Renting a car in Cuba follows the predictable pattern of so much of Cuban life. It’s pretty straightforward, but resign yourself to paying over the odds for a badly maintained and usually pretty crappy machine.
To rent a car, you’ll need your passport, your home driver’s license and a refundable CUC$200 deposit (in cash or with non-US credit card). You can rent a car in one city and drop it off in another for a reasonable fee. The cheapest cars start at CUC$50 per day for a Hyundai Atos and climb steeply to around CUC$70 per day minimum during the high season.
Another bugbear is that (especially in Havana and Santiago) cars are in such short supply that reservations are pretty much meaningless. Usually the best thing to do is call around the car-hire places the day you want a car, then go straight there if they have something available. The hotel outlets are often better bets than the main offices. In Havana, those around Parque Central are often the best places to ask; try the Plaza, NH Parque Central, Sevilla, Telégrafo and the Inglaterra, all within easy walking distance of each other.
Contracts for three days or more come with unlimited kilometers. As if things weren’t idiotic enough, your car comes with only a tiny bit of gas in it to allow you to drive to the gas station to fill up. You’re expected to return it empty, but don’t risk running out just to save a few CUCs. Drivers under 25 pay a CUC$5 fee; additional drivers on the same contract pay a CUC$15 surcharge.
Check over the car carefully before driving off as you’ll be responsible for any damage or missing parts. Make sure there is a spare tire of the correct size, a jack and lug wrench. Check that there are seatbelts, all the lights work, and all the doors lock properly. Some cars are in a shocking state. It’s worth complaining and trying to swap if the engine sounds strange. Take the optional CUC$10 per day insurance.
We have received many letters about poor or nonexistent customer service, bogus spare tires, forgotten reservations and other car-rental problems. The more Spanish you speak and the friendlier you are, the more likely problems will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (tips to the agent may help).
Bus travel is a dependable option with Víazul (881-1413, 881-5652, 881-1108; www.viazul.cu; Calle 26 & Zoológico, Nuevo Vedado), which has punctual, air-con coaches to destinations of interest to travelers. Sadly it’s not possible for foreigners to travel on Astro buses, which cover the country far more comprehensively, meaning that if you want to get off the beaten path you’re pretty much forced to hire a car or ride a bike. Bus reservations are advisable during peak travel periods (June to August, Christmas and Easter) and on popular routes (Havana–Trinidad, Trinidad–Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba–Baracoa).
Very crowded, very steamy, very Cuban guaguas (local buses) can be useful in bigger cities. There is always a line at paradas (bus stops). Shout ‘el último?’ (‘the last?’) to determine who is last in line. You ‘give’ el último when the next person arrives, thereby knowing exactly where you fall in line. Buses cost from 40 centavos to CUP1. You must always walk as far back in the bus as possible and exit through the rear. Make room to pass by saying ‘permiso, ’ and watch your bag.
Public railways operated by Ferrocarriles de Cuba serve all the provincial capitals and are a great way to experience Cuba if you have time and patience, but a nightmare if you’re keen to make progress and move about efficiently! Getting a ticket is usually no problem – tourists will be charged in CUC$, though Spanish-speaking travelers frequently travel on trains for the local peso price. The most useful routes for travelers are Havana–Santiago de Cuba and Havana–Santa Clara. The bathrooms are foul. Watch your luggage and bring food.
Internal flights are well provided for by national carrier Cubana de Aviación (834-4949; www.cubana.cu) and Aerocaribbean (833-3621; www.aero-caribbean.com). Both connect Havana to Santiago de Cuba (CUC$219 return), Baracoa (CUC$259 return) and Nueva Gerona (CUC$86 return) on the Isla de la Juventud. One-way tickets are half the price of round-trip.
Cuba is legendary among cyclists and you’ll see more bicycle enthusiasts here than divers, climbers and hikers put together. Cuba’s status with cyclists dates from the mid-’90s when it first opened up to tourism, when cars were still few and far between. Sadly, conditions aren’t quite as good as they once were: as driving becomes more affordable for many Cubans, the roads are getting busier with ancient Soviet lorries and 1950s American cars belching out plumes of pollution wherever they go. However, Cuba is a largely flat country, with a driving population used to sharing the road.
Spare parts are difficult to find; poncheras fix flat tires and provide air. Bring your own strong locks as bicycle theft is rampant. Try to leave your bike at a parqueo – bicycle parking lots costing CUP1, located wherever crowds congregate (markets, bus terminals etc). Riding after dark is not recommended. Trains with baggage carriages (coches de equipaje or bagones) take bikes for CUC$20. These compartments are guarded, but take your panniers with you and check over the bike when you arrive. Víazul buses also take bikes.