Driving in Cuba
Renting a car and driving in Cuba is easy enough, but it can quickly get very pricey. You’ll have to pay for hire fee, compulsory insurance, a deposit and gas. In most cases, it’s cheaper to hire a taxi if you are planning to take day trips out of Havana. If you want to explore the country in its entirety and don’t want to be tied to the bus routes, then a car is your only option.
Here is everything you need to know about renting a car in Cuba. You have two options. You can hire your own car and drive, or you can hire a car and driver.
You will need a driver’s license to rent a car. Restrictions may vary, but most will allow you to rent a car, even in your first year of securing your license. If you are stopped by the police while driving, you are expected to leave your vehicle and approach the police vehicle with your documents. Never drive in Cuba without your license on your person. You should also carry your rental contact with you when you are driving.
Insurance is not included in the price of your rental and will be added on top. It’s usually around CUC$15 and CUC$30 per day, which can quickly add up. This insurance covers everything except the theft of the radio and tyres. It’s recommended that you store the radio in the boot at night so that it is out of view.
If you do find yourself in an accident, you will need a police report in order for the insurance to cover it. The police report is known locally as the denuncia, and it can take an entire day to secure this. If the police decide you are to blame, you can say goodbye to your deposit and may end up owing even more money.
Petty theft of things like your mirrors, taillights and antennas are unfortunately quite common. Some people will ask local people to watch their car for the night in exchange for a few CUC, but this obviously has no guarantees.
Keep a close eye on the keys and your rental contact as you’ll be hit with a CUC$50 penalty if you lose these. It also costs an extra CUC$5 for drivers under 25 and an additional CUC$3 per day to add another driver to your contract.
Petrol is only sold in CUC and is not available in CUP. There are petrol stations available widely throughout the country, with the exception of the North coast of the island West of Havana. Most are open 24 hours a day and have efficient pump attendants. You will have a choice of regular (around CUC$1 per litre) and especial (CUC$1.20 per litre). It is recommended that you use the especial fuel for rental vehicles.
How to rent a car in Cuba
The actual process of renting a car in Cuba is quite simple. You will need to book your car in advance as they tend to run out of the cheapest options quote quickly during peak times. You will need your passport, driver's license, and a refundable deposit (usually between CUC$150 and CUC$250). Car rental companies usually allow you to pay your deposit in cash or use a credit card.
If you want to use the car for 3 days or less, you will have limited miles. For 3 days or more, you can enjoy unlimited miles. It’s also possible to arrange to pick up and drop off in different locations for an additional fee. Not too long ago, automatic cars were all but unheard of in the country, but there are more becoming available.
A common bugbear with car rentals in Cuba is that you pay for the first tank of petrol and are expected to return it empty. This can lead to some drivers running out of petrol on the way to drop off their rental. Or, leaving petrol in the tank that you will not be refunded for.
Before accepting the vehicle, make sure you check that there is a spare tyre, all of the doors lock and that the seatbelts work. You don’t want to be charged for a missing spare tyre that was never there, or for a missing car radio as the result of doors that don’t lock.
You can only make a reservation 15 days in advance and even then, you aren’t guaranteed a car. Make sure you have a 'Plan B'. Speaking a little Spanish and being personable will help you rent a car with ease.
Road conditions in Cuba
The first thing you will notice when driving in Cuba is that there aren’t any road signs. Anywhere. It can be distracting at first, but you will soon learn to adapt. For this reason, you will need to travel with someone who can read a traditional map if you have any hope of finding your way around. An alternative is to pick up locals who are hitchhiking. This is a great way to ensure you never get lost.
The best advice is to drive with extreme caution. It’s not uncommon for a road in a good state to suddenly deteriorate into a minefield of potholes. Rail crossings also cause problems for foreign drivers as they are rarely indicated and almost all of them are still in use.
Other road users will be few and far between once you get out of the major cities, but this doesn’t mean you’ll have the road to yourself. Expect to see bikes, oxcarts, horse carriages, livestock and children dashing out into the road without warning.
Staying Safe While Driving in Cuba
The lack of road signs means that you won’t be told the speed limit on any roads. One-way streets will not be marked. This won’t stop the local police from pulling you over if you fall foul of any of these mysterious road rules.
Drunk driving on quite common in Cuba, so you should avoid driving at night at all costs. It’s particularly dangerous to drive at night in Havana. You will often see broken traffic lights and stop signs or road markings are non-existent. Use your horn when going around a blind bend and drive with caution if you aren’t sure if you have the right of way.
The speed limit is usually 50km/h in cities, 90km/h on the highways and 100km/h on the Autopista. Some cars that can go faster will go faster. When you see the open road, it can be tempting to put the pedal to the floor, but don’t. A speeding ticket will set you back CUC$30 and will be deducted from your deposit. There is little chance of appealing.
Out in the provinces, there is some order to the hitchhiking. Amarillos (traffic wardens) will organise rides for people waiting in a line on the side of the road. If you have space in your car, it is common courtesy to stop and offer a ride, but it isn’t required of tourists.
However, there are some upsides to offering a botella (a lift) to a local. You’ll never get lost and you might just discover some of the best places the guidebooks know nothing about. You’ll also meet some wonderful people.
If you are wary about picking up hitchhikers, you can usually find elderly people or women with children looking for rides. The amarillos are tasked with hustling the neediest people to the front of the line.
As you may notice from the old American classics on the road, the Cuban people are very skilled at keeping their cars running. If you need a spare part of a repair, be prepared see just how innovative Cuban drivers can be with string, spare bits of rubber or a clothes hanger. If you get a puncture or need air in your tyres, head to a gas station. Beware that they probably won’t have an measure, so it helps to travel with a handheld pressure gauge so they don’t over-inflate them.
We believe that the best alternative is to hire a car and driver. This way, you are absolved of any responsibility for accidents and you don’t need to worry about the car at night. We can arrange everything from airport pickups to out of town trips.
Just get in touch and we can arrange a friendly and knowledgeable local driver. They will show you all of the sights and give you the freedom of the open road without the stress.