The bus is the most popular way of getting around the island. There are two long-distance bus lines, Viazul, which is generally for tourists and Astro, which is generally for locals. Shorter distances are served by local provincial buses.
Víazul is Cuba’s main bus line for tourists and is the most comfortable choice of public transportation to tour the island. Viazul run modern air-conditioned long-distance coaches with washrooms to most places of interest. The buses are reliable and punctual as there is little traffic in Cuba. The buses sometimes take detours or make pauses along the route, especially at road-side restaurants or local souvenir or food shops.
The buses can be used theoretically by anyone – and they seem to be “filled up” by the Cubans, if there are empty seats by the time of departure (likely for much lower than tourist fare).
Reservations can be made in advance on their website, but this is typically only necessary when leaving from or going to popular destinations in high season. Reservations can also be made at a Viazul ticket office (usually located at or near the place where the buses stop). The reservations need to be exchanged for bus tickets in advance (as of 2015) at the ticket office.
If the bus is full, it’s very likely that you’ll be offered a ride in a shared taxi for the same price as the bus. If there are no shared taxis going to your destination, the ticket salesperson will likely advise you to arrive half an hour before the time of departure and wait for a late cancellation. If there is a late cancellation, you will be allowed to purchase a ticket from the bus driver.
Schedules for Viazul can be accessed on their website. As internet is hard to come by in Cuba, it is recommended you download or print the bus schedules in advance. A useful one-page schedule of Viazul buses can be found on the Cuba-Individual website. Refreshments are not served on the bus but the buses stop for meal breaks at highway restaurants along the way. The buses are often overly air-conditioned, so bring along something warm to wear.
Astro is the main bus line for Cubans. Astro has renewed their fleet with 300 new Chinese coaches that are as comfortable as Viazul (without the washroom). Although the new buses have proven to be unreliable and often break down, they are still better than the old buses that Astro used to run. Astro has a much more extensive network then Viazul and tickets are considerably cheaper. Officially, Astro bus tickets can only be sold to Cubans and foreigner students who are studying in Cuba (and have a Cuban student ID card to prove it). However, many foreign travellers have reported being able to purchase an Astro bus ticket. Your ability to purchase a ticket will depend on your vendor, fluency in Spanish and whether the destination is covered by Viazul. Astro buses normally depart from the same place as where Viazul departs.
There are also local provincial buses that serve local destinations such as neighbouring provinces (for example from Santiago you can use these buses to get to Bayamo or Guantanamo). These buses are often overcrowded and are usually old (pre-1960s) Eastern European vehicles. Each town will have a “terminal terrestre” where these buses will depart from and are usually quite easy to find (e.g. La Habana it is found in the Lido whilst in Santiago it is found on Calle 4).
Local buses are cheap with rides never costing more than 1-2 CUC for long journeys (as opposed to 5-10 CUP for locals). Queues are lengthy (it is best to arrive in the early hours of the morning, or alternatively give the chauffeur a tip to allow you to jump the queue) and you should always say that you are a student, as tourists are forbidden from using this transport.
By shared taxi (collectivos):
A popular alternative to travelling by bus is to use shared taxis or collectivos. These consist of either modern or old vehicles that carry 3 to 5 passengers (depending on the size of the car). The main advantage of a collectivo is they will take you all the way to your hotel or casa for a similar price to a Viazul bus ticket. They are also usually faster, stop at cheaper highway restaurants and give you an opportunity to meet locals.
The easiest way of purchasing a ride in a shared taxi is to simply arrive at a long distance main bus station and look for the next available taxi going to your destination. There will be a number of touts trying to sell you a seat in their colleagues taxi so finding a car is fairly easy. The taxi only leaves once the car has reached its capacity so try and find one that already has a number of people confirmed to reduce your waiting time. The best time to catch a collectivo is in the morning as this is when most of the locals travel and therefore will maximise your chances of finding a taxi going to your destination. Prices for a collectivo are about the same as for an equivalent Viazul bus ticket. Be sure to negotiate a price before hopping in the car.
Another option is to reserve a share taxi in advance at a tourist information desk. These desks are usually located near a Viazul bus station and they will reserve a seat a taxi for the day of your departure. These taxis will only run if the taxi is full so be sure to check there are enough passengers confirmed for the transit. If the taxi is not full and you must travel that day, be prepared to pay for the empty seats otherwise the taxi will not go.
Some share taxis operate illegally and if the driver is stopped by the police, you may have to get out of the car and you will be left stranded in the middle of nowhere.
You will find an unusually large number of old U.S.-made cars on the street. Popularly known as “Yank Tanks,” these are pre-revolution imports from the 1950s that have been nursed along for half a century, because the Soviet-made cars available during the Cold War were too scarcely allocated for most Cubans to buy (and other cars remain too expensive today).
In Cuba, all vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road.
Car rental starts from CUC 65 per day (including insurance) plus the cost of a full tank of gasoline. The refundable deposits start around CUC 200. Rental cars are for the most part fairly new, imported European or Asian models. You can rent cars from any Cubacar outlet. Any traffic tickets received are noted on a rental car sheet and are deducted from your rental deposit. If you are involved in a serious traffic accident involving injury or death, you will be detained in Cuba until the legal process sorts things out. This leaves travellers stuck in Cuba from several months to a year while collisions await trial – even if the visitor is not at fault or was just a passenger at the time of collision. For this reason, many countries advise their citizens not to rent cars in Cuba. Beware of scams regarding the cost of insurance. There is only one type of insurance policy covering everything (except for radio and tires) and the price varies only depending on the car type (details in the “Stay safe” section). Attentively check the contract and be sure you have a receipt for every CUC you pay.
