For independent travellers, Cuba is a fascinating place to explore. But what’s the best way to get around? Should you use the VIazul bus and taxis or get a car rental?
We’re sitting on the grass at Las Terrazas – the small biosphere community halfway between Havana and Viñales – waiting for our Viazul bus. An array of battered backpacks and weary travellers absentmindedly flicking through their phones is the only indication we’re at the bus stop.
As per the strict instructions from Viazul, we arrived 1 hour before the bus was due. Now 30 minutes past that time, we ask the most official-looking person if the bus is coming.
“This is Cuba” he smiles with a shrug.
We’ve been to Cuba twice now. The first time we got a car rental, the second time we used public transport. Despite our delay at Las Terrazas, the Viazul bus is generally a great way to get around – cheap and comfortable. Yet driving in Cuba offers the flexibility you might be looking for.
Here’s our advice on the best way of getting around Cuba.
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OPTION 1 / CAR RENTAL IN CUBA
We love a road trip. The ability to take off when we want and see things on our own schedule, is often worth the additional cost.
But renting a car in Cuba is a pretty hefty investment. One that goes directly into the government coffers thanks to their monopoly in the industry.
It’s also fraught with other frustrations and pitfalls. So it’s important to understand if the mental and financial cost is worth the extra freedom. Here’s our experience.
COSTS OF CAR RENTAL IN CUBA
While there may appear to be a number of different car rental companies in Cuba (REX, Havanauto, Cubacar and Via) they are in fact just different branding for the government-run monopoly. This lack of competition means high prices.
Standard Cuban car rental prices can vary dramatically across different seasons. In the low-season (May/Jun & Sep/Oct) expect to pay around US$70 a day for a manual economy. In the high-season expect to pay around US$90 for the same vehicle.
Unfortunately, the price of the car is just the start of the charges.
Compulsory CDW (collision damage waiver) and LDW (theft insurance) increase the price from US$10 to US$30. For a second driver add $US30 for the duration of the rental or $3 a day for longer rentals. For a different drop-off location add $US0.20 per km from where you picked it up.
All in all, depending on the extras you take, you’re looking at around US$90 per day for low season and US$110 per day for high season. Throw in the fuel you’ll need to see the island (about $US1.25 a litre) and renting a car in Cuba quickly becomes more expensive than most other destinations.
BOOKING A CAR RENTAL IN CUBA
The government monopoly doesn’t just ensure high prices, it also delivers limited choice, poor services and clunky booking processes. REX and Havana Autos, both have their own websites, but it’s better to book through Transtur or Cuba Travel Network. These are both aggregators with slightly better interfaces.
TUI Cars is one of the few non-Cuban entities that allows you to book a hire car in Cuba. While the stock of cars is still coming from the government-run ventures, you at least have access to a non-Cuban company should something go wrong. Their interface is much more user-friendly as well.
Due to the lack of cars, and especially in peak season, you should book months in advance. If the website is saying no availability play with the date and the pick-up location.
When it comes to picking up your rental car in Cuba, we’ve heard horror stories of people waiting up to 3 hours to get served. While this didn’t happen to us, knowing Cuba, it sounds plausible. Allow yourself plenty of time for those long queues.
Finally you must also have a credit card that works in Cuba (not from a US Bank) as a deposit (about $200) will be held on the card in case of an accident.
TIPS FOR DRIVING IN CUBA
With the booking formalities out of the way and the keys to your wheels in your hands. Here’s some other helpful information.
Navigation – 10 years ago on our first visit, driving in Cuba was a navigational challenge. On our last trip, we were delighted to see road signs. However, some smaller roads are still not signed and the lack of internet means you can’t look up where you’re going while on the road. So, it’s imperative you download your journey to off-line maps in either Google or Maps.me.
Road quality – The Castro brothers were keen on good roads, so the main highways are in decent shape. If you travel further east and off the beaten track, the quality of the roads definitely deteriorate. But, a regular 2 WD can be used on almost all the roads in Cuba. Just take it slowly in places.
Fuel Stations – Fuel stations are not frequent in Cuba. As you drive around Cuba, fill up regularly and don’t let the gauge drop much below half. If there’s a long queue for fuel it’s probably for a good reason, so join it.
