Travelling around Cuba
Though there is a reliable, good-value long-distance bus service for travelling around Cuba, public transport on the island is generally slow, complicated and subject to frequent cancellations and delays. Getting around Cuba efficiently means using buses, long-distance taxis or planes and, within cities, taxis in their myriad forms. Some services still work on a two-tier basis. One service operates 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).
Travel by train in Cuba
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. They are also a great way of getting a feel for the landscape. 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. (If you show up less than an hour beforehand, the ticket office will almost certainly refuse to sell you a ticket.) You can only buy tickets in person at 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.
Most of Cuba’s major cities are served by the main line, which links Havana with Santiago de Cuba via Santa Clara and Camagüey. It is generally reliable and quite comfortable, though it will prove less appealing if you fail to bring your own toilet paper! 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. Instead it nudges travellers toward the more profitable bus services.
The quickest of the two mainline 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 mainline 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.
Children under four travel free and children aged five to 11 travel at half fare.
Bus travel in Cuba
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. They are by far the most commonly used form of transport, both within the cities and for interprovincial journeys.
There are two national bus networks. Víazul operates for foreign passport holders and CUC-paying Cubans, and the Empresa Omnibus Nacionales network, until relatively recently known as Astro, is reserved exclusively for national-peso-paying Cubans. Another CUC-charging service, Conectando Cuba, links Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana.
The long-established Víazul service connects all of the mainland provincial capitals and a number of smaller, touristy cities like Trinidad and Baracoa. In general, it is the best way to travel around Cuba by bus. The service is one of the quickest, most reliable and most hassle-free ways to get around Cuba independently. The other is in long-distance taxis. Bear in mind though that some routes only function sporadically. These include those to the northern cays in Villa Clara and the Jardines del Rey in Ciego de Ávila.
Buses are equipped with air-conditioning, occasionally usable 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.
Booking tickets can be complicated and the process often changes. It’s best to ask at a travel agent like Havanatur or Cubatur or the official tourist information centre, Infotur. Demand often outstrips supply, so to guarantee a seat you should buy tickets from the station at least 24hr before departure or a week in advance if booking online (and remember to print tickets). It’s possible, though unadvisable, to book a seat on the day, but you’ll probably have to wait till the bus arrives to see if there’s space. Prices range from around $6CUC from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, up to around $51CUC for the fifteen-hour trip from Havana to Santiago. Children travel free, under-12s half price.
The Conectando Cuba service, whose buses are marked with the Transtur logo, currently only runs along routes connecting Havana, Cienfuegos and Havana. The service to and from Viñales is currently suspended with no indication of whether it will be reinstated or not. It differs from Víazul in that it picks you up and drops you off at hotels in the cities and towns it serves. 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. 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 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.
Local bus services
While large numbers of foreign travellers use long-distance buses, very few use local buses as a means of getting around Cuba. The almost complete lack of information at bus stops, absence of timetables and 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 for the flat fee.
Travel by camiones in Cuba
Supplementing the bus system are large numbers of converted trucks – camiones – which tend to run along relatively short routes between towns and within provinces. Aimed squarely at Cubans, they are nevertheless an official part of the public transport system. Note that not all drivers will allow non-Cubans on board.
Getting around via taxi in Cuba
Taxis are one of the most popular expressions of private enterprise in Cuba and it sometimes seems that merely owning a car qualifies a Cuban as a taxi driver. There are plenty of state-run and even greater numbers of privately owned taxis. The latter is broadly divided into those licensed to charge in national pesos and those licensed to charge in convertible pesos. However, there are no visible characteristics to distinguish between the two – neither have meters. Almost all the American classics in Cuba, popularly referred to as almendrones, or sometimes maquinas, are used as taxis or by tour agencies in a similar capacity. If you’re working out how to travel around Cuba, taxis – especially shared ones – are an efficient and cost-effective way.
Communal taxis, or taxis colectivos, taxis operating within towns and cities, 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. 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. But they are almost always classic American cars, whose larger capacities are ideally suited to this kind of service. If you see an old American car packed with passengers, it’s most likely a colectivo. To catch a ride and find out where it’s going you’ll need to flag it down – destinations are not displayed. There are fixed fares for most routes, usually, but in Havana drivers charge double for some journeys. You may find it hard to flag down a colectivo if you’re carrying a lot of luggage as drivers want to pack their cars with people, not suitcases.
