Getting Around Cuba with Style and Efficiency

By Posted under tips+recs

There are lots of transportation options in Havana and throughout the island. Taxis will always be more efficient than buses and other transportation variations, but missing out on some of the more unusual and unique forms of travel would be missing out on an essential piece of Cuba. Plus, you can save lots of money if you’re willing to forgo the cab and have an adventure. Here’s a brief summation of your options and what each experience brings to the table.

Private Taxi

Private taxis charge in CUC — these cars are “modern” (from the 80’s forward) and usually have air conditioning. They are often yellow, but not always, and they will have a taxi sign either on top of the car or inside the windshield somewhere. A typical ride within the city is gong to be between 4-8 CUC during the day and a bit more at night. You can these cabs from anywhere, and if you have the cash, they are the most efficient way to get around. They are especially convenient for groups of 3 or 4, since prices don’t change with more people.

You can also hire a private taxi to drive you to other cities or even hire them for multi-day trips, though prices jump to around 150 to 200 or more per day. Drivers will often give you a business card with their cell phone number just in case you want to schedule a pick up/drop off at the airport or set up a day trip. If you like a cab driver, stick with them — they will appreciate the repeat business and will be more apt to go out of their way to make sure you have a good time. If you haven’t made a cab driver friend, you can schedule a transfer (airport or elsewhere) by calling Panataxi at +53 7555555 to make a reservation. If you don’t speak Spanish, your casa host will probably be happy to call for you — just ask.

Collective Taxi

Within Havana, collective taxis are recognizable by their age — they are almost always old American cars that can seat anywhere from 5 to 10 people. They typically travel along a set route, picking up and dropping off passengers as they go, with a set price of 10 pesos, or .50 CUC. Longer routes are sometimes priced at 1 CUC, and as a foreigner, sometimes the driver will ask you for 1 CUC or more. If you know which corner to wait on (ask a local), you can go from Central Park to Miramar/Playa via Centro Habana and Vedado, or to Playas del Este on the other side of the bay. If you’re staying in a casa particular in Havana, go to Linea or Calle 23 to hail a cab to Parque Central. The collective taxi experience should only be attempted if you speak decent Spanish and know at least vaguely where you are headed, as you will have to communicate with the driver and let them know when to drop you off. Also, be ready to squeeze into a potentially cramped, hot backseat with lots of other people, and none of the safety features of automobiles in the U.S.

Collective taxis also run between cities, shuttling foreign tourists between the most visited towns and usually leaving Havana in the morning to return in the evening. The best way to get one is to reserve ahead of time by asking your Cuban hosts if they know the number of a service that will pick you up at your casa particular. Many hosts use these services often with their guests, and will have a contact to make the reservation. Otherwise, you can go to the bus station and let the taxi drivers know where you’re headed and that you want to take a collective taxi. They wait for more people to show up who are going to the same city and the fare is split among everyone in the group. This maneuver doesn’t require Spanish but it does require a good deal of patience, and some ability to negotiate. Taxi drivers are often good hagglers, and can be quite persuasive. A collective taxi to Viñales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Matanzas, or Varadero will cost between 25 and 45 CUC.

Bus

The public bus service (guagua) in Havana has good coverage, but lacks the service to be a viable option for anyone but the most thrifty or adventurous of visitors to the city. What’s great about the bus is that it’s almost free — one ride costs the equivalent of less than one cent — but buses are often crowded, and often the waits are interminable. For the adventurous and/or broke who want to have a go, you’ll need to follow local etiquette when you arrive at a crowded stop with people already waiting: as you arrive, you establish your place in the cue by asking, to no one and everyone, “¿Quién es el ultimo para el…?” (Who is last person for the…?) for whichever bus line you’re planning to ride. Hopefully someone will respond, and then you’ll need to ask who they’re behind, at which point you’ve established your spot, and can find a place to sit while you wait. When the next person shows up, you’ll then be the person that raises your hand as the last person, and points to the person in front of you.

To get between cities on a bus, you’ll have to use the Víazul tourist bus system, which departs from Havana at the bus station in Nuevo Vedado. Buses often fill up by the day of, so one option is to reserve via the Víazul website beforehand, though the process is bug filled, requires registration, and is known to sometimes forget about sending a confirmation email, which you need to claim your reservation. If this happens, you can print out a receipt from your credit card and that will work. Bus prices are usually a bit cheaper than a collective taxi, so they’re the best deal. Service is the same as coach bus service anywhere in the world, and passengers are entirely foreigners, so there is nothing “Cuban” about the experience.

Bicitaxi

If you’re in Old Havana, or smaller towns throughout the island, you can often hail a bicitaxi for short rides. Some blast music from onboard speakers, others are decked out in various lights, styles and colors. Cubans will often utilize a bicitaxi service if they have lots of bags or a small child in tow, and otherwise riders tend to be older, since most trips are a matter of blocks, not miles, and the young and energetic tend to prefer to walk.

Cocotaxi

These three-wheeled buggies were introduced along with the new tourism push in the 1990s, and they continue to be a tacky, silly looking blight on the city. They are designed to attract tourists, and they charge the same or more than private taxis, but provide a markedly inferior experience. But if your thing is listening to a loud engine with the wind whipping past you as you putter down the Malecón, then by all means, have at it.

Train

The Central train station is a not-to-be-missed landmark in Havana — sampling its train service is not necessarily as important. Trains passing through most major cities and towns leave on a daily basis, but trains are notoriously late, prone to breakdowns, and otherwise uncomfortable and unreliable running on tracks in need of major repairs. It’s by far the cheapest way to get to other areas of the island, if you get there at all. On the other hand, for anyone looking for something different, a train ride to Santiago has adventure written all over it.

There is also an electric train that runs from Casablanca to Matanzas, stopping in Hershey (now called Camilo Cienfuegos), a town that was once entirely owned and operated by the famous chocolate company. It runs three times a day, is somewhat unreliable, and breaks down frequently, but if you’re looking for a manageable adventure or a cheap way to get to Matanzas, it’s a fun and fascinating experience.

“Pedir Botella”

If you’re car (or bus or train) breaks down or you find yourself far from a town or city with other transportation options, you can always “pedir botella” (ask for a bottle), the Cuban phrase for hitchhiking. Cuba is quite safe, especially in the countryside, and it is quite common for people to use this method regularly to get a ride to school or work in the morning. At one point during the extreme scarcities of the 1990s, drivers were legally required to pick up hitchhikers if they had room, and today the practice continues in areas where cars are in short supply. It’s quite normal to see people on the side of main roads in rural areas flagging down cars with a finger or a handful of bills, to show that they are willing to pay something to the driver to get where they’re going. If you’re looking for a purposefully inefficient way to see the island, or you get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, hitchhiking is a safe and very Cuban thing to do.

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