DON'T DO it, some sites warn. The roads are terrible. You’ll hit a cow and be forced to remain on the island – in a beachfront room? – until you pay the government thousands of dollars. (Update: Yes, in a beachfront room, it turns out, but you'll have to pay for it). Stick to resort buses and licensed taxis, advises the Canadian Foreign Affairs department. “Avoid driving in Cuba, as driving conditions can be hazardous,” it declares here.
I say, if you’ve driven in Vancouver or Sudbury or Montreal – let alone Europe or Asia – you’ll do fine in Cuba. The pace is relaxed, your fellow road-users are courteous, and traffic ranges from moderately busy (Havana) to where-is-everyone? light (most other places).
Plus, in your rental car, you can set your own route and timetable, and you’ll meet interesting people along the way.
Of course, in a country like nowhere else, some aspects of driving are bound to be different. So to avoid that extended stay in an oceanview suite – which, you’ll agree, would be terrible – follow these suggestions:
1. Don’t leave the lights on
Avoid any urge to switch on your headlamps unless you are (a) in a tunnel – there are a couple in Havana – or (b) driving after dark. Really after dark. Even at dusk, activating your low beams will cause oncoming drivers to flick their brights in irritation. Guess the daytime running lights common in northern countries just seem like energy-wasters here.
2. For you, special gasoline
Gas stations are in reasonable supply, but many sell only the low-octane, leaded gasoline on which the island’s old cars still putter along (Cuba is reportedly the last nation in the western hemisphere to use leaded gasoline). Your modern rental requires the higher-priced “especial” gas – equivalent to regular unleaded elsewhere – that is on tap at select Servi-Cupet and Oro Negro stations, usually in cities. Fill up whenever you get a chance.
3. Show me a signal, part 1
The older the car – and this is Cuba, where an auto’s lifetime is measured in decades – the less likely it is to have working turn indicators. Drivers of such vehicles, however, will often provide a hand signal – generally an arm pointed languidly to the side, which means I am turning left, or, I am turning right, or maybe, I see you there, Pepe.
4. Show me a signal, part 2
Are Cuba’s traffic lights so hard to pick out because of the bright sunlight, or because the authorities use only low-wattage bulbs? Regardless, to avoid running a red (or pale pink), make sure you look up at every intersection. (Update: Havana is getting brighter traffic lights.)
5. Won’t you mooove over
Don’t worry about the cows and horses you see grazing away the daylight hours on roadsides – they’re tethered and won’t wander into traffic. But do expect to share the road with horse-drawn carts and the occasional herd of goats or cattle. It’s a good reason not to speed. And at night, wandering farm animals – plus cyclists sans lights or reflectors – are reasons to drive slower yet. (Update: Many regular visitors advise against ANY driving at night.)
6. Maps? We don’t need no stinking maps
Maybe it’s because Cubans already know where they’re going. Maybe it’s to slow down invaders. But Cuba is seriously short of decent roadmaps. The ones supplied with rental cars show only major routes; the motley maps you cadge off the Internet draw little distinction between cratered back roads and relatively smooth divided highways (the 48-page Guia de Carreteras, reportedly sold at Cupito gas stations, is the one map book said to be useful). Road signs are similarly scarce, though attempts are being made to erect more in resort areas. Fortunately, Cuba being an island, you can always find your way home. When you get to an ocean, turn right. Or left.
7. There’s no free parking
After the Revolution, Cuba ditched its parking meters. Taking their place, however, are legions of parking attendants, some official, some freelance. If you leave your car, agree to pay the requested fee – it will be modest, and should ensure your vehicle remains in one piece.
8. Sweet hitchhiker
Thumbing a ride has long been a key part of the island’s transportation system. Many Cubans will seek rides from foreigners, even if certain authorities discourage such fraternization. Pick them up, suggests Brendan Sainsbury, author of Cuba (Lonely Planet). If you’re nervous, choose elderly hitchers or a family to reduce the risk factor. Observes Sainsbury: “With a Cuban passenger, you’ll never get lost, you’ll learn about secret spots not in any guidebook and you’ll meet some great people.”
9. Blackburn Lancashire has nothing on Cuba
Watch that driver up ahead as he weaves from side to side, travels in the wrong lane and sometimes swerves to the far shoulder. Too many Ron Cubays? Maybe, but remember that Cuba has tough drinking-and-driving laws and lots of cops. More likely he’s avoiding the potholes, pot-canyons and pot-chasms that stud the island’s secondary roads. Follow his every move – he’s had much practice at this.
10. Better watch out for the po-lice
Cuba could be the one place on earth where there will be a cop around when you need one. Also, unfortunately, when you don’t – say when you’re speeding, or have rolled through a stop sign you didn’t see. Get pulled over? Unlike in other countries, where you wait and the cop strolls up to your window, here YOU’RE expected to get out and approach the police car to try to do some 'splaining. Chances are the cop will mark a fine on your rental agreement that will be deducted from your deposit, but there have been reports of, er, lesser levies that are paid on the spot. Of course, you could try to outrun the police Ladas – but remember, you’re on an island. (Update: Now, many police drive Geelys, which are not much faster than Ladas.)
(*** July 2010 update: These tips were revised based on the experience of Cody LeCompte, a Canadian teenager detained on the island after a car accident in which several people were injured. Cases such as this are the reason for the Canadian government advisory. They're rare – but be aware that if you are involved in a serious accident, you could be prevented from leaving during an investigation that could take months to complete. ***)