Buses are the most efficient and practical way of getting around.
Bus The state-run Víazul network links most places of interest to tourists on a regular daily schedule. Cubanacán runs a less comprehensive conectando service. Local buses are crowded and have no printed schedules.
Car Rental cars are quite expensive and driving can be a challenge due to the lack of signposts and ambiguous road rules.
Taxi Taxis are an option over longer distances if you are traveling in a small group. Rates are approximately CUC$0.55 per kilometer.
Train Despite its large train network, Cuban trains are slow, unreliable and lacking in comfort. For stoics only!
Cuba is a cyclist's paradise, with bike lanes, bike workshops and drivers accustomed to sharing the road countrywide. Spare parts are difficult to find – you should bring important spares with you. Still, Cubans are grand masters at improvised repair and, though specific parts may not be available, something can surely be jury-rigged. Poncheros (puncture repair stalls) fix flat tires and provide air; every small town has one.
Helmets are unheard of in Cuba, except at upscale resorts, so you should bring your own. A lock is imperative, as bicycle theft is rampant. Parqueos are bicycle parking lots located wherever crowds congregate (eg markets, bus terminals, downtown etc); they cost one peso.
Throughout the country, the 1m-wide strip of road to the extreme right is reserved for bicycles, even on highways. It's illegal to ride on sidewalks and against traffic on one-way streets and you'll be ticketed if caught. Road lighting is deplorable, so avoid riding after dark (over one-third of vehicle accidents in Cuba involve bicycles); carry lights with you just in case.
Trains with coches de equipaje or bagones (baggage carriages) should take bikes for around CUC$10 per trip. These compartments are guarded, but take your panniers with you and check over the bike when you arrive at your destination. Víazul buses also take bikes.
Limited selection and high prices make buying a bike in Cuba through official channels unattractive. Better to ask around and strike a deal with an individual to buy their chivo (Cuban slang for bike) and trade it or resell it when you leave. With some earnest bargaining, you can get one for around CUC$40 – although the more you pay, the less your bones are likely to shake. Despite the obvious cost savings, bringing your own bike is still the best bet by far.
Official bike rental places are scant in Cuba, but with the private economy taking off so rapidly, this could change. You can usually procure something roadworthy for between CUC$5 per hour or CUC$20 per day. Bikes are usually included as a perk in all-inclusive resort packages, but beware of bad brakes and zero gears.
Bus travel is a dependable way of getting around Cuba, at least in the more popular areas. Víazul (www.viazul.com) is the main long-distance bus company available to non-Cubans, with fairly punctual and reliable air-conditioned coaches going to destinations of interest to travelers.
Víazul charges for tickets in convertibles. Buses schedule regular stops for lunch/dinner and always carry two drivers. Bring warm layers – the air conditioning blasts an Arctic chill. Reserve ahead on the more popular routes, particularly in high season. A handy new route from Trinidad goes daily to Santa Clara, Remedios, Caibarien and Cayo Santa Maria.
Note that the demand in high season outstrips availability. If you can't get a seat on the bus you want, look for other stranded travelers to join for a shared taxi to your destination.
Conectando, run by Cubanacán, is a newer option set up to relieve some of Víazul's overcrowding. The pros are that they run between city center hotels and can be booked head of time at Infotur and Cubanacán offices. The cons are that the schedules aren't as reliable or extensive as Víazul. Check ahead that your bus is running.
Many of the popular tourist areas now have 'bus tours,' hop-on/hop-off buses that link all the main sights in a given area and charge CUC$5 for an all-day ticket. The services are run by government transport agency Transtur. Havana and Varadero both have open-topped double-decker buses. Smaller minibuses are used in Viñales, Trinidad, Cayo Coco, Guardalavaca, Cayo Santa María and Baracoa (seasonal).
