Though there is a reliable, good-value long-distance bus service, public transport in Cuba is generally slow, complicated and subject to frequent cancellations and delays. Improvements are creeping in but some services still work on a two-tier basis, with one service for convertible-peso-paying travellers and another, cheaper one for those paying in national pesos (foreign visitors are usually still obliged to pay in CUCs). Getting around the country efficiently means using buses or planes and, within cities, taxis in their various forms.
Given the relatively low percentage of car owners, Cuba’s buses – known as guaguas, or omnibuses when referring to long-distance services – are at the heart of everyday Cuban life and by far the most commonly used form of transport, both within the cities and for interprovincial journeys.
There are three separate services for interprovincial routes, Víazul and Conectando Cuba for foreign passport holders and CUC-paying Cubans, and Astro, a national-peso service reserved exclusively for Cubans.
The long-established Víazul (t7 881 1413 & 5652, wviazul.com) is the more comprehensive of the CUC-charging bus networks, connecting most of the mainland provincial capitals. Though it also runs from smaller, touristy cities like Trinidad and Baracoa to the rest of the country, it doesn’t serve a number of the most high-profile beach resorts, including Cayo Santa María and the northern cays in Villa Clara and Cayo Coco in Ciego de Avila. Nevertheless, it’s still the quickest, most reliable and most hassle-free way to get about the country independently. Tickets, which are usually one-way, can be booked in advance at the offices of one of the three major Cuban travel agents Cubanacán, Cubatur and Havanatur (found in most provincial capital cities), and in some branches of Infotur, the national tourist information provider. As each office is allocated only a limited percentage of the total seats available, it’s worth booking as far in advance as possible, particularly in the provinces outside Havana. You can also buy tickets at the bus stations themselves, but these often don’t go on sale until an hour before the departure time; turning up more than an hour in advance will therefore usually give you no advantage, though your name may be taken down on a waiting list. If you’re starting your journey somewhere other than a route terminus (such as Matanzas, between the termini of Havana and Varadero), you’ll have to wait until the bus actually arrives before they’ll sell you a ticket as they will have to wait to see if there are spaces. To avoid this scenario, book at least a day in advance. Ticket prices range from $6CUC for the 80km trip between Trinidad and Cienfuegos, to $51CUC for the fifteen-hour journey between Havana and Santiago. Children under 5 travel free, while those under 12 travel half price. You can also book tickets through the Víazul website before arriving in Cuba, though this must be done at least six days before the day of your bus journey.
The Conectando Cuba service, also known as Cubanacán-Transtur after the two companies that administer the service, differs from Víazul in that it picks you up and drops you off at hotels in the cities and towns that it serves, which are far fewer than the number covered by Víazul. While this means you avoid the hassle and expense of getting to and from the bus stations, it also means journey times can be much longer, as buses make more stops picking up passengers, especially in Havana where there could be stops at up to a dozen hotels. You can buy tickets at Cubanacán or Infotur no later than noon on the day before travel (no tickets are available on the day of travel), and you can specify the hotel from which you want to be picked up – note that it needn’t be a hotel you’re actually staying in. Fares are more or less the same as for Víazul services.
Both of Víazul and Connectado-Cuba buses are equipped with air conditioning, toilets and, in some cases, TV sets. They can get very cold, so remember to take a sweater with you; it’s also worth bringing your own toilet paper.
Local bus services
While large numbers of foreign travellers use long-distance buses, very few use local buses as a means of getting around the country’s towns and cities. The almost complete lack of information at bus stops, absence of timetables and the overcrowding are more than enough to persuade most visitors to stay well away. However, as most journeys cost less than half a national peso, you may be tempted to try your luck.
The only written information you will find at a bus stop is the numbers of the buses that stop there (and sometimes not even that). The front of the bus will tell you its final destination, but for any more detail you’ll have to ask. Once you know which bus you want, you need to mark your place in the queue, which may not even appear to exist. The unwritten rule is to ask aloud who the last person is; so, for example, to queue for bus #232 you should shout “¿Ultima persona para la 232?” When the bus finally pulls up, make sure you have, within a peso, the right change – there’s a flat fee of $0.40CUP.
Taxis are one of the most popular expressions of private enterprise in Cuba. There are all kinds of different taxis, often outwardly indistinguishable from one another, and it sometimes seems that merely owning a car qualifies a Cuban as a taxi driver.
