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. 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).
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 two national bus networks: Víazul for foreign passport holders and CUC-paying Cubans, and the Empresa Omnibus Nacionales network, until relatively recently known as Astro, reserved exclusively for national-peso-paying Cubans. Another CUC-charging service, Conectando Cuba, links Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana.
The long-established Víazul connects all of the mainland provincial capitals and a number of smaller, touristy cities like Trinidad and Baracoa. In general, the service is reliable and though some routes only function sporadically, notably those to the northern cays in Villa Clara and the Jardines del Rey in Ciego de Ávila, it’s one of the two quickest, most reliable and most hassle-free ways to get about the country independently (the other is in long-distance taxis). 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; 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.
The Conectando Cuba service, whose buses are marked with the Transtur logo, currently only runs along routes connecting Havana, Cienfuegos and Havana. It 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.
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.
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 and even have their own timetables at some bus stations, where most of them gather unless there is another transport hub in town. Standard charge is $10CUP but not all drivers will allow non-Cubans on board.
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.
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 $10CUP, but in Havana drivers charge $20CUP 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.
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.
Some classic American cars (almendrones) function as straightforward taxis, and 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, 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.
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 are, again, negotiable but expect to pay around $2CUC/km.
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 mainline, 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 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.
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
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, but there are plenty of privately run online agencies, like CarRental Cuba, acting as middlemen between the state firms and customers.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 Ávila and is the best road link between the capital and Varadero, a stretch better known as the Vía Blanca.
Tip to tip, Cuba is 1200km (745 miles) 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. 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.
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, though 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, a makeshift puncture-repair workshop where the owner will usually offer basic bicycle repairs too.
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.