Cubans travel over shorter distances in provincial buses. These buses sell tickets in moneda nacional and are a lot less comfortable and reliable than Víazul. They leave from the provincial bus stations in each province. Schedules and prices are usually chalked up on a board inside the terminal. Sometimes travelers are not allowed on these buses or preference is given to locals getting a seat.
|Route||Duration (hr)||Price (CUC$)||Stopping at...|
|Havana–Holguín||10½||44||Santa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas|
|Havana–Santiago de Cuba||15½||51||Entronque de Jaguey, Santa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín, Bayamo|
|Havana–Trinidad||6||25||Entronque de Jaguey, Cienfuegos|
|Havana–Varadero||3||10||Matanzas, Varadero Airport|
|Havana–Viñales||3¼||12||Pinar del Río|
|Santiago de Cuba–Baracoa||4¾||15||Guantánamo|
|Trinidad–Santiago de Cuba||12||33||Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín, Bayamo|
|Trinidad–Varadero||6||20||Cárdenas, Colón, Entronque de Jaguey, Cienfuegos|
|Varadero–Santiago de Cuba||16||49||Cárdenas, Colón, Santa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín, Bayamo|
Reservations with Víazul are necessary during peak travel periods (June to August, Christmas and Easter) and on popular routes (Havana–Trinidad, Trinidad–Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba–Baracoa). You can usually book a day or two beforehand.
The Víazul bus out of Baracoa is almost always booked, so reserve a seat on this service when you arrive. It is now possible to make reservations online at www.viazul.com if you register with the site. However, like all Cuban websites, it is prone to 'crashing.'
Renting a car in Cuba is easy, but once you've factored in gas, insurance, hire fees etc, it isn't cheap. Prices vary with car size, season, and length of rental. Bank on paying an average of CUC$70 per day for a medium-sized car. It's actually cheaper to hire a taxi for distances of under 150km (at the time of writing taxis were charging CUC$0.55 per kilometer for intercity routes).
Your home license is sufficient to rent and drive a car in Cuba.
Gas sold in convertibles (as opposed to peso gas) is widely available in stations all over the country (the north coast west of Havana being the notable exception). Gas stations are often open 24 hours and may have a small parts store on site. Gas is sold by the liter and comes in regular (CUC$1 per liter) and especial (CUC$1.20 per liter) varieties. Rental cars are advised to use especial. All gas stations have efficient pump attendants, usually in the form of trabajadores sociales (students in the process of studying for a degree).
Rental cars come with a required CUC$15 to CUC$30 per day insurance, which covers everything but theft of the radio (store in the trunk at night) and tires.
If you do have an accident, you must get a copy of the denuncia (police report) to be eligible for the insurance coverage, a process which can take all day. If the police determine that you are the party responsible for the accident, say adiós to your deposit.
Renting a car in Cuba is straightforward. You'll need your passport, driver's license and a refundable deposit of between CUC$150 and CUC$250 (cash or credit card). You can rent a car in one city and drop it off in another for a reasonable fee, which is handy. If you're on a tight budget, ask about diesel cars – some agencies stock a few and you'll save bundles in gas money. 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 contracts for three days or more come with unlimited kilometers. In Cuba, you pay for the first tank of gas when you rent the car 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). You will not be refunded for any gas left in the tank.
Petty theft of mirrors, antennas, taillights etc is common, so it's worth it to pay someone a convertible or two to watch your car for the night. 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$3 per day 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 that there are seatbelts and that all the doors lock properly.
We have received many letters about poor or 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 for 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 have a Plan B.
Driving here isn't just a different ballpark, it's a different sport. The first problem is that there are no signs – almost anywhere. Major junctions and turnoffs to important resorts or cities are often not indicated at all. Not only is this distracting, it's also incredibly time-consuming. The lack of signage also extends to highway instructions. Often a one-way street is not clearly indicated or a speed limit not highlighted, which can cause problems with the police (who won't understand your inability to telepathically absorb the road rules), and road markings are nonexistent everywhere.
The Autopista, Vía Blanca and Carretera Central are generally in a good state, but be prepared for roads suddenly deteriorating into chunks of asphalt and unexpected railroad crossings everywhere else (especially in the Oriente). Rail crossings are particularly problematic, as there are hundreds of them and there are never any safety gates. Beware: however overgrown the rails may look, you can pretty much assume that the line is still in use. Cuba's trains, rather like its cars, defy all normal logic when it comes to mechanics.
