10. Take your time, Cuba is a large island.
It may come as a surprise but Cuba is the size of England, only thinner. It would take 16 to 20 hours to drive from the westernmost place in Cuba all the way to Guantanamo in the east. North to south, however, only takes a couple of hours.
My advice, take your time; you do not want to just rush through interesting locations or end up really tired after a road trip in Cuba trying to cover too much terrain.
The fly and drive holiday packages we suggest have been designed with important road trip considerations in mind, including distance between destinations, time required to properly cover the itinerary, and road conditions. If you are organising a tailor-made fly-drive holiday, then our holiday specialists will be able to advise on distances.
9. Respect old American and Soviet-era cars, you never know what’s under the bonnet.
Some of the cars you’ll see in Cuba, especially American classics, are well over fifty years old. In some cases, they carry most of their original parts which can make them “slow to react” (e.g. shaky steering, take space to turn because of their size, slow acceleration, etc.). Be careful when sharing the lane, overtaking or being overtaken by one of this lovely dinosaurs.
There’s another version of this story. These 1950s Chevrolets, Buicks and Studebakers might look ancient on the outside, but under the bonnet, a powerful V8 Mercedes Benz engine might be running. Do not underestimate them – even if you’re driving a modern car they may still whizz past you on the motorway.
The implication: drive slowly and cautiously around these big guys, respect their sheer size, weight and constitution.
8. Avoid driving in the evening.
Street lighting in Cuba might not be of the standards that you are used to, especially on the motorway and in the countryside. Your self-drive holiday should be a relaxing and fun experience, not a stressful one.
Fortunately, you won't need to drive in the darkness unless you choose to. As a tropical island, Cuba enjoys very long days. Typically, the sun rises around 6 in the morning and sets around 9 pm.
7. Keep an eye on potholes, vultures, and cattle.
When cruising along on the “Autopista Nacional”, the National Motorway, keep an eye out for the road’s three main hazards: potholes, vultures, and cattle.
On the motorway, you’ll soon notice an almost-complete absence of traffic. Having four lanes all to yourself may tempt drivers into driving at the speed limit, particularly holiday-makers wishing to make the most of their time. Avoid speeding, some parts of the motorway are not as well maintained as roads you drive back home. Hitting a pothole at 60 miles per hour is bad idea.
It might sound weird, but the second most common hazard you’ll encounter on Cuban roads is vultures. It is not uncommon to encounter these large, bald and funny looking birds feasting on roadkill along the motorway. Remember, they are heavy and slow in taking flight. Slow down as soon as you spot one on the road.
And finally, there’s the off chance of a cow taking a stroll on the motorway. Luckily, they are fairly easy to spot.
6. Relax and enjoy, Cuba is extremely safe.
Those worried about safety on the island can rest assured that Cuba is extremely safe. Common-sense precautions are enough for a smooth road trip (for example no hitch-hikers, lock your car when leaving it unattended etc.). It is ok to stop anywhere, explore, and interact with the locals.
That being said, safety should always come first. Before setting off on the road, make sure that you have your car rental contract, the car-hire agency contact details, and Cuba Direct representatives’ contact details at hand. They are your first point of contact if you should need assistance.
5. Forget the sat-nav.
Sorry, sat-navs won’t be of any use in Cuba. You are back to using a good road map and asking questions. Actually, if you are travelling with a roaming-enabled smartphone and have a satnav application installed, check roaming charges with your mobile company before you travel. I forgot to do so and used my satnav, Facebook, and email in Cuba, ending up with a £600 bill to pay to my provider.
There’s a few satnav applications on the market that allow you to download maps of Cuba that can then be used offline. However, I’ve tried a few and didn’t find them to be very useful. If you want to try for yourself, “Cuba Offline Maps” by APP MAKERS could be an option.
The simplest solution: travel with a decent road map of Cuba and plan your journeys before you travel. The help of Cuba Direct specialists will be very valuable.
4. Avoid driving in Havana. It is unnecessary.
It is not just having to deal with the traffic, parking restrictions, complexity of the city that makes driving in Havana ill-advised. If you are driving, you’re missing the things that make Havana so special: the music, the people and the magnificent architecture. Those staying in Old Havana will find that most major attractions are within walking distance. If you need a ride, taxis are very affordable.
Unless you plan to visit the beaches of Santa Maria del Mar or Guanabo just outside Havana, escape to the Soroa waterfalls or constantly travel around the city, you’ll be fine without a car during your stay in Havana.
If you like idea of a fly and drive holiday in Cuba, I’d recommend that you spend a few days in Havana and pick up your hire car on your final day in the city before venturing to other destinations.
3. Plan where to pick up and drop off your car to avoid unnecessary charges.
For instance, you may choose to pick-up your car at the airport in Havana. This would present an extra charge of around £20. On top of that, you’ll have to pay local charges to the car-rental company (e.g. security deposit, insurance, or petrol) which means you’ll have to convert from your currency to Cuban pesos at one of the currency exchange desks at the airport; the exchange rate of which will not favour you.
What’s more, you are likely to be tired after a long flight, queuing at immigration control and luggage collection, plus the waiting time getting the contract signed. I would not recommend driving in unfamiliar country straight after such a long journey.
And finally, if you are staying in Havana, there’s cheaper options for moving around than a car-hire. My advice, listen to the guidance your Cuba Direct specialist will give you, and ask about pick-up or drop-off charges.
2. Take it slow on rural and windy roads.
Outside Havana and the National Motorway, narrower and winding roads will demand extra care. Do not get overconfident because of the lack of traffic. For instance, the road from Santa Clara to Cayo Santa Maria is in very good condition, but it is narrow and sharp bends are frequent. Be extra careful on this kind of road with tourist buses: they require extra space to manoeuvre and drivers on a schedule can be aggressive. Look out for cyclists, tractors and horse riders on the side of the road too. And absolutely no drink driving!
1. Listen to the advice of your Cuba Direct travel consultant.
I know what you are thinking: self-promotion. Well not entirely. We do consider ourselves an authority on holidays to Cuba, and do not shy away from saying it, but that’s beyond the point. This tip is about you having a great holiday experience.
The truth is most of our clients are independent-minded, seasoned travellers, and people with a keen interest in experiencing Cuba to the fullest - the legendary Caribbean beaches, nostalgic Havana, the Cuban music and history… in short, travellers that enjoy planning their journeys and participating in the decisions (where to go, staying away from tourist traps and hubs, etc.).
We respect that, and we love to work for clients ready to go for an authentic adventure. But we do know a lot about Cuba; the majority of our team originate from the island and those who don’t have direct destination experience. So please, listen to what we have to say. You will not be disappointed.