Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How To Travel Around Cuba

North AmericaCubaHow To Travel Around Cuba

By bus

The bus is the most popular way to get around the island. There are two long-distance bus lines, Viazul, which is usually for tourists, and Astro, which is usually for locals. Shorter routes are served by local provincial buses.

Viazul

Víazul is Cuba’s main tourist bus line and the most convenient public transport to visit the island. Viazul operates modern, air-conditioned long-distance buses with toilets to most places of interest. The buses are reliable and punctual as there is little traffic in Cuba. The buses can theoretically be used by anyone, including Cubans, but in reality few Cubans can afford the convertible peso fares.

Reservations can be made in advance on their website, but this is usually only necessary for travel to or from popular destinations in high season. Reservations can also be made at a Viazul ticket office (usually at or near the bus stop). If the bus is full, you will most likely be offered a ride in a shared taxi at the same price as the bus. If there is no shared taxi to your destination, the ticket agent will probably advise you to arrive half an hour before the departure time and wait for a late cancellation. If there is a late cancellation, you can buy a “ticket” from the bus driver.

You can find Viazul’s timetables on their website. As internet access is difficult in Cuba, it is advisable to download or print the bus timetables in advance. A useful one-page Viazul bus timetable can be found on the Cuba-Individual website. Refreshments are not served on the bus, but buses stop for meal breaks at motorway service areas along the route. The buses are often equipped with air conditioning, so bring something warm to wear.

Astro

Astro is the main bus line for Cubans. Astro has recently renewed its fleet with 300 new Chinese buses that are as comfortable as Viazul’s (without the toilets). Although the new buses have proved unreliable and break down frequently, they are still better than the old buses Astro used to operate. Astro has a much larger route network than Viazul and the tickets are much cheaper. Officially, Astro bus tickets can only be sold to Cubans and foreign students who are studying in Cuba (and can prove this with a Cuban student ID). However, many foreign travellers have reported that they can buy an Astro bus ticket. Whether you can buy a ticket depends on your salesperson, your knowledge of Spanish and whether the destination is covered by Viazul. Astro buses usually depart from the same location as Viazul.

Local buses

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There are also local provincial buses that go to destinations in neighbouring provinces (e.g. you can take these buses from Santiago to Bayamo or Guantanamo). These buses are often overcrowded and are usually old Eastern European vehicles (pre-1960s). Each city has a “land terminal” from which these buses depart and which is usually easy to find (in La Habana, for example, it is at the Lido, while in Santiago it is on Calle 4).

Local buses are cheap, journeys never cost more than 1-2 CUC for long journeys (compared to 5-10 CUP for locals). It is important to note that queues will be long (it is best to arrive early in the morning or tip the driver to skip the queue) and you should always indicate that you are a student as it is theoretically illegal for tourists to use this mode of transport.

By shared taxi (Collectivos)

A popular alternative to travelling by bus is to use shared taxis or collectivos. These are modern or old vehicles that carry 3 to 5 passengers (depending on the size of the vehicle). The main advantage of a collectivo is that it will take you to your hotel or casa for a similar price to a Viazul bus ticket. They are also usually faster, stop at cheaper motorway service areas and give you the opportunity to meet locals.

The easiest way to buy a ride in a shared taxi is to simply arrive at a main bus station and look for the nearest available taxi going to your destination. There will be a number of hawkers who will try to sell you a seat in their colleague’s taxi, so finding a car is fairly easy. Be aware that the taxi will not leave until the car reaches capacity. So try to find one that already has a number of confirmed passengers to reduce your waiting time. The best time to take a collectivo is in the morning, as this is when most locals are out and about and you are more likely to find a taxi to your destination. The price for a collectivo is about the same as for an equivalent Viazul bus ticket. Be sure to negotiate the price before you get in the car.

Another option is to book a shared taxi in advance at a tourist information office. These offices are usually located near a Viazul bus station and will reserve a taxi for you on the day of your departure. Note that these taxis only run when the taxi is full. So make sure there are enough confirmed passengers for the journey. If the taxi is not full and you need to go that day, be prepared to pay for the empty seats or the taxi will not go.

Finally, be aware that some shared taxis operate illegally and if the driver is stopped by the police, you may have to get out of the car and be stranded in the middle of nowhere.

By car

In Cuba, all vehicles drive on the right side of the road.