While motorized traffic is refreshingly light, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, horse carriages and livestock are a different matter. Many old cars and trucks lack rearview mirrors and traffic-unaware children run out of all kinds of nooks and crannies. Stay alert, drive with caution and use your horn when passing or on blind curves.
Driving at night is not recommended due to variable roads, drunk drivers, crossing cows and poor lighting. Drunk-driving remains a troublesome problem despite a government educational campaign. Late night in Havana is particularly dangerous, as it seems there's a passing lane, cruising lane and drunk lane.
Traffic lights are often busted or hard to pick out and right-of-way rules are thrown to the wind. Take extra care.
Cubans drive how they want, where they want. It seems chaotic at first, but it has its rhythm. Seatbelts are supposedly required and maximum speed limits are technically 50km/h in the city, 90km/h on highways and 100km/h on the Autopista, but some cars can't even go that fast and those that can, go faster still.
With so few cars on the road, it's hard not to put the pedal to the floor and just fly. Unexpected potholes are a hazard, however, and watch out for police. There are some clever speed traps, particularly along the Autopista. Speeding tickets start at CUC$30 and are noted on your car contract; the fine is deducted from your deposit when you return the car. When pulled over by the police, you're expected to get out of the car and walk over to them with your paperwork. An oncoming car flashing its lights means a hazard up ahead (and usually the police).
The Cuban transportation crisis means there are a lot of people waiting for rides by the side of the road. Giving a botella (a lift) to local hitchhikers has advantages aside from altruism. With a Cuban passenger you'll never get lost, you'll learn about secret spots, and you'll meet some great people. There are always risks associated with picking up hitchhikers; giving lifts to older people or families may reduce the risk factor. In the provinces, people waiting for rides are systematically queued by the amarillos (roadside traffic organizers), and they'll hustle the most needy folks into your car, usually an elderly couple or a pregnant woman.
While you cannot count on spare parts per se to be available, Cubans have decades of experience keeping old wrecks on the road without factory parts and you'll see them do amazing things with cardboard, string, rubber and clothes hangers to keep a car mobile.
If you need air in your tires or you have a puncture, use a gas station or visit the local ponchero. They often don't have measures, so make sure they don't overinflate them.
Rent a Car & Driver
Sure, there’s not a lot of traffic on the roads, but driving in Cuba isn’t as easy as many people think, especially when you factor in teetering bicyclists, baseball-chasing children, galloping horses, pedestrians with limited or no peripheral vision, and – worst of all – a serious lack of signposts.
To avoid hassle, you can hire both a comfortable, modern car and a driver with a growing number of companies, most notably Car Rental Cuba.
The most important ferry services for travelers are the catamaran from Surgidero de Batabanó to Nueva Gerona, Isla de la Juventud, and the passenger ferry from Havana to Regla and Casablanca. These ferries are generally safe, though in 1997 two hydrofoils crashed en route to Isla de la Juventud. In both 1994 and 2003, the Regla/Casablanca ferry was hijacked by Cubans trying to make their way to Florida. The 2003 incident involved tourists, so you can expect tight security.
The transportation crisis, culture of solidarity and low crime levels make Cuba a popular hitchhiking destination. Here, hitchhiking is more like ride-sharing, and it's legally enforced. Traffic lights, railroad crossings and country crossroads are regular stops for people seeking rides.
In the provinces and on the outskirts of Havana, the amarillos (official state-paid traffic supervisors, so-named for their mustard yellow uniforms) organize and prioritize ride seekers, and you're welcome to jump in line. Rides cost five to 20 pesos depending on distance. Travelers hitching rides will want a good map and some Spanish skills. Expect to wait two or three hours for rides in some cases.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don't recommend it. Travelers who decide to hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitchhike will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Public railways operated by Ferrocarriles de Cuba serve all of the provincial capitals and are a unique way to experience Cuba, as long as you have the patience of a saint and the stamina of a prize fighter.
