Getting there & around
Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
Metered tourist taxis are readily available at all of the upscale hotels, with the air-conditioned Nissan taxis charging higher tariffs than the non-air-conditioned Ladas. The cheapest official taxis are operated by Panataxi (55-55-55) and cost CUC$1 flagfall, then CUC$0.50 a kilometer. Tourist taxis charge CUC$1 a kilometer and can be ordered from Taxi OK (204-9518; Calle 8 btwn Avs 1 & 3, Miramar). Almost all hotel receptions will be able to book you a taxi relatively quickly.
The cheapest taxis are the older yellow-and-black Ladas, which are state-owned but rented out to private operators. They won’t wish to use their meters, as these are set at an unrealistically low rate, but you can bargain over the fare. They’re not supposed to pick up passengers within 100m of a tourist hotel.
If you bargain hard, two-seater bici-taxis (bicycle taxis) will take you anywhere around Centro Habana for CUC$2. It’s a lot more than a Cuban would pay, but cheaper and more fun than a tourist taxi. Bici-taxis are licensed to carry only Cubans, and drivers may wish to go via a roundabout route through the backstreets to avoid police controls (if the drivers get caught breaking the rules, it’s their problem not yours).
Colectivos are old prerevolution American cars that act as collective taxis for Cubans. They’re not supposed to take foreigners but, if you’re stuck somewhere out of the way - Guanabacoa, for instance - you can bargain for a ride.
Bus travel in Habana is not for the fainthearted. Queues, crowds, belching fumes and the kind of claustrophobia that even Houdini would have struggled with are all part of the unrelenting package. Regular city buses are called guaguas (wah-wahs), while the much larger metro buses are termed camellos (camels) for their two elevated metallic humps that allow room for more passengers. Within the city the fare is a flat 25 centavos in an extended bus with an accordion connection in the middle or 50 centavos in a regular bus, which you must toss into a box near the driver or pay to a conductor.
You will find queues at most paradas (bus stops), even though they may be difficult to spot at first glance. To mark your place ask for el último (the last in line), and when the bus arrives get behind that person. At the originating stops, there are generally two lines, one for sentados (people who want a seat) and another for parados (people willing to stand). The second line moves faster and is best if you’re going only a short distance and have no luggage.
Gas-guzzling camellos run along the routes of Habana’s projected Moscow-style subway system, which was never built due to lack of money. The buses can squeeze in up to 300 passengers (uncomfortably) into their two humps and are hauled by fume-belching heavy-duty trucks. All have the prefix M before their number and run on well-established routes:
M-1 Alamar-Vedado via Parque de la Fraternidad
M-2 Parque de la Fraternidad-Santiago de las Vegas
M-3 Alamar-Ciudad Deportiva
M-4 Parque de la Fraternidad-San Agustín via Marianao
M-5 Vedado-San Agustín
M-6 Calvario-Vedado (corner of Calles 21 and L)
M-7 Parque de la Fraternidad-Alberro via Cotorro
Buses depart from Habana to every corner of Cuba. Of the two main bus companies, Víazul (www.viazul.com) is undoubtedly the best option with punctual, air-conditioned coaches to destinations of interest to travelers. Víazul is a convertible service for tourists and well-heeled Cubans, and you can be confident you’ll get where you want to on these buses. Its buses cost slightly more than those of its competitor Astro, but the difference is marginal and gets even more negligible the further you travel. It’s also a good way to meet other foreigners.
Víazul buses leave from the Víazul Bus Terminal (881-1413, 881-5652; cnr Calle 26 & Zoológico, Nuevo Vedado), which is inconveniently situated 3km southwest of Plaza de la Revolución. It’ll cost you CUC$5 in a taxi to get here from Parque Central.
Tickets for Víazul services are sold immediately prior to the departure in the Venta de Boletines office. You can get full schedules on the website or at Infotur, which also sells tickets. Bookings via the Víazul website are unreliable and best avoided. Reservations with Víazul are advisable during peak travel periods (June to August, Christmas and Easter) and on popular routes. Destinations include Cienfuegos (CUC$20, five hours, two daily), Pinar del Río (CUC$11, four hours, two daily) and Varadero (CUC$10, three hours, three daily).
The other option is Astro, whose new fleet of modern Chinese-made buses venture to slightly more off-the-beaten track places. Astro sells passages to Cubans in pesos and tourists in convertibles, so you’ll meet lots of locals this way. Foreign students with a Cuban carnet (identification document) can pay in pesos. If you plan on taking Astro buses, check ahead of time as there’s never any printed schedule and only two tickets per bus are available for foreigners on each departure (although if there’s space left 30 minutes before departure, staff will sell the seats to anyone). Many services only run on alternate days.
Astro buses depart from the Terminal de Ómnibus (870-9401; cnr Av de la Independencia & Calle 19 de Mayo, Vedado), near the Plaza de la Revolución. Tickets sold in Cuban convertibles are readily available at the office marked Venta de Boletines (870-3397; 24hr), down the hall to the right of the main entrance.