Car rental starts at 65 CUC per day (including insurance), plus the cost of one tank of fuel. Refundable deposits start at around 200 CUC. The rental cars are mostly fairly new, imported European or Asian models. You can rent cars at any Cubacar branch. Any fines received will be noted on a sheet from the car rental company and deducted from your rental deposit. Note that if you are involved in a serious traffic accident resulting in injury or death, you will be detained in Cuba until the legal proceedings are completed. This leaves travellers stranded in Cuba for several months to a year while they await trial – even if the visitor was not at fault or was only a passenger at the time of the collision. For this reason, many countries advise their citizens against renting a car in Cuba. Beware of insurance fraud. There is only one type of insurance policy that covers everything (except radio and tyres) and the price only varies depending on the type of car (details in the “Staying safe” section). Check the contract carefully and make sure you have a receipt for every CUC you pay.

The busier roads and city streets are generally of good quality (passable) and should not be a problem if proper care is taken, but some quiet country roads are badly in need of repair.

In general, traffic is light, especially outside Havana. Outside the cities, traffic is generally very light, with no cars for miles on some rural roads. Beware, you also share the highways with local cheese and snack vendors, cyclists (sometimes on the wrong side of the road and usually without lights at night) and horse-drawn vehicles. Also note that the autopista (the main highway through the interior) is occasionally crossed by railway tracks – be sure to drive slowly before crossing to avoid damage to tyres or suspension. Many of these tracks have a stop sign (“PARE” in Spanish) that you must obey or you will be fined 30 CUC, even if there is no train.

The roads are poorly signposted (and often not signposted at all). So if you plan to drive in earnest, it would be advisable to get a detailed map and ask for directions if in doubt.

Be aware that many traffic lights, especially in cities, are placed at the FAR corner of the intersection, not where you are supposed to stop, giving the appearance that you are being asked to stop in the middle of the intersection.

Cubans tend not to speed, and chances are you will be the fastest car on the road. In addition to random locations, speed limits are enforced at semi-permanent checkpoints. These are usually located at intersections and are signposted several kilometres in advance. Most will ask you to slow down to 40km/h. Respect this limit or you will receive a 30C fine. Respect this limit or you will be fined 30CUC.

Petrol costs 1.00 CUC/regular, 1.20 CUC/special and 1.40 CUC/super per litre. Rental cars for tourists are not regular.

Hitchhiking and the “El Amarillo”

The hitchhiking facilitation system set up by the Cuban government is by far the most economical way for foreigners to travel in Cuba, although a flexible schedule and good Spanish are essential. Known as “El Amarillo” (“the yellow one”) because of the yellow and beige uniforms of its administrators, the system consists of points along the main roads where certain vehicles must stop to pick up hitchhikers. Amarillo points (“el punto amarillo”) along major highways are often complete rest areas for hitchhikers, with water, food at peso prices and a covered 24-hour waiting room.

Hitchhiking is the only system that allows you to travel at Cuban prices without paying a tourist surcharge. Since transport is one of the biggest expenses for a tourist in Cuba, you can spend a lot more this way. Tell people you are a student (not a tourist) to avoid amused looks and inflated prices.

To use the system in cities, simply look out for a man or woman in a yellow/beige uniform standing at the side of the road near a queue of people. Tell the officer where you need to go and wait. For longer distances, you need to go to the “punto amarillo”, which is on the outskirts of the city in the direction you want to go. Ask a local to help you find the best way. Then, when driving through towns, ask which bus or taxi you need to take to get to the “punto amarillo” on the out-of-town road at the other end of town. This can be tricky and it is often worth taking a local taxi. If you can find a Cuban to accompany you on your journey, their help will be invaluable.

During the day, when the Amarillo is present, you pay a small fee (about 20 pesos from town to town) to the official when you find transport. All the money goes to the government; the drivers get nothing. Therefore, it is much easier to drive long distances at night when the amarillo has gone home and the drivers can earn some money by picking up hitchhikers.

Of course, it is always possible to hitchhike by giving passing cars a thumbs-up, but be prepared to give the driver 20-50 pesos for a long ride. This practice is common in the countryside, near small towns and along the major “autopistas”, long, mostly straight roads that resemble an interstate system. The locals call this act “hacer botella”, meaning to hitchhike. “Dar botella” means to give someone a ride and “pedir botella” means to ask for a ride. The rides usually start and end at the various exits along the road, where there are usually a few people waiting and sometimes an official waving to the passing vehicles.

