Getting around in Cuba is probably the most difficult thing you’ll need to deal in the country.
From the airport there’s no public bus, just taxis and tour buses, just ask around, negotiate prices, but is not easy to get a good deal, due to the lack of options. We got a place in a transfer minivan that was going to an all-inclusive in Varadero that left us in Matanzas (our first stop) for $30CUC each. The taxis were asking for $80CUC each :O
To go from city to city, most tourists catch Viazul buses. They have schedules but get fully booked very quickly. Booking and get your tickets at least the day before is highly advisable. We haven’t done that so that means we were only able to catch 2 Viazul buses during the whole month.
We end up travelling by taxi (taxi collectivo), and truck (camiones), most of the time.
Travelling by taxi collectivo involves always lots of negotiation, but we always stick to the price of the Viazul tickets and said no to any other prices. A couple of times we paid less than the Viazul ticket. Locking in a specific price is the key. A collectivo is a shared private car.
The truck charges everyone on board a set price in MN (moeda nacional – Cuban Peso CUP). It is extremely crowded, hot and uncomfortable, but its an absolute bargain, just as a reference from Guantanamo to Barracoa (a 5h trip- around 150km) is 30 CUP (around $1.10 pp)
Inside the localities, using the guaguas (public bus) is a great option (1CUP /pp is the price across the country and doesn’t matter where you’re going) and again don’t ask for the price just give the 1CUP and keep walking.
Bicycle Taxis are another option, they normally have two fares, around 5 CUP for short distances and 10 CUP for long distances, but expect to be asked a price in CUC, especially in the more touristic cities.
When using Cuban public transports don’t ask many questions, observe the locals and do what they do, and also works better if you always have change.
Renting a bike is also a great option in some places like Barracoa and Trinidad, it costs 3-5CUC. Boat, horseback riding and horse cart are also incredibly common and popular among locals.
Renting a car in Cuba is possible, and probably the best option to discover Cuba. With your own transport, you can easily get off the beaten path and visit places that see no other tourists. But unfortunately isn’t cheap. When I looked up the prices for renting an economy car for a minimum period of 14 days was 60 CUC per day. So you will be always looking at a minimum of $50 CUC per day.
Just forget about it, that’s the best thing to do, but if you are like me that likes to have internet at least any other day, you can have it but it will challenge your patience. Internet isn’t available everywhere, wifi spots are normally available in the large public parks.
To get online you need to buy an internet scratch-card from ETECSA (1.50CUC for one hour). In the more touristic places, we came across some scams, when you go to the ETECSA and the security person at the door will say that they run off internet cards (tarjetas) and there are people selling cards in the street for 3CUC (the double). When this happens, you know you can’t really win, so we just didn’t buy the internet cards there. It’s always a good solution to stock up some cards when you find them at the correct price.
The ETECSA office is normally a blue building near the plazas that have Wi-Fi, they will have definitely a queue where you will wait in line for at least 20 minutes. Always ask who is the last person in the line because they don’t put themselves in order (qué es lo ultimo?) and wait for your turn. Cubans always queue outside.
??Challenges and Scams
Lack of internet = no Google Maps = no reviews from places = no answer to any questions
So do your research in advance, have an app with offline maps like Galileo Maps or Maps.me (both have offline maps of Cuba) and a small guide with maps.
If you don’t speak Spanish, your journey will be incredibly more difficult, so start learning some basics and if take a small dictionary if you don’t speak any Spanish.
Cuba is a safe place to travel, but full with scammers (jineteros) 🙂 Especially around the more tourist spots, please, please do some research and make sure you read about the most common scams. Fortunately, we didn’t end up in any, but I can’t count how many tourists we saw being tricked. Even though not much harm comes from them (despite losing some money) they can impact negatively your whole experience.
The disparity between the CUP (the Cuban peso) and the CUC (the tourist currency) is so big, that means that who makes money in CUC have a lot more compared with the others. Taxi drivers and casa owners make more money in a day than a doctor (the highest-paid government position in Cuba). In the more touristic areas, you will be approached constantly by people who want to offer you something, like taxi, restaurant, cigars, cases (rooms), drugs, tours, souvenirs, internet cards or lead you to a supposed good, authentic and cheap place for music, food or drinks. Ignoring is an option or say “no” politely, which can be annoying and time-consuming because they don’t give up easily. Remember that doesn’t matter how friendly they are it will be a scam.
Something else can be a challenge mostly for solo female travellers, catcalling looks like a ‘national sport’ in Cuba and I found it quite bothersome. It’s overwhelming the harassment and (bad) attention women can get from Cuban men. If you don’t want a company you have to be firm when you answer them, or just ignore and keep walking, (I know that sounds rude, but there are a lot of scam artists approaching women).
When to visit Havana
In my personal opinion, it’s better to visit Havana at the end of your trip, and two-three days are enough, out of the capital you can explore other less crowded, cheaper and more authentic towns. And also you will be prepared for all the tourist harassment.
Apart from the basics, like money, passport, light clothes, flip-flops, bathing suit, etc.. a few other things you can’t miss, because they will be practically impossible to find and even if you do they are extremely expensive:
- Sunscreen (plenty of it)
- moisturizer and/or after sun
- basic First Aid Kit
- Toothpaste, Toothbrush
- feminine hygiene products
- wet wipes and/or tissues
- hand sanitiser
- Plug adaptor
If you understand Spanish going to the Cinema or Theatre can be a great plan for an evening. Out of Havana a ticket costs between 5 to 10 CUP. Concerts and performances are also a must-see, and they do happen everywhere all the time.
Art galleries and Art studios are also not to be missed, there are many artists in Cuba, and they are happy to welcome you to their space and talk about their work. There is also a museum but nothing memorable.
Cuba can be a frustrating, confusing and a challenging country to visit, but also a wonderful place at the same time.
If you’re planning a trip to Cuba I hope you found this post useful, If you have visited Cuba already I would love to hear your experiences and stories!!
photography – all rights reserved – Ana Rocha
Read – Part 1 for information about money and prices, where to stay, eat and drink!