The freedom of the open road awaits you in Cuba, so what are you waiting for? Our Travel Specialists, Emma and Zoe recently packed their bags and tested out one of our Cuba itineraries, taking them from the historic capital, Havana to the rolling tobacco fields of Viñales before exploring the atmospheric towns of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. They finished their trip on the white sands of Cayo Santa Maria. From driving distances to directions, check out Zoe’s top tips for self drive in Cuba…
Self drive or transfers?
When we started planning our trip to Cuba, we considered both options for how we would travel around the country. The two options were a mixture of private and group transfers, or travelling around in a hire car.
We liked the idea of the transfers because you get picked up, dropped off and it’s hassle free! However our inner-Indiana Jones wanted a little more adventure and the self drive option in Cuba allows you to start and stop at your own pace. We knew driving ourselves would give us a lot more flexibility as we would have the car to explore the local areas more easily.
Lost in translation…
Emma and I were barely able to string a sentence together in Spanish before we travelled to Cuba… so we knew we were going to have to brush up on the lingo! This was a great motivation as it gave us a reason to learn some Spanish meaning we would have a better chance of talking to the local people we met along our journey.
*Tip* If you do a self drive trip and don’t know any Spanish, just make sure you learn the basics; how to ask for directions, ordering food & drink, and asking how much something costs. Take a Spanish phrase book with you too!
Navigating the journey
Sat navs aren’t available and do not work in Cuba. We downloaded a couple of offline maps on our tablet and smartphones but we didn’t use them. We mainly relied on just the road signs, the Rickshaw Travel driving instructions, and the useful roadmap you are given in the welcome meeting on your first morning in Havana. I was a little worried about the prospect of driving in a foreign country and on the other side of the road, BUT it was one of those situations where you get there and think – what was I even worried about in the first place!? This is absolutely fine – let’s go!
- Havana – Viñales (2.5 hours)
- Viñales – Cienfuegos (5.5 hours)
- Cienfuegos – Trinidad (1.5 hours)
- Trinidad – Cayo Santa Maria (2.5 hours)
- Cayo Santa Maria – Havana (5 hours)
Driving distances in Cuba
The driving distances can be quite long in Cuba, so you definitely need to make sure you know how long the drives on your route will be, and that you are happy with the lengths. You can pay a one-off fee to have a second driver which I would recommend in order to share the journey length. The roads are pretty much all straight and you don’t need to turn off too much until you arrive at your next destination. There are service stations roughly every 50-75km on the Autopistas and a little less frequently on the other road types, but taking a break along the way shouldn’t be an issue.
3 types of roads
There are 3 main types of roads in Cuba; you have the Autopistas, which are the main motorways, the Carreteras Principals, which are similar to our A-roads, and thirdly the Carreteras Secundarias which are comparable to unpaved English country roads. My advice – stick to the Autopistas as much as you can! Although all the roads have potholes, the Autopista roads are in the best condition, by far! You might think that a cut through on a Carreteras Secundarias might save you time but not necessarily (we learnt the hard way). These roads are mainly all in a very poor condition with the potholes being similar to craters, and they are everywhere.
We had no problem parking our car, you can park outside of your hotel or casa particulares mostly for free but you may need to pay a small fee to park in some places.
If you get lost (which you might) then it’s all part of the adventure! Don’t be afraid to ask the locals as they will certainly point you in the right direction. Driving a hire car is a really great way to explore Cuba as it is a lot of fun and you can take your own CDs and blast out your favourite tunes whilst you take in all the beautiful surroundings.
Time to stop off
One of my top self drive highlights in Cuba was when we were driving into the Viñales valley. We parked up when we got to the top of a winding road, switched off the engine and just got out of the car to appreciate the stunning views of the valley and limestone rock formations in the distance. We stood there for a while, taking in the beautiful scenery before getting back into the car and carrying on our journey into town.
*Tip* Don’t feel like you have to pick up hitchhikers. You can if you wish, but it is at your own risk. Mostly it’s just the locals trying to get a lift to work!
Self drive is available for all of our Cuba itineraries.