Most of the driving you will do is in the back of large trucks, exposed to the weather. This is an exciting and beautiful way to explore the Cuban countryside. Although an accident would obviously be very dangerous for the passengers, school children, older adults and parents with young children use this system every day. Be sure to protect yourself from the sun and rain and, if travelling at night, from the wind and cold.

By train

The country’s main railway line connects Havana with Santiago de Cuba, with important stops in Santa Clara and Camagüey. Trains also serve other cities such as Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Morón, Sancti Spiritus and Pinar del Rio.

There is one reliable train in Cuba: the Tren Francés, which provides a nightly service between Havana and Santiago de Cuba every other day. It uses equipment formerly operated by the Trans-Europe Express, which France gave to Cuba a few years ago (hence the name). On this train there are first class and special first class seats (the special seats are better and more expensive), but no sleeping cars. If there is only one train in Cuba, this is it.

All other trains in Cuba are unreliable. The equipment is often in poor condition, breakdowns are common and when they occur you can be stuck most of the day (or night) waiting for a replacement locomotive. There is no service on the trains, so bring plenty of food and water. Trains are often cancelled. Some trains offer first class seats (don’t expect too much); others have second class seats, which can be very uncomfortable. Timetables are optimistic at best and should always be checked before travelling. Sleeping berths are not available on night routes.

If you are still considering taking a train other than the Tren Francès, you should know that many Cubans prefer to hitchhike rather than take the train.

If you still decide to take the train, you will find approximate times under the descriptions of each city. Foreigners have to pay much higher fares (which are still very cheap) than locals. Tickets cost about two-thirds of what Viazul charges. Flying is a hassle, so watch your luggage!

The following services can be expected (special first class: air-conditioned, reservation required, food and beverages available; regular first class: more comfortable seats, otherwise like second class):

