As I am planning a new trip, I’m thinking about my trip to Cuba. I was so excited about all the new things, the different culture, the strange smells. When I read about all the modes of transportation I have got to look forward to, I think this upcoming trip might be a lot like Cuba in that sense. Although early in the trip I felt quite glamorous, cruising down the highway in a big American car, that soon changed and only seemed to get smaller, more crowded and less comfortable. I’ve used at least ten different modes of transportation, all with it’s own charm or adventure.
A good way to get around is the Viazul bus. This bus company started as a way for tourists to get around, because some of the other buses are not allowed to take tourists (doesn’t mean they don’t try to take you). Buses are comfortable and mine never broke down or had freezing airconditioning, which I’d read about before I left. There are a few annoying things about travelling with Viazul though. If the bus stops, which on some routes is a lot and on others is not enough, you stop at a place designed to get you to pay premium prices on food and other things. The only good thing about stopping is that you get to use the toilet, since the onboard toilets are generally not working. Also, even though I wasn’t travelling in the peak season, some routes were sold out, so you have to do a little bit of planning. From my experience, get your tickets early for the following routes:
- Baracoa – Santiago de Cuba (in both directions)
- Trinidad – Santiago de Cuba and all stops in between
- Varadero – Vinales
You can get to the major destinations by bus, although sometimes the bus station is well away from the center of town, such as in Santa Clara and Camaguey. If you compare the price of the bus plus the taxi to get to the station, you are often better off taking a collectivo (shared taxi). In Havana, the station is further away, with taxi costs easily reaching 10CUC, especially if it’s early in the morning or late at night, when prices increase. Coming into Havana from Varadero is less of a problem, since the bus stops twice before the actual station to let people off.
Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Baracoa, Vinales, Playa Larga and Varadero have stations within walking distance of casas.
Every town has plenty of taxi drivers yelling from the corner. If there’s one word you’ll get sick of it’s taxi. They are full of promises. Yes it is a big car. Yes it will fit everyone’s luggage. Yes. Yes. Yes. We had the rule that if the collectivo price is within 3CUC of the bus price, it’s a good deal. In hindsight, I think it’s a good deal depending on the car and the distance. If it’s a long distance, ask to see the car they’ll be using and don’t be afraid to negotiate. If one person says no, another might say yes. This is how I got the price of an overly expensive taxi from 15CUC to 6CUC in Havana.
Like I said, at the start of my trip I thought collectivos were amazing. I hadn’t given them much thought and then I ended up sitting on the bouncy back seat of the most beautiful American Ford from Vinales to Havana. I couldn’t believe my luck! Straight away I’d ticked one thing of my bucket list without paying the crazy Havana prices for a ride along the Malecon in an old car. One of the travellers was reading on her Kindle in the front seat and our driver was just mesmerized, not knowing what a Kindle was. As soon as we got to the highway, he stopped the car on the side, walked to his trunk and took a sip from a bottle wrapped in a towel. Hmmm… Rum? Back on the road we kept bouncing on the backseat to the beat of Spanish songs and reggeaton.
Driving in Cuba is a strange experience. There is hardly anyone on the roads. Even if the road has two or three lanes, the drivers will drive wherever they want, mostly to avoid the obstacles and pot holes. Along the road you see lots of groups of people wanting a ride, especially under the, sometimes half finished, bridges. They get into big trucks, stuffed full of people. When our driver wasn’t sure if he had enough room to pass, a loud honking would start. Then I saw an arm coming out of the window of the car in front of us, waving us through, not moving aside one bit. On our way I’ve seen cars in all states of disrepair. Some without a driver side door. If you get a ride in an old American car though, they are usually well taken care of. They are the pride of the family.
Unfortunately we were never so lucky again to get a big Ford as our taxi. I ended up on a day trip in a little box they call a Lada, with three of my friends. I had the best day, but the comfort levels went way down. A lack of planning got me taking a ride with some Cubans in a rental car to Santa Clara. I paid way too much for this discomfort and would have much preferred the Viazul for this ride. At this stage I thought I had seen it all, but then the smallest Peugeot in the world showed up to take us to Varadero. I was crammed in the back with two other tall European girls. I felt pins and needles in my legs, but couldn’t move to change it. Let’s just say you have to be a bit lucky with your collectivos.
I always try to walk as much as I can, but after a day of walking in the blazing sun, you sometimes want to make it easy on yourself, so you can survive the next day as well. In the cities you’ll have a choice of all sorts of taxis, from regular ones to moto- and cocotaxis. In smaller towns you can end up in anything, since everyone wants to make a bit of money. After hiking in Vinales, I ended up taking a ride with a farmer who had a horse with a small cart on two wheels. It was a bit of a balancing act, but eventually he took the three of us to the edge of town. He wanted us to pay more for the center of town, the cheeky farmer.
A few words of advice
- A little bit of planning will get you the most comfortable option.
- For long distances, a bus is more comfortable than a taxi, unless you get a big car that’s not overcrowded.
- Pack snacks and water for every drive. Although you might run into salesmen or cheap snack shacks, you might be stuck on a bus for hours without a stop.
- Always negotiate and don’t be afraid to say no!
- Don’t pay collectivos in advance. You pay when they show up.
- If your luggage needs to go on the roof, make sure you put your rain coat on it.
- Viazul sometimes charges for luggage.
- Viazul does not have assigned seats, so make sure you are early if you want to sit next to your friends/family.
- Cuba has trains, which makes for a great, alhough uncomfortable, experience. I didn’t end up doing this for lack of time. The trains don’t go every day and mostly take longer than the buses. Also, I found the train station confusing before I found the really helpful lady at the information desk.
- You can also use the big trucks the locals use in some places. It might be a bit harder to find out where they are going, but it will save you a lot of money.
- Take toilet paper and small change for toilet breaks.