Busier roads and city streets are generally of fair (drivable) quality and should not pose much trouble if due care is exercised, however some quiet rural roads are in need of serious repair.
Generally traffic is light, especially away from Havana. Outside of towns and cities traffic is usually very light, with no cars for miles on some rural roads. Be warned – you also share the highways with local salespeople selling cheese and snacks, cyclists (sometimes going the wrong way, and at night usually without lights) and horse-drawn vehicles. The Autopista (the main highway running down the center of the country) is crossed at occasional intervals by railway tracks – take care to slow down before going over to avoid damage to the tires or suspension. Many of these have a stop sign (“PARE” in Spanish) which you should carefully heed – or risk a fine of CUC 30, even if no train is coming.
Roads are poorly signposted (and frequently not at all), so if you plan to do serious driving, it would be well-advised to get a detailed map and ask for directions when not sure.
Many traffic lights, especially in cities, are placed on the FAR corner of the crossing, not where you are supposed to stop, thus appearing to invite you to stop in the middle of the intersection.
Cubans tend not to drive too quickly, and chances are you’ll be the fastest car on the road. In additional to random locations, speed limits are enforced at semi-permanent checkpoints. These are usually positioned at junctions and are signposted a few kilometres in advance. Most will require you to slow down to 40 km/h. Respect this or get fined 30 CUC.
There have been reports of scams involving purposely punctured tires: This can happen when you park your car in a touristic location and someone either punctures one of your tires or places some sharp object close to the tire so it gets punctured once you depart. Within a few hundred meters someone on the street will make you aware of the punctured tire and guide you to a place where other people will help you change the tire and may even offer to replace your tire at an elevated price.
Gasoline costs CUC 1.00/Regular, CUC 1.20/Special and 1.40/Super per litre. Tourist rental cars are not supposed to use regular.
The main train line in the country runs between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, with major stops at Santa Clara and Camagüey. Trains also run to other cities such as Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Morón, Sancti Spiritus, and Pinar del Rio.
There is one reliable train in Cuba: the overnight Tren Francés between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, which runs on alternate days. It uses equipment that used to be operated on the Trans-Europe Express, and donated to Cuba by France a few years ago (hence the name). There are first class and special first class seats on this train (the special seats are better and more expensive), but no sleepers. If only one train in Cuba is running, this will be it.
All other trains in Cuba are unreliable. The equipment is often in poor condition, breakdowns are common, and when they occur, you can be stuck for the better part of the day (or night) waiting for a replacement engine. There are no services on the trains, so bring plenty of food and water with you. Trains are frequently cancelled. Some trains offer first class seats (don’t expect too much); others have second class seats, which can be very uncomfortable. Schedules are at best optimistic and should always be checked in advance of travel. There are no sleepers on overnight routes.
If you are still thinking of taking a train, other than the Tren Francès, you should know that many Cubans prefer to hitchhike than take the train.
If you are still determined to take a train, approximate schedules are given under the different city descriptions. Foreigners must pay much higher fares (which is still very cheap) than the locals. Tickets are roughly two-thirds what Viazul charges. Theft is a problem so watch your luggage!
The fastest and most comfortable way to cover larger distances is on either of the Cuban airlines, Cubana de Aviación or Aerogaviota.
Calm roads and beautiful scenery make Cuba an ideal country for biking. Its already an incredible popular bike touring destination, both for group rides with bus support, and smaller, independent bike touring. In January – February, you can be confident you will come across at least a few bike tourers. If touring independently, you will have to bring your own bike as bikes suitable for trekking are not readily available in Cuba. Bike touring groups though will have bikes of moderate quality included in the package. Do not under any circumstances rent a bike (i.e. el Orbe in Havana) in Cuba as you will get a Chinese junker or something that will leave your backside raw.
Roads in most places in Cuba are reasonably paved. Large pot holes are common, so always stay alert. There’s also many roads that degrade to gravel in certain sections, so it may be a good idea to bring a mountain bike or bikes with reasonably thick wheels. Make sure to bring all spare parts you might need along the way, since they will not be available in Cuba. As casas particulares are available even in relatively small towns it is easy to plan an itinerary. In denser parts of the country (Central and Western Cuba), you can reasonably assume there will be accommodation every 20 km between large cities. Food for on the road can often be obtained locally for cheap Cuban Pesos, most small towns will have at least a sandwich or pizzzeria stall. Make sure to carry enough food (and water!) though, if travelling through more remote areas. Obtaining bottled water outside the major cities can be a definite problem. Pack iodine tablets as a safe alternative.
Bikers are often met with enthusiasm and interest; when taking a break you will often be approached by curious locals. You’ll get a lot Cubans offering to buy your bike, or asking if it’ll be left behind. It is possible to take bikes on a tourbus, like “Viazul”, to cover larger distances. Some Viazul bus routes will charge an extra 3 – 5 CUC for carrying the bike. It is also possible to take bikes on trains and even to hitch with bikes (wave some convertible pesos to approaching drivers to catch their attention).
For long tours, try and ride to the south-west to have a nice tail wind (for example, Havana to Viñales, a popular ~250 km ride).
There are two main island groups to explore along the southern shore of Cuba. Your sailing area from the two main bases, Cienfuegos or Trinidad incorporates the Canarreos Archipelago and the Juventud Islands or Jardines de la Reina Archipelago. Windward Islands.