Old trains and fuel shortages set you up for delays. Travelers report long delays, non-functional bathrooms, police removing passengers for on-board offenses and other passengers having fits or getting kicked off. It is not for the faint of heart. Cubans who have the budget to travel by other means do so.
The departure information provided is purely theoretical. Getting a ticket is usually no problem, as there's a quota for tourists paying in convertibles.
Foreigners must pay for their tickets in cash, but prices are reasonable and the carriages, though old and worn, are fairly comfortable. The toilets are foul – bring toilet paper. Watch your luggage on overnight trips and bring your own food. Only the Tren Francés has snack facilities, although vendors often come through the train selling coffee (you supply the cup).
For Cuban train times and types, consult The Man in Seat Sixty-One (www.seat61.com), run by Mark Smith in the UK.
At time of research the Estación Central of Havana was closed until mid-2018 for renovation. In the meantime, most departures are leaving through the La Coubre station.
Cuba's Train Services from Havana
The following information is liable to changes or cancellations. Always check ahead.
|Pinar del Río||71||every other day|
|Bayamo||13||every 4th day|
|Guantánamo||15||every 4th day|
|Santiago de Cuba||5, 11, 12||every 4th day|
|Matanzas||5, 7, 15||every 4th day|
|Manzanillo||28||every 4th day|
|Cienfuegos||73||every other day|
|Santa Clara||5, 7, 9, 15||every 4th day|
|Camagüey||5, 15||every 4th day|
|Sancti Spíritus||7||every other day|
Cuban train stations, despite their occasionally grandiose facades, are invariably dingy, chaotic places with little visible train information. Departure times are displayed on black chalkboards or handwritten notices; there are no electronic or printed timetables. Always check train info two to three days before your intended travel.
Trains are either especial (air-conditioned, faster trains with fewer departures), regular (slowish trains with daily departures) or lecheros (milk trains that stop at every little town on the line). Trains on major routes such as Havana–Santiago de Cuba will be especial or regular trains.
Regular trains cost under CUC$3 per 100km, while especial trains cost closer to CUC$5.50 per 100km. The Hershey Train (between Havana and Matanzas) is priced like the regular trains.
In most train stations, you just go to the ticket window and buy a ticket. In La Coubre train station in Havana, there's a separate waiting room and ticket window for passengers paying in convertibles. Be prepared to show your passport when purchasing tickets. It's always wise to check beforehand at the station for current departures because things change.
Cuba's train network is comprehensive, running almost the full length of the main island from Guane in Pinar del Río province to Caimanera, just south of the city of Guantánamo. There are also several branch lines heading out north and south and linking up places such as Manzanillo, Nuevitas, Morón and Cienfuegos. Baracoa is one of the few cities without a train connection. Other trainless enclaves are the Isla de la Juventud, the far west of Pinar del Río province and the northern keys. Trinidad has been detached from the main rail network since a storm brought down a bridge in 1992. Trinidad's small branch line along the Valle del los Ingenios was under repair at the time of writing.
Many additional local trains operate at least daily and some more frequently. There are also smaller trains linking Las Tunas and Holguín, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara and Nuevitas, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spíritus, and Santa Clara and Caibarién.
The Hershey Train is the only electric railway in Cuba and was built by the Hershey Chocolate Company in the early years of the 20th century; it's a fun way to get between Havana and Matanzas.
Camiones (trucks) are a cheap, fast way to travel within or between provinces. Every city has a provincial and municipal bus stop with camiones departures. They run on a (loose) schedule and you'll need to take your place in line by asking for el último to your destination; you pay as you board. For many destinations, the majority of departures leave in the early morning.
Camion traveling is hot, crowded and uncomfortable, but is a great way to meet local people, fast; a little Spanish will go a long way. A truck from Santiago de Cuba to Guantánamo costs five pesos (CUC$0.20), while the same trip on a Víazul bus costs CUC$6.
Sometimes terminal staff tell foreigners they're prohibited from traveling on trucks. As with anything in Cuba, smile and never take 'no' as your final answer. Striking up a conversation with the driver or appealing to other passengers for aid usually helps.