  • 1/2, every third day, Habana Central – Santiago de Cuba, “Tren Frances”, train, first class
  • 3/4, every third day, Habana Central – Guantánamo, train, second class
  • 5/6, every third day, Habana Central – Santiago de Cuba, train, second class
  • 7/8, every third day, Habana Central – Bayamo, train, second class, continue as 28/29
  • 9/10, every other day, Habana Central – Sancti Spiritus, “El Espirituano”, train, second class
  • 11/12, two per week, Santa Clara – Santiago de Cuba, train, second class
  • 19/20, every other day, Habana La Coubre – Cienfuegos, second class
  • 28/29, every third day, Bayamo – Manzanillo, train, second class, continue as 7/8
  • 83/84, daily, Camagüey – Bayamo, train, second class
  • 88/89, every other day, Guantánamo – Holguin, train, second class
  • 90/91/92/93/800/801/802/803/804/805, daily, Matanzas – Habana Casa Blanca, Hershey rail bus
  • 119/120, daily, Habana La Coubre – Unión de Reyes, train, second class
  • 133/134, daily, Matanzas – Agramonte, train, second class
  • 139/140/141/142/143/144, Habana 19 de Noviembre – San Antonio de los Baños
  • 159/160/161/162, daily, Cárdenas – Aguada de Pasajeros, railbus, second class
  • 163/164, daily, Colón – Aguada de Pasajeros, railbus, second class
  • 165/166, daily, Los Palacios – Guane, train, second class
  • 168/169, daily, Guane – Pinar del Rio, train, second class
  • 213/214/215/216, Artemisa – Habana 19 de Noviembre
  • 224/225, every other day, Pinar del Rio – Habana Central, “El Le Lechero”, second class
  • 331/332, six per week, Cienfuegos – Santa Clara, train, second class
  • 333/334, five per week, Cienfuegos – Sto Domingo Viejo, train, second class
  • 337/338/339/340, daily, Santa Clara – Caibarién, railbus, second class
  • 341/342/344, daily, Sagua – Santa Clara, railbus, second class
  • 343, daily, Concha – Santa Clara, railbus, second class
  • 345/346, daily, Sagua – Caibarién, railbus, second class
  • 347/349/350/351/352, daily, Sagua – Concha, railbus, second class
  • 353/354/355/356, daily, Santa Clara – Vega Alta, railbus, second class
  • 357/358/359/360, daily, Zaza del Medio – Tunas de Zaza, train, second class
  • 361/362/363/364, daily, Placetas Norte – Sopimpa, railbus, second class
  • 365/366/367/368/369/370/371/372, daily, Trinidad – Meyer, railbus, second class
  • 373/374, daily, Trinidad – Enlace Central FNTA Iznaga, “Expreso”, railbus, second class
  • 379/380, quotidien, Aguada de Pasajeros – Cienfuegos, seconde classe
  • 501/502/503/504, daily, Morón – Camagüey, railbus, first class
  • 505/516, daily, Morón – Júcaro, railbus, second class
  • 506/511/512/515, daily, Júcaro – Ciego de Avila, railbus, second class
  • 507/508/509/510/513/514, daily, Morón – Ciego de Avila, train, second class
  • 519/520/521/522/523/524, daily, Fallá – Morón, railbus, second class
  • 525/526, daily, Morón – Ciego de Avila, railbus, second class
  • 532/533/534/535, daily, Nuevitas – Camagüey, train, second class
  • 536/537/538/539/540/541, daily, Nuevitas – Tarafa, railbus, second class
  • 542/543/544/545, daily, Santa Cruz del Sur – Camagüey, railbus, second class
  • 546/547/548/549/550/551/552/553/554/555, daily, Las Tunas – Balcón, railbus, second class
  • 557/558/559/560/561/562/563/564/565/566/567/568, daily, Piedrecitas – Kilómetro 5,6, railbus, second class
  • 608/609, daily, Santiago de Cuba – Manzanillo, train, second class
  • 610/611, every other day, Santiago de Cuba – Holguin, train, second class
  • 613/614, daily, Herrera – Santiago de Cuba, train, second class
  • 615/616, daily, Holguin – Herrera, train, second class
  • 617, daily, Bayamo – Jiguani, train, second class
  • 618/619/620, daily, Jiguani – Manzanillo, train, second class
  • 621, daily, Manzanillo – Bayamo, train, second class
  • 622/623/624/625, daily, Bayamo – Guamo, train, second class
  • 626/630, daily, Contramaestre – Jiguani, railbus, second class
  • 627/631, daily, Jiguani – Oriente, railbus, second class
  • 628/632, daily, Oriente – Contramaestre, railbus, second class
  • 633/634, daily, Contramaestre – Santiago de Cuba, railbus, second class
  • 712/713/714/715, daily, Guantánamo – Martires de la Frontera, railbus, second class
  • 716/717/718/719/720/721, every other day, Guantánamo – San Anselmo, railbus, second class
  • 722/723, daily, Guantánamo – Yayal, railbus, second class
  • 726/727/730/731/732/733, daily, Guantánamo – Caimanera, railbus, second class
  • 807/809/853/870/872, daily, Talleres Calle 7 – Canasi, Hershey rail bus
  • 810/811/812/813/814/815/816/817/818/819/820/821/822/823/824/825/826/827/828/829/830/831, daily, Jaruco – Talleres Calle 7, Hershey Rail Bus
  • 832/833/836/837/842/843/846/847, daily, Caraballo – San Mateo, Hershey Rail Bus
  • 834/835, daily, Caraballo – Playas del Este, Hershey Rail Bus
  • 838/839/844/845/848/849/850/851, daily, Caraballo – Hershey, Hershey rail bus
  • 840/841, daily, Caraballo – Talleres Calle 7, Hershey rail bus
  • 852/854/855/865/866, daily, Canasi – Santa Cruz del Norte, Hershey Rail Bus
  • 856/857/868, daily, Santa Cruz del Norte – Talleres Calle 7, Hershey rail bus
  • 858/859/860/861, daily, Santa Cruz del Norte – Jibacoa, Hershey Rail Bus
  • 862/863, daily, Santa Cruz del Norte – Hershey, Hershey rail bus
  • 864/867, daily, Canasi – Hershey, Hershey Rail Bus
  • 876/881/882/883, daily in summer, Playas del Este – Habana La Coubre, rail bus Hershey

The following services can be provided (daily, second class):

  • 86/87, Holguin – Las Tunas, Train
  • 117/118, Matanzas – Los Arabos Nuevo, Train
  • 335/336, Los Arabos Nuevo – Santa Clara, Train
  • 569/570, Camagüey – Talleres, Train
  • 572/573, Las Tunas – Camagüey, rail bus

By air

The fastest and most comfortable way to travel longer distances is to fly with one of the Cuban airlines, Cubana de Aviación, Aero Caribbean or Aerogaviota. They operate on the following routes:

Cubana de Aviación

  • Havana – Camaguey – Havana, Yakovlev Yak-42D
  • Havana – Santiago – Havana, Yakovlev Yak-42D