Though by no means exclusively for tourists, the official metered state taxis that charge in CUC are usually referred to as tourist taxis (or turistaxis), and are often modern Japanese and European cars as opposed to old American or Russian ones. Though most state taxis have a meter, many taxi drivers do not use them, not always for legitimate reasons. Fares range from $0.55CUC/km to $1CUC/km, with higher rates in Varadero and the other beach resorts than in the big cities. There are several other kinds of state-run taxis, many of them Ladas and charging in ordinary national pesos, but they are rarely used by foreign visitors and less likely still to stop for you if you’re obviously not Cuban.
Huge numbers of privately owned cars, including a very high proportion of the American classics on the island, are run as taxis in Cuba. The local slang for these is máquinas or almendrones, though the latter is more usually used to describe communal taxis, but in standard Spanish they are all called taxis particulares, literally private taxis.
Private taxis are licensed to charge either in national pesos or convertible pesos but there are no visible characteristics to distinguish between the two; none of them have meters. It is assumed that as a foreigner you will be paying in convertible pesos, whether or not the driver has the correct licence. Private taxis are not necessarily cheaper than state taxis and if you don’t haggle the chances are you’ll end up paying over the odds. The essential thing is that you establish a price before you start your journey.
Some drivers work interprovincial routes and wait at bus stations and some other fixed pick-up points, touting for business. Again, prices are always negotiable, but as a rough guide drivers carrying foreign passengers tend to charge around the same price per passenger as the equivalent Víazul bus fare.
Communal taxis, or taxis colectivos (more regularly referred to as almendrones), are more like bus services than regular taxis. They are usually privately owned vehicles, though there are some state-run colectivos, and generally they run along specific routes, both within and between towns and cities. There is no official mark or sign used to distinguish a taxi colectivo from the other kinds of taxi, or the route which it is operating along. However, drivers tend to wait with their car at the start of their route and shout out their final destination – if you see an old American car packed with passengers, it’s most likely a colectivo. In most towns and cities there is usually a specific location, usually next door to a bus station, where almendrones waiting for long-distance passengers congregate, while in some cities, such as Santa Clara, there are long-distance taxi stations. Again, most long-distance almendrones operate along fixed routes, usually within a province (though there are interprovincial routes too). You may find it hard to flag down a colectivo as they are almost all registered to charge only in national pesos and sometimes don’t expect non-Cubans to understand the system. There are fixed fares for most routes, usually $10CUP within a city, and around $20CUP for longer distances.
Bicitaxis and cocotaxis
Bicitaxis (also known as ciclotaxis) are three-wheeled bicycles with enough room for two passengers, sometimes three at a squeeze. In use all over the island, there are legions of these in Havana, where you won’t have to wait long before one crosses your path. Fares are not all that different from tourist taxis, but again, negotiation is part of the deal. Around $1CUC/km should usually be more than enough.
Less common cocotaxis, sometimes called mototaxis, are aimed strictly at the tourist market and offer the novel experience of a ride around town semi-encased in a giant yellow bowling ball, dragged along by a small scooter. Fares in Havana have become standardized at $0.50CUC/km, but there will always be drivers looking to charge unsuspecting tourists a higher rate.
At present, Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean with a functioning rail system, and although trains are slow (average top speed is 40km/hr) and subject to long delays and cancellations, they nevertheless provide a sociable form of travelling and a great way of getting a feel for the landscape as you journey around. You’ll need your passport to buy a ticket, which, depending on which town you’re in, you should do between an hour and five days before your date of departure, direct from the train station. (If you show up less than an hour beforehand, the ticket office will almost certainly refuse to sell you a ticket.) You cannot buy tickets online or by phone, only in person as stations. Strictly speaking, all foreign travellers must pay for tickets in convertible pesos, but on some of the less-travelled routes you may get away with a national-peso ticket.
The main line, which links Havana with Santiago de Cuba via Santa Clara and Camagüey, is generally reliable and quite comfortable, though it will prove less appealing if you fail to bring your own toilet paper. Most of Cuba’s major cities are served by this route, and while there are branch lines to other towns and cities and a few completely separate lines, any service not running directly between Havana and Santiago will be subject to frequent delays and cancellations, and even slower trains. The state tacitly discourages tourists from using some lesser-used branch lines, from cities such as Cienfuegos and Sancti Spíritus, as standards are so much lower than on the mainline, and instead nudges travellers toward the more profitable bus services.
