Transport in Cuba

At the end of our three weeks in Cuba we had clocked up over 2600km of inter-city travel. It is a lot, and as the scenery is nothing to write home about, it adds to the feeling of “Is that it?” as mentioned in my first post.

Viazul

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In the original plan Viazul was to be our one and only means of travel. However we ended up using a few taxis (private or shared) for various reasons – see the sections about the places we visited for more detail.

One of the good things about Viazul is that you can check fare and timetable details on their website. You can even book your tickets there, but we did not push our luck that far.

From all the guidebooks and other sources of information you would get the impression that Viazul runs a network dedicated to foreign tourists. This is not quite the case. Anyone who can afford the fare is allowed on the bus, which means that in general there are at least as many Cubans as foreigners on the bus. It also means that there is a lot of competition for the tickets! We booked most of our tickets in advance once we were in Cuba, but we did not get onto the Viñales to Cienfuegos bus (with 3 days’ notice) nor on the Varadero to Havana bus (with 2 days’ notice). Most buses we did get on had at most a couple of free seats left.

Where the guidebooks do get it right, is about the temperature. The aircon is at full blast, which during the day is not much of a problem, as the sun manages to heat the bus anyway. But after sunset it really is freezing cold in there. Be aware of it before taking an overnight bus.

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Those guys knew what was waiting for them!

The video “entertainment” is a bit of hit-and-miss. Its main interest is in occupying the co-driver. If he wants to rest, you’re lucky. If not, you might get 3 action films in a row with the sound at full level so that nobody misses a syllable from the highly interesting conversations.

Our first Viazul experience was from Trinidad to Camagüey, leave at 8am, arrive at around 2pm. There was a lunch stop between Ciego de Ávila and Florida at a nice wayside parador. We assumed that this would be standard practice, but it never happened again, on any of the subsequent stretches. Sometimes you stop only at bus stations at intermediate stops, where you may have anything from 5 minutes to half an hour to go to the toilet and chase a sandwich (for which you usually need to get out of the bus station into the “real world”). Sometimes you will stop in the middle of nowhere at a food stall on the side of the road. It is unpredictable and seems to depend only on the mood of the driver and on what people he knows.

As a regular passenger you can only get on and off a Viazul bus at the bus station. But some Cubans board and alight wherever they like. As a foreigner it is impossible to understand. Sometimes a lot of people are waving at the bus to get a lift, but they get systematically ignored. Yet a bit further on someone will be quietly waiting and the driver stops and picks them up. Go figure it out!

Procedure

To get on the bus the standard procedure is:

  • buy your ticket as much in advance as you are comfortable with
  • be at the bus station an hour before scheduled departure (in some places they only require half an hour)
  • check yourself in: you exchange your ticket to a boarding slip (which mentions a seat number, just for fun – it does not correspond to any actual seat on the bus)
  • check in your luggage; you get a luggage tag for it which you will have to show to get your luggage back on arrival
  • get on the bus and find yourself a nice seat
  • give your boarding slip to the driver. Yo now have absolutely no proof anymore that you have paid to go from A to B (but this never caused a problem)

Checking in the luggage is quite common, but not universal. In Camagüey everybody just throws his own luggage in the boot. We checked in ours and had to chase it or it would have stayed there for ever.

When you get off the bus, have the luggage tag ready, they usually do check you do not take someone else’s bag.

Upon arrival you are in the quiet world of the bus station, which is nice. You do not have to worry about any kind of jineteros that want to get you a nice room or a taxi ride. They are at the exit of the bus station (and the door is guarded to keep them out). So take a deep breath and pop out into the real world.

Other buses

Sometimes there are alternative buses, the Conectando network. However it is difficult to find out about them.

I found a timetable here. Note that it does not say what days of the week or what period of the year it runs. Nor does it say where it picks up or sets down.

The only time we used one was between Varadero and Havana and we got the ticket through Cubatur. The price was 25€, compared to the 15€ for the Viazul bus (which was full). The bus was more comfy than the Viazul bus though.

Buses for Cubans

There is a network of blue buses, the “Omnibus Nacionales”, some more modern than the Viazul buses, others somewhat worn out. We never tried to get on any of them, so I have no tips for you here.

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An original “pick-up” bus at Guantanamo

And the really basic ones, we just took the pictures…

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Standard local buses in Viñales

Taxis

Many people start with the idea of going by Viazul and end up taking taxis instead. We did the same for part of the trip.

The main reasons for not taking Viazul are that there are no more tickets available or that you get fed up with the loss of time. It takes time to buy the ticket, you have to go to the bus station (which may be quite a trek out of town), you have to be there an hour before departure, and once you are on the road it takes ages to get to your destination – I calculated an average 50km/h including stops.

Taxis are a lot faster, they pick you up at the place you are staying and they set you down wherever you ask them to. Besides, they are not necessarily more expensive than the bus. Usually the price works out at around that of 4 bus tickets, so if there are 4 of you it really is a no-brainer.

Then you have the colectivos, shared taxis. The ones they use for tourists usually take 4 passengers (you can get a few more Cubans in there if you try), so it is rather comfortable. You can try to find other people going the same way to fill the car, or sometimes it will be arranged for you. Our colectivo from Havana was arranged by our casa, and the one from Viñales by Cubatur.

Car rental

Car rental is expensive. Count on 70€ per day, plus the insurance (20€ per day) plus the fuel plus the stress of driving. From a cost point of view there really is no reason to rent a car in Cuba.

You could argue you have the freedom of the road. But in reality people in rental cars end up doing the same things as the other ones, except they arrive tired.

You could argue you have more comfort (except the driver). Maybe, but a taxi is not more expensive, you can agree on side trips and extra stops, you can do local excursions with them and above all: the days you do not need them, you don’t pay them.

If you really want your own wheels permanently available, an interesting option could be a car with driver. We met a couple with 2 children who had their own vintage American car with driver, which cost them 100€ per day, all inclusive. The kids loved it. I should add that other people doubted you can get a car at that price, they had paid more like 120-150€ per day.

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