Operated by Aero Caribbean

  • Havana – Camaguey – Havana, ATR 42-300/320
  • Havana – Guantanamo – Havana, ATR 42-300/320

Aero Caribbean

  • Havana – Baracoa – Havana, ATR 72-212
  • Havana – Bayamo – Havana, ATR 42-300/320
  • La Havane – Cayo Coco – Cienfuegos – La Havane, ATR 42-300/320
  • Havana – Cayo Largo del Sur – Varadero – Havana, ATR 42-300/320
  • La Havane – Cienfuegos – Cayo Coco – La Havane, ATR 42-300/320
  • La Havane – Las Tunas – La Havane, ATR 42-300/320
  • Havana – Manzanillo – Havana, ATR 42-300/320
  • La Havane – Moa – Holguin – La Havane, ATR 42-300/320
  • Havana – Nueva Gerona – Havana, ATR 42-300/320
  • Havana – Santiago – Havana, ATR 42-300/320
  • Havana – Varadero – Cayo Largo del Sur – Havana, ATR 42-300/320

Operated by Global Air (Mexico)

  • La Havane – Cayo Coco – Holguin – La Havane, with a Boeing 737-200 avion.
  • La Havane – Holguin – Cayo Coco – La Havane, with a Boeing 737-200 avion.
  • La Havane – Santiago – La Havane, aircraft of type Boeing 737-200

Aerogaviota

  • Havana – Kigston, Jamaica – Havana
  • Havana – Cayo Las Brujas – Havana
  • Playa Baracoa (Havana) – Baracoa – Playa Baracoa (Havana)
  • Playa Baracoa (Havana) – Cayo Coco – Playa Baracoa (Havana)
  • Playa Baracoa (Havana) – Cayo Largo del Sur – Playa Baracoa (Havana)
  • Playa Baracoa (Havana) – Holguin – Playa Baracoa (Havana)
  • Playa Baracoa (Havana) – Cayo Las Brujas – Playa Baracoa (Havana)
  • Playa Baracoa (Havana) – Santiago de Cuba – Playa Baracoa (Havana)
  • Holguin – Baracoa Beach (Havana) – Baracoa – Holguin – Baracoa Beach (Havana)
  • Varadero – Cayo Largo del Sur – Varadero

By bike

Quiet roads and beautiful landscapes make Cuba an ideal country for cycling. It is already an incredibly popular destination for cyclists, both for group rides with bus escorts and for smaller, independent rides. In January and February, you can be sure to meet at least a few cycle tourists. If you are travelling on your own, you will need to bring your own bike, as bikes suitable for trekking are not readily available in Cuba. However, medium quality bikes are included in the package for cycling tour groups. Do not rent a bike (e.g. el Orbe in Havana) in Cuba under any circumstances, as you will get a Chinese jalopy or something else that will leave your butt raw.

In most places in Cuba, the roads are reasonably paved. Large potholes are common, so you should always be alert. There are also many roads that degrade to gravel in some sections, so it may be advisable to bring a mountain bike or bikes with reasonably fat wheels. Be sure to bring any spare parts you may need along the way, as these will not be available in Cuba. Since there are casas particulares even in relatively small towns, it is easy to plan an itinerary. In the more densely populated parts of the country (central and western Cuba), you can expect to find accommodation every 20 km between the larger towns. Food for the road can often be purchased locally for cheap Cuban pesos, with most small towns having at least one sandwich or pizza stand. However, be sure to pack enough food (and water!) when travelling in more remote areas. Outside the big cities, bottled water can be difficult to come by. Carry iodine tablets as a safe alternative.

Cyclists are often greeted with enthusiasm and interest; if you take a break, you will often be approached by curious locals. Be aware that many Cubans will offer to buy your bike or ask if you can leave it behind. It is possible to take your bikes on a tour bus, such as “Viazul”, to cover longer distances. Some Viazul bus lines charge an extra 3 to 5 CUC for transporting the bike. It is also possible to take bikes on trains and even hitchhike with bikes (wave a few convertible pesos at approaching drivers to get their attention).

For long tours, try to head southwest to get a good tailwind (e.g. Havana to Viñales, a popular ~250 KM tour).

With the boat

There are two main groups of islands to explore along the southern coast of Cuba. Your sailing area from the two main bases, Cienfuegos or Trinidad, includes the Canarreos Archipelago and the Juventud Islands or Jardines de la Reina Archipelago. Windward Islands.