Hitchhikers – Cars are still not common in Cuba, so hitchhiking is a popular mode of transport for locals. Sometimes it can feel a bit threatening if someone runs out on the road in front of you, but they’re just looking for a ride. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if you should pick someone up. We didn’t.
Parking – Given the lack of cars in Cuba, parking is rarely a problem. But in the cities and towns expect to have to pay someone to ‘supervise’ your car for $1 or $2 while it is parked. Unless you want to get into an argument, this is generally not negotiable.
Police – As with anywhere else, if you are involved in an accident which results in death or serious injury, it is possible you will be detained in Cuba until the investigation is finished. The extra challenge with Cuba is that the process may take a long time.
OPTION 2 / VIAZUL BUS, COLECTIVOS AND PRIVATE TAXIS
If car rental in Cuba seems like too much hassle, the other option is to make your way around using a combination of Cuba’s popular transport methods: the Viazul bus, a colectivo and private taxi.
The Cuban government runs a public bus service for tourists called Viazul. It covers an extensive network across the country and it’s generally reliable, relatively fast and air conditioned. Most of the buses are modern and it’s probably the most comfortable way to get around Cuba.
The bus stops every couple of hours for 20 minutes or so to grab a drink or meal and to use the toilets. You can buy tickets from the bus terminal, or from the easy to use website.
COSTS OF VIAZUL BUS
All prices for Viazul buses are on their website, but here are some examples:
Havana to Varadero – $10 per person | 3 hours
Havana to Viñales – $12 per person | 4 hours
Havana to Trinidad – $25 per perso | 8 hours
Havana to Santiago de Cuba – $51 per person | 16 hours
While Viazul is a comfortable reliable alternative to driving in Cuba, here are a few things you need to be aware of to ensure a smooth journey.
Reservations – The Viazul bus can get booked up in advance. Sometimes it’s possible to get a seat without a reservation and sometimes it’s not. Our suggestion would be to book your bus journeys in advance. If you’re being flexible with your time, at least try and book the bus a day or so out from your travel date. Otherwise, you run the risk of not getting a seat.
Exchanging online reservations – Once you have an online reservation, you need to exchange this at the bus stop for an actual ticket. You need to do this 1 hour before the bus leaves. This may seem like an unnecessary amount of time (and it probably is) but Viazul will give your ticket away to someone else if you haven’t claimed your ticket.
Destinations – The Viazul bus travels to most major cities and some of the best tourist destinations, but it does not offer comprehensive travel across Cuba. It is best to use it for long journeys and use each destination as a hub for exploring the local area using colectivos and private taxis. More about this later.
Timetable – Every Viazul route runs at least daily, with some of the more popular routes running 3 times a day. The problem with this schedule is that you can generally only do one route a day. Getting the bus to one destination then changing to a different route never really works out. So you need to plan your itinerary with this in mind.
Below is a map of the destinations on the Viazul bus route. A full and comprehensive timetable is available on the Viazul bus website.
Colectivos are registered shared taxis that cover set routes over medium distances – usually departing between 8 am and 9 am. They are generally cool vintage cars that have been maintained by crafty hands over the years.
A colectivo will carry between 4 and 8 people so it’s a great way to get to know your fellow travellers. But the real selling point are the day trips and out-of-the-way destinations not covered by the Viazul bus. This alows you to experience much more of Cuba without the hassle of hiring your own car.
Some examples of how you can use a colectivo in Cuba:
Return day trips from tourist towns to tourist sites: e.g. Viñales to Cayo Jutiás beach and back.
Trips between popular tourist spots when the bus is full or the timetable isn’t convenient: e.g. Varadero to Havana.
Connections to secondary (and great) destinations where the bus route/timetable is inconvenient: e.g. Viñales to Playa Larga.
Trips between major centres with a stop off in between: e.g. Cienfuegos to Trinidad via El Nicho waterfall
Any good hotel/host will be aware of the local routes and can book the colectivo for you. The colectivo picks you up at your hotel/casa particulares in the morning and drops you at your new accommodation in the afternoon. So, there’s no lugging your bags to the bus station.