Ferries shuttle from Habana Vieja to Regla and Casablanca, leaving every 10 or 15 minutes from Muelle Luz (cnr San Pedro & Santa Clara, Habana Vieja). Thanks to an attempted hijacking in 2003, expect to be searched before boarding. Foreigners are usually charged CUC$1, and the crossings take 10 minutes.
The only realistic way of reaching Habana from an outside country is by air.
All travelers leaving Cuba are expected to pay a CUC$25 departure tax at José Martí International Airport. The tax is paid at a cashier’s window just after you’ve checked your luggage and received a boarding card. Departure-tax payments are accepted in cash only.
Most of the popular airlines have offices in the Airlines Building on Calle 23 (La Rampa) in Vedado, close to the intersection with the Malecón (Av de Maceo). There is additional representation at Terminal 3 of José Martí International Airport.
Despite a dubious safety record, Cuban national carrier Cubana de Aviación serves 11 Cuban cities, as well as numerous destinations in Europe, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. Aerocaribbean also provides scheduled flights to destinations within Cuba.
Aerocaribbean (code 7L; 879-7524, 870-4965; www.aero-caribbean.com; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Air Canada (code ACA; 836-3226/27; www.aircanada.com; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Air Europa (code AEA; 204-6905/6/7/8; www.air-europa.com; Miramar Trade Center, cnr Av 3 & Calle 80, Playa)
Air France (code AFR; 833-2642; www.airfrance.com; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Air Jamaica (code AJM; 833-3636; www.airjamaica.com; Hotel Meliá Cohiba, Paseo btwn Calles 1 & 3, Vedado)
Air Transat (code TSC; www.airtransat.com)
Cubana de Aviación (code CU; 834-4446, 649-5666; www.cubana.cu; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Iberia(code IBE; 204-3444; www.iberia.com; Miramar Trade Center, cnr Av 3 & Calle 80, Playa)
Lacsa (code LRC; 833-3114; www.grupotaca.com; Hotel Habana Libre, cnr Calles L & 23, Vedado)
LAN (code LAN; 831-6186; www.lan.com; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
LTU International Airways (code LTU; 833-3524; www.ltu.com; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Martinair (code MPH; 833-3729; www.martinair.com; cnr Calles 23 & E, Vedado)
Mexicana de Aviación(code MXA; 833-3532; www.mexicana.com.mx; Airlines Bldg, Calle 23 No 64, Vedado)
Virgin Atlantic (code VIR; 204-0747; www.virginatlantic.com; Miramar Trade Center, cnr Av 3 & Calle 80, Playa)
Twenty-five kilometers southwest of Habana via Av de la Independencia (Av de Rancho Boyeros), José Martí International Airport (code HAV; 33-56-66) serves the international and domestic needs of air travelers arriving in and leaving the Cuban capital. On a clear run it takes 30 minutes to get into central Habana by taxi.
There are a number of terminals here. Terminal 1, on the southeast side of the runway, handles only domestic Cubana de Aviación flights. Opposite, on the north side of the runway, but 3km away via Av de la Independencia, is Terminal 2, which receives Corsair flights and charters from Miami. All other international flights use Terminal 3, an ultramodern facility that opened in 1998 at Wajay, 2.5km west of Terminal 2. Charter flights by Aerocaribbean, Aerogaviota and Aerotaxi to Cayo Largo del Sur and elsewhere use the Caribbean Terminal (also known as Terminal 5), at the northwest end of the runway, 2.5km west of Terminal 3. (Terminal 4 hasn’t been built yet.)
With a plethora of inexpensive taxis and walking options, there’s little reason to rent a car in Habana unless you intend to drive well beyond the city’s limits. If you do decide to take the plunge, bear in mind that Habana’s road rules are sketchy, signage is conspicuous by its absence and traffic is getting more congested by the day.
Renting a car in Habana is very straightforward and you can usually be signed up and fitted out in well under an hour. You’ll need your passport, driver’s license and refundable CUC$200 deposit (in cash or non-US credit card). Note that there are very few rental cars with automatic transmission.
If you want to rent a car for three days or fewer, it will come with limited kilometers, while with contracts for three days or more, you’ll get unlimited kilometers. In Cuba you pay for the first tank of gas when you rent a car (CUC$0.95/L) and return it empty - a suicidal policy that sees many tight-fisted tourists running out of gas a kilometer or so from the drop-off point. Just to make it worse, you will not be refunded for any gas left in the tank.
If you lose your rental contract or keys, you’ll pay a CUC$50 penalty. Drivers under 25 pay a CUC$5 fee, while additional drivers on the same contract pay a CUC$15 surcharge.
Check over the car carefully with the rental agent before driving into the sunset as you’ll be responsible for any damage or missing parts. Make sure there is a spare tire of the correct size, a jack and a lug wrench. Check also that there are seat belts and that all the doors lock properly.
We have received many letters about poor/nonexistent customer service, bogus spare tires, forgotten reservations and other car-rental problems. Reservations are only accepted 15 days in advance and are still not guaranteed. While agents are usually accommodating, you might end up paying more than you planned or have to wait hours until someone returns a car. The more Spanish you speak and the friendlier you are, the more likely problems will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (tips to the agent might help). As with most Cuban travel, always be ready to go to plan B.