Long-distance taxis and colectivos
Arriving at any Víazul bus station in the country you will be greeted by taxi drivers offering to take you wherever you are going for the same price as the Víazul ticket. Though sometimes you will need to negotiate a little, these offers are usually reliable. This is particularly the case if there are several of you travelling in the same direction. If you’re planning how to get around Cuba, these are often excellent alternatives to the bus. Also, depending on the car, they might well get you to your destination quicker. Make sure you see the car you will be travelling in before you finalize the deal with the driver, as they sometimes park older less reliable models out of sight.
Some long-distance taxis are colectivos and in most towns and cities they also congregate at the bus station. However, if there are separate stations for Víazul buses and the Cubans-only Omnibus Nacionales buses they tend to gather at the latter. In some cities, such as Santa Clara, there are long-distance taxi stations. Drivers tend to wait with their car at the start of their route and shout out their final destination.
Like the local equivalents, most long-distance colectivos operate along fixed routes. This is usually within a province, though there are interprovincial routes too. They charge fixed fares in national pesos.
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). These 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.
Rates are higher 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.
Some classic American cars (almendrones) function as straightforward taxis. These taxis particulares, literally private taxis, when they do function in this way, will always charge in CUC. Whether they are licensed to is often another matter. The type of car used in this way varies more than the colectivos and are as likely to be old Russian and Eastern European cars as American classics. These are the minicabs of Cuba and not necessarily cheaper than state taxis. 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.
Bicitaxis and cocotaxis
Bicitaxis (also known as ciclotaxis) are three-wheeled bicycles. They have 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. Again though, negotiation is part of the deal.
Less common cocotaxis, sometimes called mototaxis, are aimed strictly at the tourist market. They offer the novel experience of a ride around town semi-encased in a giant yellow bowling ball, dragged along by a small scooter. Fares are, again, negotiable. They should be used with caution as they don’t have the best safety record.
Renting a car in Cuba
Buses on many routes can be infrequent and some significant destinations are completely out of reach of the bus and train networks. Therefore it makes sense to consider renting a car if you intend to do a lot of travelling around Cuba. Though it’s relatively expensive to hire a car, traffic jams are almost unheard of. And away from the cities, many roads – including the motorways – are almost empty. This means you can get around quite quickly. That said, driving on Cuban roads can be a bit of an anarchic experience.
Car rental firms
All 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. However, there are plenty of privately run online agencies, like CarRentalCuba. They act as middlemen between the state firms and customers.
Reserving a car and costs
Prices start at roughly $55CUC per day in high season (Dec 1–15, Jan–April, July & Aug). However, there are comparatively few cars in this bracket and they are often fully booked for months in advance. The second cheapest is around $75CUC a day.
Havanautos and Cubacar have the largest number of rental points throughout the island. However, the other major rental company, REX, generally has flashier cars. It’s well worth reserving a car at least a month 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 transturcarrental.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.
Hazards of driving in Cuba
Driving is a hazardous and patience-testing way of getting around Cuba. Road markings and street lighting are rare and usually nonexistent on side roads, neighbourhood streets and even motorways. Also, the majority of roads, including the Autopista Nacional, have no cat’s eyes. 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. Coupled with the absence of detailed road maps, this 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. Otherwise though 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.
Fuel and petrol stations
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. 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.
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. This is an older, more congested road running the entire length of the island, with an 80km/hr speed limit. It 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. 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 Ávila and is the best road link between the capital and Varadero, a stretch better known as the Vía Blanca.
Hitchhiking around Cuba
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 cannot hitch lifts themselves as any Cuban who transports a tourist must have a taxi licence to do so.
Internal flights in Cuba
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. 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 being one of the most expensive routes, and to Nueva Gerona, one of the least expensive. The best website for booking flights is cubajet.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. Most recently, a crash in May 2018 resulted in several passenger and crew fatalities. The Cuban authorities responded by suspending all Cubana internal flights; since October 2018 some routes are being slowly reintroduced. At the time of writing, Havana to Guantanamo, Baracoa and Camagüey all have a reduced but operational service.
Bicycles in Cuba
Cycling tours are very popular in Cuba, and are a fun way of getting around. 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 but privately run bike rental agencies are beginning to appear, while a few hotels also 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.
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. McQueen’s Island Tours is an experienced operator, and are also the best equipped agency when it comes to renting bikes in Cuba for independent touring. 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.
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 the excellent Bicycling Cuba by Wally and Barbara Smith.
Top image: Vintage classic American car in Havana © Daniel Avram/Shutterstock