If the journey is long and you are not returning to your original destination, you will probably be asked to switch cars in the middle of the journey. This way the driver can return to their home town.
COSTS OF A TAXI COLECTIVO IN CUBA
Colectivos are more expensive than buses but cheaper than private taxis. If there are only 2 of you then collectivos are much more cost-effective than a car rental in Cuba, but the comparison gets more marginal if you are a group of 4 and moving a lot. Here are some examples of taxi colectivo routes, costs and travel times.
2 hours and 30 minutes driving (we got dropped of at Last Terrazas, everyone else continued on to Viñales)
4 hours and 30 minutes driving with a 20 minute break for lunch
3 hours driving plus 2 hours waiting while we explored the waterfalls at El Nicho.
3 hours driving + 5 hour wait (this was actually a truck, not a taxi)
TIPS FOR USING A TAXI COLECTIVO IN CUBA
Max capacity only / Taxi colectivos are an informal network of drivers who need to cover the high fuel prices in Cuba. So, they will only leave if their car is full. If there’s no demand, there’s no ride. That being said, this was never a problem for us getting around in Cuba.
Vehicle – Most taxi colectivos are old or vintage cars that have been stitched together by their owners. It can be exciting and exotic as it rolls up to collect you. Due to their age, they do periodically break down and need fixing on route, although we never had a problem.
Comfort – Taxi Colectivos are a good value way of getting to and from many of the popular tourist destinations, particularly in places not covered by the Viazul bus network. However given the max capacity rule, you’re generally thigh to thigh with a stranger in an un-air-conditioned car. Try and keep your trips under 4 hours, any longer and you’ll be sticking to those vinyl seats.
Private taxis can easily be picked up in most tourist locations in Cuba. They can take you where you want when you want and if you speak a bit of Spanish they can also act as a friendly guide to the area. But they are not cheap.
COST OF A PRIVATE TAXI IN CUBA
Private taxis are an expensive way of getting around Cuba, but they are still less expensive than getting a car rental. They are useful for shorter journeys and to get to local places not covered by the colectivo network. It’s common to hire a taxi, ask them to take you somewhere, wait a few hours, then bring you back.
Some examples of ways you might want to use private taxis:
A single journey within Havana will cost around $5 – $10 for 5 to 10 minutes.
A taxi from José Marti Havana Airport to Havana old town takes 20 to 30 minutes and costs around $30. Ask your casa particular host to book this for you.
2-hour drive from one destination to another will cost around $80
A 20-minute drive with a 2-hour wait and return will cost $30; a 45-minute drive with a 2-hour wait = $50.
TIPS FOR USING PRIVATE TAXIS IN CUBA
Fares – Although most registered taxis have a taximeter, it never seemed to come on. Most journeys require haggling and as a traveller who does not know the area, that always puts you at a disadvantage. Walk around a few taxis and check prices. Some might even suggest you see things you hadn’t considered.
Unregistered taxi drivers – Only get registered taxis. These are often yellow (but not always) and have a taxi sign in their window. There are lots of unregistered touts trying to get business. You’ll notice them; they’ll be the taxi drivers an inch from your face. They are illegal, much pushier, more intimidating and charge more. Avoid them.
GETTING AROUND CUBA – TAKE THE ROAD LESS HASSLED
Taking a mixture of Viazul bus, colectivos and private taxis is an effective way of getting around Cuba. Use the bus for long distances is comfortable and cheap; colectivos are great for medium distances and to get to some interesting spots. While private taxis are good to use sparingly for shorter trips.
Getting a car rental is our usual choice, because we value the freedom it gives us to see more of a destination. We’ve driven over gravel tracks in Morocco, across the vast open plains of Namibia, through rivers in Iceland and around colossal potholes in Mexico.
But the benefits of a car rental in Cuba doesn’t go far enough to counter the frustrations, especially when the alternatives are so good.
Our recommendation for getting around Cuba: stick to the buses, colectivos and taxis. It’s less hassle, less expensive and a good way to meet other travellers while collecting local Cuban experiences.
MORE CUBA READING
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
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