In this blog I will discuss general decisions and tips regarding transport (such as renting a car) and accommodation for a round trip through Cuba. For more specific tips, please check out my other blog posts about Cuba (see end of this article).
When going on a roundtrip to Cuba, how would you prefer to travel around the country? For tourists, the most common is to either rent a car and drive yourself, rent a car with a local driver (possibly old timer), by taxi from a to b, or group travel by bus or minivan. Forget about trains in this country. Cyclist fanatics might consider taking their bike. Locals take any kind of transport available, from truck to oxcart, horse, bus, walking, hitch hike, etc. Rental cars give a lot of personal freedom, should you be courageous enough to drive around without digital navigation and clear street signs. In this blog I will share a bunch of tips for renting a car on Cuba.
For group travel I would suggest Intrepid, global travel organization with multi-nationality groups. My cousin went with Intrepid to Cuba and she enjoyed every minute of it. Personally I am more the independent travel type, like to determine my own schedule. But I can imagine that when you cannot find someone who wants to travel with you when you would like or have the time to go, either joining a group travel such as Intrepid or solo traveling are remaining options. When going on group travel, you also can meet new people from all over the world. Besides, if you’re lucky, the group guide might know all the best dancing spots and want to watch your handbag while you hit the dance floor!
If you decided you would like to rent a car and drive yourself, I would suggest to make sure you book your rental car as soon as possible. Do not postpone this decision too long; rental cars are scarce on Cuba (due to trade limitations). So it’s highly recommendable to book your rental car at least 8 weeks in advance, especially for high season (Jan/Feb).
For my rental car booking I used Cuba Incentives, which is also used by many travel agents. Saved me significant money too. Quotes from other agencies came in much higher (for costs see blog My favorite casa particulares in west and central Cuba). After your request for a rental car, you may expect to receive confirmation within 2-5 working days, depending on the local agent. Big American rental car companies like Hertz or Avis are not present on Cuba, everything is under governmental control. REX has the best looking cars and is the only one with all-risk insurance option. As far as I could find, old timers are only available with chauffeur, not for driving yourself.
After your arrival in Havana, I would suggest to stay a few days in the city without a car yet. It would only be a burden. However, I would suggest to pick up your rental car the day before your departure to your next destination. This because it is not uncommon that the car becomes available many hours after you ordered it for (scarcity), and you do not want to be delayed on your (possibly long) drive to your next destination. There is a rental car pick up location at Malecon opposite Plaza San Francisco.
Check, check, double-check!
A quite general piece of advice, but I still see many people forget about it, and rather important in a country like Cuba: check the car before you sign or pay anything! Cars in Cuba tend to be in a bad shape, and you need to estimate whether it will be able to make it till the end of your journey. Ours barely did; the Cuban roads take their toll. Since your mobile phone does not work in Cuba, you can imagine the trouble when ending up stuck at the side of the road, with a broken car somewhere in the middle of nowhere. So check it thoroughly (gas, lights, wipers, mirrors, air-conditioning, engine, spare tire, etc.), and take pictures of any damages, preferably with the rental guy on it.
Make sure the damages are written down on the paperwork correctly. The rental guy is unlikely to speak any English, so either you will be able to put your Spanish lessons to work, or help yourself with the better ‘hand and foot work’ to get your message across. In advance at home you can save already some car related words in your Google Translate app for example. And practice with switching a tire! Keep the rental paperwork in a safe place, not in the car.
If you stay at Habana Centro, for example at Sarita Rooms (see blog post My favorite casa particulares in west and central Cuba), you can park the car for a night at the parking lot on top of the hospital at the corner of Belascoain/Malecon. Pay the guard a few CUC for watching over your car. If you park there again the night before returning the car at the airport, the parking guard will be happy to wash your car for a few CUC. And take any of your left over water, cookies, etc. which you will not be able to take on your flight home anyway.
In other cities or villages, ask your casa host for the safest place to park. Don’t just leave it somewhere around the corner. In Trinidad we could park our car in the garage of a neighbor. This turned out to be extra beneficial as the city flooded during our stay there. In Cienfuegos we got the advice to park in front of a governmental building with cameras watching the parking lot.
In Cuba there is no 4G, no receipt nor digital maps for navigation systems, nor good road signs. This was not the case yet when we went, but developments go fast nowadays in Cuba, I heard it works now in Cuba too: download in advance at home the app maps.me (map of Cuba) and use it offline navigating Cuba. Nowadays there is even some internet (sim card cost around 40 CUC, 1GB data package is 10 CUC) but do not expect it to work everywhere…
In any case I can definitely recommend a good map. An old fashioned one in paper, yes. It can be a life saver! When looking for one, you will notice the choice is limited. Also watch the scale. It needs to be detailed enough, or it’s useless in reality. Do not count on the rental company to provide you a good road map. Do not assume you can buy one local. Get a good map before you go to Cuba. My recommendation would be again Cuba Incentives, via their website you can order a map on a good scale, see also my earlier blog posts on Cuba.
