Road conditions are quite different in Cuba from those in North America. Vehicles regularly share the road with horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, tractors, and pedestrians. Most highways lack proper lighting at night. While your rental vehicle will be modern and spiffy, most of Cuba's colorful 1950s cars lack turn signals, and you can rarely be sure of drivers' intentions. Indeed, the potential for accidents should lead you to balance your options.
While Cuba's vintage 1950s cars still use leaded gas, your new rental vehicle cannot. Gas prices are high: A liter costs about CUC$1.10 (translating to roughly US$4.15 a gallon). Make sure you fill up with high-octane especial. State-run Cupet-Cimex and Oro Negro stations are spread out along major routes; many are open 24 hours a day. Nonetheless, it's best to start a long journey with a full tank. These stations, which accept payment only in CUC, also sell snacks and beverages.
Parking is easy in most Cuban cities outside Havana. On-street spaces are plentiful, and many hotels have large lots. Never leave valuables unattended in your car, and don't leave a car on an unguarded street overnight.
Americans have historically not rented cars in Cuba. It's an expensive proposition: rates start at CUC$60 per day for a basic economy car and run up to CUC$225 for a van. Further, if your credit cards is issued by a U.S. bank and is still restricted for use, you'll need to leave a hefty security deposit—in cash. With the credit-card issue slowly being resolved, that situation is expected to change.
The embargo has prevented U.S. firms from setting up shop here—so you won't see an Avis or Hertz. Instead, rentals are handled by Transtur, a state-owned agency. A number of brand names under the Transtur umbrella (Cubacar, Havanautos, Micar, Rex, Transautos, Vía) still appear on signs; these are being phased out. Vehicles are all Japanese or Korean models.
If you're traveling during a holiday period, make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Unfortunately, Transtur's online reservation system doesn't always hold up and you may arrive to find you have no vehicle. Before setting out, check the car carefully for defects, and make sure your car has a jack and spare tire.
You must be 21 years old and have a valid national driver's license or an international driver's license to rent an automobile.
Transtur. 7214–0090; www.transturcarrental.com.
Rental Car Insurance
Insurance adds greatly to cost of renting a vehicle. Transtur’s charges begin at CUC$15 per day for an economy vehicle, and deductibles are high, running CUC$200–CUC$1,000. Note that insurance charges must be paid separately and in cash. Check if your own auto insurance policy or credit card will cover you while driving in Cuba. If you are a U.S. citizen, they likely do not— yet.
Roadside assistance for rental vehicles is handled through Transtur; your rental office will provide you with contact numbers tailored to where you'll be driving.
The good news is that most main roads in Cuba are well-maintained and traffic is very light once you're out of the cities. The bad news is that signage is very poor and it's easy to get lost, so get good road maps. The Havana metro area has the densest concentration of freeways, with six autopistas fanning out from the Havana Ring Road (Primer Anillo). The country's main artery, the six-lane Autopista Nacional, runs from Havana to just east of Sancti Spíritus before hitting the two-lane Carretera Central, which continues east. The highway expands to four lanes between Santiago and Guantánamo. The Autopista Nacional also runs westward from Havana to Pinar del Río. All Cuban highways are free except for the north coast's tolled Matanzas–Varadero Expressway, which costs CUC$2. In general, road conditions decline the farther east you travel, with rural byways in Eastern Cuba turning downright quaint and potholed. Signage becomes annoyingly sparse once you get off major highways anywhere in Cuba. Wherever you are, remember the major place-name spelling difference between English and Spanish: LA HABANA directs you to Havana.
Rules of the Road
Obey traffic laws religiously. Fines are high, transit police are ubiquitous and efficient, and your car's maroon license plates target it as a rental vehicle. Any fines you incur for traffic violations will be deducted from your rental car deposit. Driving is on the right. Speed limits are posted and range from 100 kph (60 mph) on freeways, to 90 kph (54 mph) on other highways, to 60 kph (30 mph) on rural roads, to 50 kph (30 mph) in urban areas, to 40 kph (25 mph) in school zones. Seatbelt use is mandatory. Children under two must be seated in car seats, and children under 12 may not sit in the front seat. Cell phone use and texting while driving are not allowed. Drivers are prohibited from having any alcoholic beverages before getting behind the wheel. The law is absolute; the maximum permitted blood-alcohol level is 0.0%.