Sunday, 18 August 2013

8 TIPS - DRIVING IN CUBA

After spending 1 month in Trinidad, learning Spanish, I went back to Havana to meet a friend from London and one of the items on her list of ‘things to do in Cuba’ was to hire an old Cuban car; a Ford or a Chevrolet dating back to 1959.  She thought it would be cool to drive ourselves around Cuba!  Well I could just imagine what my family in Trinidad would say, ‘estás loca?’

She had read in the Lonely Planet that you could hire an old Cuban car, but in fact they were referring to the ‘Grancar’.  We soon discovered that these cars weren’t for hire for us to drive, neither within Havana and certainly not to take with us on the road on our great Cuban adventure. So we headed towards the Hotel Parque Central, we paid 30 CUC for 1 hour and we sat back and enjoyed the experience of being in such a wonderfully maintained old car whilst seeing another side of Havana.  The car was immaculate and sparkled inside and out, the owner very proud of how he had managed to carefully maintain such a beautiful car. 

A couple of days later we hired a car.  Our plan was to go to Viñales then onto Maria de La Gorda, Soroa, Trinidad, Camaguey, Santa Clara, Caibarien, Cayo Santa Maria and back to Havana in about 10 days.  We felt so excited to be leaving Havana, driving down the Malecon in our little hire car.  We were heading towards the Autopista Este-Oeste for Viñales, however two hours later, instead of being close to arriving into Viñales we were still driving around the outskirts of Havana.  The last road sign we had seen for the motorway was way back at the Plaza de Independencia.  We stopped a couple of times to ask people for directions, but the directions never lead us to the motorway and we could not even begin to figure out where we were on the map. 

Finally by pure luck, we arrived onto the motorway, only we had no idea whether we were heading back to Havana or towards Viñales.  We drove in one direction, but since there were no signs we soon got nervous, thinking we were going back to Havana and there was no way we wanted to go back to Havana after spending 2 hours trying to get out.  So we decided to get off the next junction and try getting back onto the motorway going in the opposite direction.  The only thing was the junctions we came across seemed to head into the unknown distance; there was no evidence of a road crossing over or under the motorway.  The motorway consisted of 3 lanes in each direction but there wasn’t a barrier in the middle of the motorway; just a grassy causeway.  We had laughed when we had seen other cars crossing the middle of the motorway but now it seemed like our only option. So like naughty school girls we thought we would ‘break the rules’ and we carefully drove across the middle of the causeway and onto the other side.  ‘Did anyone see us?’  Who cares, we are in Cuba and anything seems to go!

Even though we had crossed over the motorway we were still in doubt as to whether we were going towards Viñales.  We had passed a police control point but it was on the other side, so we drove a safe distance away from the police, crossed the motorway again (we were experts now) and we drove back to the control point.  Mr Policeman was friendly enough and informed us that Viñales was in fact in the opposite direction.  I asked politely if it was ok to cross the motorway and he told me to go ahead!  So what should have been an easy 2.5 hour drive to Viñales ended up being an adventurous 4 hours!

That was the first of many adventures whilst driving through Cuba, but generally some of the things you need to consider when driving in Cuba are:

  1. Having a map does not necessarily always help when you are lost.  We could never identify where we were on the map.  For example the map did not help us when we wanted to take the exit off the motorway to go to the Yumuri bridge when we were driving back to Havana from Caibarien.

  2. There are no or few road signs.  We often had to take chances and hope for the best especially when having to make quick decisions as to which way to go.

  3. Things take longer in Cuba.  Journeys always took longer than expected because we either kept getting lost and going around in circles or the distance was longer than we expected.   This often meant that we sometimes didn’t do everything we hoped to do as we never made it.

  4. You can't rely on local directions.  Asking for directions from people on the street was fun as the Cubans we met were very friendly and seemed quite helpful, but in all honesty I did question whether they really had any idea what they were talking about.

  5. Having enough petrol is a must.  Fill up before you start a journey or stop to fill up when you do actually see a petrol station as there is no guarantee you will find one during your journey.  The biggest scare for us was realising we didn’t have enough petrol to get back to Havana.  It became obvious to us that we weren’t going to find the Yumuri bridge, we were driving around in circles in a rural area so we got back onto the motorway hoping to find a petrol station along the way.  We came across a restaurant first so we stopped and asked and luckily for once we got some reliable directions from someone and they directed us to a small town off the motorway and we were able to fill up before getting to Havana!

  6. Driving in Cuba is relatively easy and safe.  We found it easy as there was little traffic, but we had to dodge the pot holes, the people walking on the motorway or waving you down with money in their hand, cyclists, people on horses, tractors, cattle etc. 

  7. Driving in Cuba at night can be tricky.  We did't find it so easy purely because of the unusual traffic we came across.  I found myself tensing up as visibility was difficult, you only have your car lights to rely on, as you often find yourself on roads with no lights or they are very poorly lit.  We came across cars, motorbikes, cyclists with no lights.  People walking or riding horses wearing dark clothing, they do not have bright yellow arm bands or tops to help spot them on the dark roads.  So you do have to concentrate and drive slow when driving at night in Cuba, which can be exhausting.

  8. Hiring an old Cuban car can be a challenge.  Thinking about it now, I think our original idea to drive an old car in Cuba was a bit optimistic.  We had no idea of the legal implications at that time, neither of the practicalities i.e. how to handle the gear controls.  We wouldn’t have known what to do if we broke down or if we had a punctured tire, as it certainly did happen to us in Piñar del Rio.
I suppose one thing I did learn from our little adventure is, never assume anything and expect the unexpected!

Cruzing Cuba

Driving in Cuba

Grancar Cuba

Old Car in Cuba

6 comments:

  1. i am taking my parents to Cuba, and was planning to rent a car. thanks very much for your post. this is really helpful. i think i'll change to bus travel in-between the cities/towns. thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No problem, when are you going to Cuba? Have a lovely time.

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  2. Hi! Thanks for this. I'm heading to Cuba next October with my girlfriend and I keep finding different opinions about renting a car. Can tou recommend a rent a car agency?

    Thanks, Eduardo

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  3. Hi Eduardo
    I have not rented a car recently so I can not make a personal recommendation but here a couple of car rental agencies that my friends in Havana recommend:
    http://www.transtur.cu
    http://www.rex.cu/client/home/index.php

    Let us know how you get on.

    Rena

    ReplyDelete