Even with a good map navigation finding your way in Cuba can be a challenge as road signs are often missing. Also, not many people know how to drive out of Havana for example. Simply because they never do, they do not have a car, or just say something because they feel too embarrassed to admit they do not know. If you get lost, or are afraid to do so, I would recommend to try and find taxi driver. Ask the driver to guide you out to the highway. Pay some before and the rest of the money after, just to make sure you will not get ripped off.
While trying to find our way to the international pharmacy in Havana before heading to Maria la Gorda, we lost our way out of Havana, causing a delay of 1.5 hours. No clear road signs and no people who knew the way correctly (and possible we misunderstood one of them, that’s also a possibility). As also mentioned in my other blog with practical advice for Cuba; stick the road map pages together before you go, to ensure you have the right overview. For Havana take Malecon as your main orientation point for road navigation in and out of the city.
When checking your route via Google Maps in advance when planning your trip at home, take into account it might take twice as long as indicated. Even the high way is full of holes, so you cannot drive much faster than 80km p/h anywhere anyway.
As I mentioned in my previous blog full of practical advice; my advice would be not to take any hitchhikers or fake road officers (uniformed and whistling). We heard too many bad stories from those who did. It’s fantastic to see that Cuban high ways are open to all forms of transportation, including cyclists, cowboys, horse & carriage, oxcarts, tractors, etc. Driving around on Cuba is one big adventure. I wouldn’t have want to miss it for the world!
Accommodation in Cuba
We loved staying at Casa Particulares in Cuba, something similar to B&B. There are many different versions, you just have to make sure you stay at the nicest ones! In this blog I will talk about accommodation considerations (casa particular vs. hotel) and booking tips in general. In the blog post My favorite casa particulares in west and central Cuba I will share the exact addresses.
Personally I do not see myself as the backpacker hostel type. I can definitely appreciate a bit of luxury. However, in Cuba we simply really liked the personal atmosphere, attention, service, food, etc. of the casas. And the price is also good, especially if you book direct. The situation varies per casa. There are casas where your room door will end up directly into the family’s living room. And there are casas with your own separate little house in the garden, with a little pool or terrace. The rooms tend to look a bit outdated, but I’m happy there is no IKEA! Breakfast is usually the same everywhere: mango juice, some fresh cut fruit, tea, and coffee, some slices of bread, jam and scrambled eggs.
Booking a casa
Not many casas have their own website. You can book casas through a travel agency, or, if you can read/write Spanish (Thank God for Google Translate), you can book them via email yourself. The email addresses are not so easy to find. To be honest, planning this trip to Cuba cost me months. And now I am sharing it all with you, for free! I would recommend to book casas at least a few months in advance, especially during high season (around January).
Most casas highly appreciate if you reconfirm our stay a few days before arrival by phone. The first casa you can reconfirm by email before you fly to Havana (when you still have internet at home). For the rest you can ask your current casa host to use their phone to call the next casa. Remember: use of your smartphone will be expensive or not usable at all. If you do not reconfirm, you risk they might give away your room to someone else who does confirm. So better safe than sorry! And bring enough cash (CUC), as casas need to be paid in cash. See My favorite casa particulares in west and central Cuba for prices/costs.
Hotels in Cuba felt like one big turn off. Completely different than anywhere else around the world. It seems like hotel staff in Cuba did not learn nor has any incentive to serve tourists well. We did not like it. See also blog post My favorite casa particulares in west and central Cuba under ‘Cayo Coco’.
If you did have a good hotel experience in Cuba, let me know via a comment! I guess it was probably either quite costly (at least compared to a casa) and located in Varadero? Initially we did not want to go to Varadero as it’s so touristy and not Cuban authentic. But we heard there are some hotels there that do understand what tourists want, so that could be interesting! In Varadero there is also the Buena Vista Sol Club, which may be worth a visit. For 49CUC pp a driver can pick you up with an old timer on Wednesday nights to the BVSC. Hotels with international approach easily charge European/American prices (100-200 euro per night). To compare, the average casa cost us 18.75EUR per room including breakfast…
I hope you found this blog useful and interesting. Please feel free to share your thoughts and personal tips by leaving a comment below.
The chance you will enjoy your Cuba trip to the max is biggest when you are prepared well and have realistic expectations. For more information, check out my other blog posts about Cuba with many tips: