Welcome to the most amazing video game release of the year! Take on the challenge of navigating1 without any road signs! See if you can steer round the hitchers, carts, bicycles and vultures! And don't let those pesky police get the better of you in this crazy, real-life driving drama! Welcome to Gran Turismo, Cuban-style – don't forget to fasten your seat belts!
Yes, driving in Cuba is like being in a particularly surreal video game, and once you get used to it, it's just as enjoyable. We started our road trip by getting hopelessly lost on our way out of Havana, which is not surprising given that we went wrong within a few hundred metres of leaving our hotel. We'd hoped to go through the tunnel under the Bahía de La Habana and onto the ring road, where we hoped to join the Autopista Nacional – the A1 – to take us all the way to the Bay of Pigs, some 200km to the southeast. Instead we enjoyed an unexpected tour of Havana's extensive docks and ended up in suburbia, where we stopped three times to ask where we could find the autopista, with varying amounts of success. Eventually we happened on a junction with a major, three-lane road, and fishing out our compass (an essential tool for navigating in Cuba) we turned left, heading for the east.
The autopista is like a strange netherworld, populated by characters that you wouldn't believe if they weren't in front of your very eyes. There is almost no traffic on this wide, three-lane motorway, but when you do happen across an obstacle, it's either an ancient 1950s American car, full to overflowing with bouncing locals; a tractor, carrying hay in the opposite direction to the traffic; a big, black vulture picking at something unidentifiable in the middle of the road; or another rental car, which you can spot because it's the only one that looks like it's from this millennium. Adding in a little spice are the young men standing in the fast lane – yes, the fast lane – holding out long strings of onions and motioning for you to slow down, and large numbers of hopeful hitchhikers standing in the slow lane, optimistically thumbing each vehicle down for a lift (as the public transport system is so stretched in Cuba, hitchhiking is the mainstay for most of the population). Finally, there are the potholes, which are there to make sure you don't fall asleep in the long stretches between life forms. It's a gas.
There are also service stations along the way, if that's what you can call the shacks dotted along the side. We stopped at a comparatively grand one that obviously catered for tourists, judging by the postcards, CDs and wooden carvings for sale in the shop. We bought a ham and cheese sandwich each – which proved to be pretty good given the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere – and washed it down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a common theme of roadside stops throughout Cuba. A lame straight-to-TV American cop film blurted out of a distorted television while the odd car shot by outside, and that, it seemed, was the sum of activity on the autopista.
Off the motorway things are made considerably more interesting by a continuing lack of signposts, even larger numbers of tractors, hitchhikers every few metres, and bicycle rickshaws (known as bici-taxis) absolutely everywhere. Bicycles carrying a minumum of two people weave in and out of the side of the road, and you have to give way to them, because with more than two million bicycles in Cuba, they own the road. The potholes get deeper and navigating by compass is the only way to go, and if you're lucky – like we were – you may even get flagged down by a policeman. Ironically he fined us for running a stop sign, which we found rather surprising since the last road sign we'd seen had been at Heathrow... or at least we think he fined us, as he simply took our rental agreement and scribbled on it. We will, no doubt, end up paying a little extra when we hand our car in later, but such is life.
This did throw us a bit, though, because amongst the large population of hitchhikers in Cuba, there are quite a few police. One of the talents of driving in Cuba is deciphering their hand signals; sometimes the police might be flagging you down for a lift, and sometimes they're flagging you down to give you a ticket. We never really worked out which, so we just kept driving, hoping for the best and looking out in vain for signposts.
It gets my vote for game of the month, anyway...
1 If you're planning to use a sat nav in Cuba, then I can highly recommend the Cuba GPS map from the guys at GPS TravelMaps (and they have a great range of maps for other Caribbean and central American destinations too). However, do bear in mind that it's illegal to bring a GPS into Cuba, and if they find one in your luggage, they'll confiscate it and you'll have to reclaim it again on leaving the country... so be warned!