to the workshop, returns after 40 minutes with the lights repaired. We are ready to go. Well impossible. It’s 14:00, not bad at all. We only lost three hours and there will be something to remember.
What to look for when picking up a car in Cuba?
What should you check when collecting the car? Here, in general, it is not different from renting in every other country. Well, maybe there are more complaints on the Internet on the problems that occur when returning the car. We usually take photos of each damage, literally each. Even if they say it’s too small and there’s no point in writing it down. We also take pictures of the interior, although they also said that they never check the interior. Our car in Cuba was quite battered, so taking pictures took some time. But it proved to be useful when on one morning we noticed a large crack, when the car was parked on the street. Quickly browsing the photos reassured us that the scratch was already there on pick-up.
It is good to take photos with some background, to prove that they were taken on pick-up place, and if it’s possible, try to have an employee describing the condition of the car with you in the picture. Thus, no one would say later that you took pictures of yourself on the road after it was damaged. Make sure to check all the lights, In the high season the sun sets already around 18, and it is difficult to drive in Cuba after dark.
How do you drive a car in Cuba?
The answer is simple: difficult and slow. All that because of the state of the roads in Cuba, which is almost catastrophic. This applies to both the highway and smaller local roads. The roads leading to the resorts are quite good – from Havana to Varadero and from Holguin to Guardalavaca. The highway from Santa Clara to the suburbs of Havana can be full of holes. It is also best – just for your safety – to assume that the remaining roads are full of holes – on every road we drove (except those mentioned above), no matter how beautiful it started, we unexpectedly came across 20 cm deep holes. Of course, they are not marked at all and driving 90km / h will require sudden braking.
Check your lights
That is why strong lights outside the city are so important. They allow us to notice the danger a little earlier. They also allow you to notice other traffic participants in time – pedestrians, cyclists and horses. There are a lot of them in the city, slightly less near cities, sometimes on main roads. Of course, most of them have no lights at all, at most the light is reflected in the CD on the back. It is especially dangerous when we pass a car coming from the opposite direction if the driver does not put out the strong lights. When we pass it, we see nothing and then it is easy to get over someone riding in the dark.
And you have to remember that in the summer the sun sets around 6 pm. An additional attraction on the roads is crabs, crossing the road even about a kilometre from the beach. They can damage the tire, so better avoid them.
And one more important note – the alcohol limit for the driver is 0.05%, which means that you cannot afford even a sip of mojito.
Signs and maps
The signs directing to the towns – at least the larger ones – are reasonably placed, although I have heard before that they are not there at all. The rest of the traffic signs are very rare and are mostly made of non-reflective material. reportedly Although using GPS is reported to be illegal, we used the free Maps.Me application for Android. You can download a detailed map with navigation, free of charge, with lots of points (attractions, shops, parking lots and even some casas particulares). It is useful both in the car and on foot.
Refuelling the car in Cuba
The price of Especial fuel (we were recommended to refuel with this one) was the same at every station we went to and was 1.2 CUC /litre. There are not many stations, so you should schedule your refuelling, especially as there Especial is not available on every station. Refuelling is quite simple – we drive to the dispenser, we go to the cash register the amount for which we want to refuel, and then refuel – the limit is set on the dispenser.
Security and car parks
When it comes to security, it strongly depends on the city and its region. Each car in Cuba will have a different type of licence plate, depending on who is the owner. This, unfortunately, immediately defined our car as a tourist, which could theoretically attract thieves to it. Fortunately, despite the fact that we usually parked in the city streets, nobody wanted our mirrors or tires. Once we didn’t want to leave the car on the street – in Trinidad. The casa particular owner arranged for us an additional paid (4 CUC) car park. If there is no parking option, ask for a bank or hotel with security cameras. When it comes to leaving during the day on the street, we tried to leave where the locals do, always asking someone if it is possible to park there. We also tried to have a car ahead or behind us.
Car parks at tourist attractions usually charge 1 CUC, at least those near Trinidad. The gentlemen are dressed in yellow uniforms and seem to be official parking officers. Once, when we parked for half an hour by the beach and we are about to leave, a woman approached us and wanted us to pay her for watching the car, because she was sitting nearby and looked at it. We ignored her.
If it is possible, don’t park under the trees, even if there are no birds on them. In the evening they fly in, and the car looks terrible in the morning. We also read a lot about problems with the police, but they never came to bother us about anything.
How do you drive around the city?
The first, the most noticeable difference – no traffic jams. Even in Havana, traffic is smooth and most intersections can be crossed at the first light. Just like outside the city, watch out for pedestrians, cyclists and horse-drawn carriages. Streets in smaller cities are often not illuminated. Many streets, especially in the city centre, are one-way only. However, there are no signs informing about it – only on reaching the intersection are we able to see a blue arrow in the building in front of us. It means that the street in front of us is one-way and the arrow shows us in which direction the traffic is.