There’s no shortage of car-rental offices in Habana. The fanciest cars are provided by Rex Rent a Car, and the most economical by Micar. Somewhere in between lie Havanautos, Cubacar, and Vía Rent a Car. Bank on paying CUC$60 a day for the cheapest small car and well over CUC$100 for something fancier. All of the car agencies have a info desk at the airport.
Cubacar Hotel Deauville (cnr Av de Italia & Malecón, Centro Habana); Hotel Inglaterra (Paseo de Martí No 416, Centro Habana); Hotel Meliá Cohiba (833-3636; Paseo btwn Calles 1 & 3, Vedado); Hotel Meliá Habana (Av 3 btwn Calles 76 & 80, Playa); Hotel NH Parque Central (Neptuno btwn Paseo de Martí & Agramonte, Centro Habana)
Havanautos Hotel Nacional (cnr Calles O & 21, Vedado); Hotel Riviera (cnr Paseo & Malecón, Vedado); Hotel Sevilla (866-8956; Trocadero No 55 btwn Paseo de Martí & Agramonte, Centro Habana)
Micar Calle 21 (cnr Calles 21 & M, Vedado); Calle 23 (cnr Calles 23 & H, Vedado); Hotel Nacional (873-3891; cnr Calles O & 21, Vedado); Malecón (cnr Malecón & Calle 23, Vedado)
Rex Rent a Car (33-77-88; cnr Línea & Malecón, Vedado)
Vía Rent a Car Aparthotel Montehabana (Calle 70 btwn Avs 5A & 7, Playa); Hotel Kohly (204-2606; cnr Av 49A & Calle 36, Kohly); Occidental Miramar (cnr Av 5 & Calle 74, Playa); Panorama Hotel Havana (cnr Av 3 & Calle 70, Playa)
Cruise ships that include Habana on their itineraries are few and far between due to the ongoing US trade embargo, which prohibits vessels calling at Cuban ports from visiting the US for six months.
Access by private yacht or cruiser is a little easier. Habana is served by one port authority in the Marina Hemingway (209-7270; cnr Av 5 & Calle 248, Santa Fe), situated 20km west of Habana. The marina has four identical docking channels, which are 1km long by 15m deep by 6m wide. No prior visas or reservations are required for those traveling by yacht, but you’ll have to purchase CUC$25 tourist cards upon arrival if you plan to stay longer than 72 hours. Private yachts bound for Cuba should try to make radio contact with the Cuban port authorities over channel 16 or 7462 SSB before crossing the 12-mile limit. Say llamando seguridad marítima (calling maritime security) and quote the name of the port.
Required documents include the passports of everyone on board; the ownership papers, title and registration certificate of the vessel; and the clearance document from your last port, with Cuba listed as your destination.
Trains to most parts of Cuba depart from Estación Central de Ferrocarriles (862-4971, 861-8540; Av de Bélgica & Arsenal, Habana Vieja). Foreigners must buy tickets for dollars at La Coubre Train Station (862-1006; cnr Av del Puerto & Desamparados, Habana Vieja; 9am-3pm Mon-Fri). If it’s closed, try the Lista de Espera office adjacent, which sells tickets for trains leaving immediately. Kids under 12 travel half-price. Rail services include Holguín (CUC$27, one daily), Mantanzas (CUC$4, eight daily) and Pinar del Río (CUC$6.50, one daily). Services are routinely delayed or canceled; always double-check scheduling and the terminal from which your train will leave.
Cristina Station (cnr Av de México & Arroyo, Cuatro Caminos) lies about a kilometer southwest of the Estación Central de Ferrocarriles. It handles local trains within the city limits but is notoriously unreliable. The once convenient train to Boyeros (for Parque Lenin) and ExpoCuba was not working at the time of writing.
The Casablanca Train Station (862-4888), next to the ferry wharf on the east side of the harbor, is the western terminus of the only electric railway in Cuba. In 1917 the Hershey Chocolate Company of the US state of Pennsylvania built this line to Matanzas, and trains still depart for Matanzas five times a day (currently at 4:43am, 8:35am, 12:39pm, 5:21pm and 9:17pm). The 8:35am service is an ‘express.’ You’ll travel via Guanabo (CUC$0.80, 25km), Camilo Cienfuegos (Hershey; CUC$1.45, 46km), Jibacoa (CUC$1.65, 54km) and Canasí (CUC$1.95, 65km) to Matanzas (CUC$2.80, 90km). The train usually leaves Casablanca on time but often arrives an hour late. It’s a scenic four- to five-hour trip, and tickets are easily obtainable at the station (except on weekends and holidays when it could be crowded).
While rural Cuba might be a cyclist’s paradise, negotiating the increasingly clogged streets of urban Habana is an entirely different matter. If you do elect to use two wheels rather than four, be sure to wear a helmet, cycle at an off-peak time (Saturday or Sunday mornings are quietest), and take extra care when weaving in and out of the traffic.
Habana has just one official bike-hire outlet; it’s called El Orbe and is located in Centro Habana.