The quickest of the two main line services, from Havana to Santiago, is known as the Especial. Sometimes referred to as the Tren Francés, it uses air-conditioned coaches imported from France, and offers two classes of seats. It leaves Havana once every three days and calls only at Santa Clara, Camagüey and Cacocum in Holguín province on the fifteen-hour journey to Santiago. An alternative service, the Regular, with no air conditioning and just one class of seating, leaves more frequently, usually four or five times a week. The two most notable routes beside the main line and its branch lines are the Havana–Pinar del Río line, one of the slowest in the country, and the Hershey line, an electric train service running between Havana and Matanzas.
Fares from Havana to Santiago on the Especial are $62CUC for first-class seats and $30CUC for second-class; all tickets on the Regular service cost $30CUC. Examples of other fares are $6CUC for Havana to Pinar del Río and $32CUC for Havana to Guantánamo.
Given the infrequency of buses on many routes and the fact that some significant destinations are completely out of reach of the bus and train networks, it makes sense to consider renting a car if you intend to do a lot of travelling around. Though it’s relatively expensive to hire a car (cheapest rates are around $40CUC per day), traffic jams are almost unheard of and, away from the cities, many roads – including the motorways – are almost empty, meaning you can get around quite quickly. That said, driving on Cuban roads can be a bit of an anarchic experience.
Renting a car
Most car rental firms in Cuba are state run, making the competition between them somewhat artificial: the two principal firms, Cubacar and Havanautos, now operate more or less as the same company from the same offices. Internationally recognized companies like Avis and Hertz do not exist in Cuba, but there are now one or two much smaller, privately run operations nudging into the market. The most significant of these is CarRental Cuba, whose vehicles come with or without chauffeurs; prices start at $55CUC a day. Prices from state-run companies start at $45–55CUC per day in high season (Dec 1–15, Jan–Apr, July & Aug).
Havanautos and Cubacar have the largest number of rental points throughout the island, though the other major rental company, REX, generally has flashier cars. It’s well worth reserving a car at least a week in advance if you can – especially if you want one of the cheaper models, which tend to run out fast. You make a reservation with any of the state agencies through wtransturcarrental.com.
All agencies require you to have held a driving licence from your home country (or an international driving licence) for at least a year and that you be 21 or older. You will usually be required to provide a deposit of between $200CUC and $250CUC.
On the whole, classic American cars can only be rented with a chauffeur, effectively as taxis, from a state firm called Gran Car, based in Havana and Varadero. The easiest way to do this is to go direct to their well-established taxi ranks. Since liberalization of private enterprise laws, however, individual car owners can rent out their pride and joy as a legitimate business. It’s a little tricky tracking them down, though, as any advertising or presence on the web is rare – your best bet is to ask drivers at taxi ranks.
Car rental agencies
Driving in Cuba
Driving in Cuba is hazardous and patience-testing. Road markings and street lighting are rare and usually nonexistent on side roads, neighbourhood streets and even motorways, while the majority of roads, including the Autopista Nacional, have no cat’s eyes either. Potholes are common, particularly on small country roads and city backstreets. Take extreme care on mountain roads, many of which have killer bends and few crash barriers. Driving at night anywhere outside the cities is dangerous, and to mountain resorts like Viñales or Topes de Collantes it’s positively suicidal. Bear in mind also that push-bikes are very common on most roads in Cuba and rarely have any lights of their own. Most Cuban drivers use their car horn very liberally, particularly when overtaking and approaching crossroads.
To add to the confusion, away from the most touristy areas there is a marked lack of road signs which, coupled with the absence of detailed road maps, makes getting lost a probability. On journeys around provincial roads you will almost certainly have to stop and ask for directions, but even on the motorways the junctions and exits are completely unmarked. Be particularly vigilant for railroad crossings, common throughout the country, with a few actually sited on motorways. They are marked by a large X at the side of the road but otherwise you will be given no warning since there are no barriers before any crossings in Cuba. The accepted practice is to slow down, listen for train horns and whistles and look both ways down the tracks before driving across. Other things to look out for are permanently flashing yellow traffic lights at junctions, which mean you have right of way; a flashing red light at a junction means you must give way.
Petrol stations are few and far between (you can drive for up to 150km on the Autopista Nacional without passing one), and with no emergency roadside telephones it’s a good idea to keep a canister of petrol in the boot, or at the very least make sure you have a full tank before any long journeys. Officially, tourist cars can only fill up at convertible-peso petrol stations, identifiable by the names Cupet-Cimex and Oro Negro, the two chains responsible for running them. They are manned by pump attendants and tipping is common practice. The cost of petrol at the time of writing was $1.73CUC per litre.
