Travelling has long been possible from countries such as the UK and it was an obvious decision for me to jump at the chance to visit Havana and other parts of the island when my wife suggested Cuba for a holiday this year. Cuba is steeped in such an eclectic mix of cultures and traditions and for me is a country I have long been interested to see and explore. As someone who also loves wayfinding, it was always going to be a fascinating trip!
A vast majority of visitors to these islands tend to voluntarily hand a certain element of control for the navigation over to tour guides and tour companies. The opportunity to use financial capital to dilute one’s own need to wayfind is of course used in many travel locations. One deciding factor for those of you visiting the island is that you will see very few vehicles on the roads. Petrol (gasoline) is beyond the cost that most Cubans living here can afford and so vehicles involving pedal power are one example of the way in which you might find yourself travelling around. Pedal power (taxis in the forms of bicycles), foot power (walking) and public transport in the form of buses and also tourist coaches, tend to be your main options for travelling around the island.
The first language used in Cuba is a Spanish dialect, but many English words do get used in the touristic areas such as ‘Rent a car’ as shown in the sign above. The newer sign system in Havana is designed to reflect that:
Given the lack of traffic on the roads, navigating around Havana is a truly different experience compared to driving in a chaotic city such as Mumbai, India or Milan, Italy.
There is a certain calmness and ease with which you can glide along the largely empty roads and you can normally identity if you are on the right route or not according to the quality of the road. If you are driving between Havana and Cienfuegos, or Havana and Santiago de Cuba, as soon as you go off the main motorway (freeway) you will find that the quality of the roads is relatively basic. Little development has been done on the roads for fifty years and with so little traffic, there is not the need right now.
Hop on hop off tour – If you head to Plaza Central in Havana centre, you can jump on one of the blue and red double deck buses which tour many locations on the main island. There are 3 main routes and all round trips (return journeys) ie they return to the starting point at the plaza and thus make for a great and very cheap 1 to 2-hour tour.
Wayfinding sometimes is about ‘recreational wayfinding’ i.e the art of seeing a place and allowing yourself to get lost but within the constraints of knowing that you will end up back in a familiar location (in this case the enter of Havana). Using the hop on hopoff bus is perhaps one of the easiest ways to see the island.
Car rental in Cuba – If you are looking to rent a car and navigate your own way around the island at your own pace (something which certainly is an option), you should not expect the modern vehicles which you would normally be able to rent in other countries. Cuba is something of a culture shock for drivers, not used to seeing or driving a car which might be forty or fifty years old.
Warning: If you are driving and cause injury or death to a third party, it will be treated as a crime. Take care when driving in Cuba! Also, do not forget that in Cuba they drive on the RIGHT.
The main island itself is relatively easy to navigate with signage ,from my experience, clear to see, provided your are heading to one of the main tourist areas, which most likely you will be.
What you will notice, when wayfinding in Cuba, is that even basic signs and signage can be designed creatively and is often colourful. Colour, along with literature, music and dance, are all forms of expression which have been important over the last fifty years and it is noticeable. Even basic street signage, such as that shown below, can be quite unique. From a navigation point of view though, this can make finding some streets quite challenging if you do choose to go off the main tourist streets.
What is quite visible, if you do go off of the beaten path, is that the gap between rich and poor is clear within a few streets. Two blocks off of the main tourist streets you will see a quite different but very real side of Cuba. It is generally safe to walk around and explore.
In the main tourist streets, you can often navigate using one of the street maps which many hotels can provide you with at the front reception.
Cuba is a fascinating country to explore and is quite easy to get around if you visit. The prices, in fact, are such that you even find that hiring a taxi driver for a full day and getting him to take you around the places you wish to go to, is a viable option cost wise.