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The main routes into and out of eastern Cuba are well maintained, and once you're out of the cities traffic is light (your biggest concern will be the occasional stray sheep or cow). Renting a car is the best way to cover vast distances, but you're better off hiring a car and driver for short journeys. Note that signage is poor, and it's easy to get mixed up when passing through a city. Ask directions: Cubans will gladly help you out of a mess.
The Autopista Nacional runs from Havana to Santiago (860 km/534 mi) as well as between Santiago and Camagüey, 325 km (202 mi) to the west. You're much more likely to take the northern highway to Bayamo (127 km/79 mi) and then onward to Holguín (140 km/87 mi), the gateway to the north coast region. The stunning 200-km (124-mi) road that runs west from Santiago along the coast is squeezed between the Sierra Maestra and the Caribbean Sea. Equally impressive is the road east to Baracoa (250 km/155 mi), which runs along the arid coastline before turning north and becoming La Farola highway, which winds through mountains.
In the event of a breakdown or highway emergency, call your rental agency.
There are state-run Servi-Cupet gas stations along major routes. Many are open 24 hours and sell food and beverages; only convertible pesos are accepted. Stations are also abundant in cities. Gas costs about 90 cuc per liter, but there is a big black market. At stations, you may be accosted by teenagers offering to sell you gasoline from private tanks at substantial discounts (usually half a peso a liter). Although there's some risk of being scammed, many travelers have found the gas to be reliable, and you can save 15 cuc filling a tank. A few precautions: check the size of the tank that's being filled, and make sure it's full; second, take a whiff of the gas to be sure it hasn't been diluted.
Since public transportation is virtually nonexistent, it's soothing to know that renting a car is simple, and prices—about 50 cuc a day with a 200 cuc cash deposit—are on par with those elsewhere in the world. There are rental desks at most major hotels, at airports, and on main streets in tourist areas such as Guardalavaca. Although vehicles are readily available, employee organizational skills are dodgy, so it's best to reserve a day or two in advance.
Rental agencies include Cubacar, Micar, Transautos, and Viacar. All are run by the Cuban government, so the service they provide is similar. Peugeots and Fiats are the most common vehicles available; many outlets offer Jeep Suzukis, which are a little cheaper. One-way rentals are common, but you might have to pay a surcharge. If you'll be traveling far, insist on kilometraje ilimitado (unlimited mileage). Even if you have unlimited mileage, you'll be charged a return fee based on mileage (a one-way rental from Havana to Santiago will incur a return fee of roughly 100 cuc), which will be deducted from your deposit when you hand in your car. Before renting a car, ask whether you are expected to refill the gas tank, as policies on this vary.
Cubacar. Villa Marea del Portillo, Carretera de Pilón, Km 14, Marea del Portillo. 23/59–4201. Hotel Farallón del Caribe, Carretera de Pilón, Km 14. 23/33–5301. Hotel Casa Granda, Calle Heredia 201, Parque Céspedes, Centro Histórico, Santiago. 226/64–2612. Meliá Santiago de Cuba, Av. de las Américas, e/Av. Manduley y Av. Cuarto, Reparto Sueño, Santiago. 226/64–2612.
Micar. Aeropuerto Internacional Frank País, Holguín. 24/48–1652. Hotel Pernik, Av. Dimitrov y Av. XX Aniversario. 226/62–9194. Playa Guardalavaca, Guardalavaca, Holguín. 24/46–8270. Parque Céspedes, Centro Histórico, Santiago. 24/30767.
Transautos. Hotel Casa Granda, Calle Heredia 201, Parque Céspedes, Centro Histórico, Santiago. 226/64–1121. Meliá Santiago de Cuba, Av. de las Américas and Av. Manduley, Reparto Sueño. 226/69–2245. Aeropuerto Internacional Antonio Maceo. 226/68–6107.
Viacar. Parque Céspedes Centro Histórico, Santiago. 226/62–4646.