Cuba’s principal motorway, the Autopista Nacional, is split into two sections: the shorter one runs between Havana and the provincial capital of Pinar del Río and is marked on maps as the A4; the longer section between Havana and the eastern edge of Sancti Spíritus province is shown on maps as the A1. However, both are referred to simply as el autopista, literally “the motorway”. The speed limit on the Autopista Nacional is 100km/hr.
The main alternative route for most long-distance journeys is the two-lane Carretera Central, marked on maps as CC – an older, more congested road running the entire length of the island, with an 80km/hr speed limit. This tends to be a more scenic option, which is just as well, as you can spend hours stuck behind slow-moving tractors, trucks and horse-drawn carriages. It is also the only major road linking up the eastern half of the island, and on a drive from Havana to Santiago de Cuba it becomes the nearest thing to a motorway from the eastern side of Sancti Spíritus province onwards.
There are more options for alternative routes in the western half of Cuba, where there are two other principal roads: the Circuito Norte (CN), the quickest route between some of the towns along the northern coast, and the Circuito Sur (CS), linking up parts of the southern coast. The Circuito Norte runs between Havana and Morón in Ciego de Avila and is the best road link between the capital and Varadero, a stretch better known as the Vía Blanca.
Hitching a lift is as common in Cuba as catching a bus, and is the main form of transport for some Cubans. The petrol shortages that followed the collapse of trade with the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s meant every available vehicle had to be utilized by the state, effectively as public transport. Thus a system was adopted whereby any private vehicle, from a car to a tractor, was obliged to pick up anyone hitching a lift. The yellow-suited workers employed by the government to hail down vehicles at bus stops and junctions on main roads and motorways can still be seen today, though their numbers have decreased significantly. Nevertheless, the culture of hitching, or coger botella as it is known in Cuba, remains, though drivers often ask for a few pesos these days. Crowds of people still wait by bridges and junctions along the major roads for trucks or anything else to stop. Tourists, though they are likely to attract a few puzzled stares, are welcome to join in.
Tip to tip, Cuba is 1200km (745miles) in length and given the relatively slow road and rail routes, domestic flights offer a temptingly quick way of getting around. Of the three state-owned domestic airlines, Aerocaribbean operates the most routes. Almost all internal flights take off or land in Havana and there are very few cities or resorts that connect directly to anywhere other than the capital, though you can fly direct from Varadero to Cayo Largo. Outside Havana the main regional airports are in Varadero, Santa Clara, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, while Cayo Largo, Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Coco all have their own airports handling flights specifically for the tourist industry.
Prices between the airlines are very similar, with return flights from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, one of the most expensive routes, costing around $260CUC, and to Nueva Gerona, one of the least expensive, around $90CUC. The best website for booking flights is wcubajet.com.
Cuban airlines have had a poor safety record over the last couple of decades. Many domestic routes use planes built in the 1970s and 1980s, some old Russian Antonov aircraft with a capacity of about fifty passengers.
Cycling tours are very popular in Cuba. However, though basic Chinese bikes are a common sight in all towns and cities, cycling for recreation or sport is not particularly popular among Cubans themselves. There are no proper cycling shops or bike rental agencies, and surprisingly few places renting or selling bikes and spare parts, though a few hotels do rent out bicycles. On the other hand, there are makeshift bicycle repair workshops all over the place and you’ll rarely have to travel far within the cities before coming across what is known in Cuba as a ponchera, a makeshift puncture-repair workshop where the owner will usually offer basic bicycle repairs too.
The most straightforward long-distance cycling opportunities for visitors are prepackaged cycling tours. Several of the national tour operators offer cicloturismo packages, but you’re generally better off booking with a foreign company. British firm Go Cycling Cuba (wgocyclingcuba.com) is very professional, while McQueen’s Island Tours (wmacqueens.com), a subsidiary of WoWCuba, is another experienced operator, and are also the best equipped agency when it comes to renting bikes in Cuba for independent touring – though as with touring packages, you’ll need to book your bike in advance. McQueen’s has an office in the Kohly district of Havana and rents out mountain bikes and hybrids for between $22CUC and $32CUC per day for between six and eleven days.
If you do intend to cycle in Cuba it’s worth bringing your own padlock, as they are rarely supplied with rental bikes and are difficult to find for sale. Most Cubans leave their bikes in the commonplace parqueos de ciclos, located inside houses, ruined buildings or sometimes in outdoor spaces, where the owner will look after your bike for a national peso or two until you get back. Also worth packing if cycling around Cuba independently is a copy of Bicycling Cuba.