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Transport & getting around

Transport & getting around

Written by and/or contributed to by Christopher Baker
What is the best way to get from Havana airport into town?
Coming out of Havana Airport, you will be instantly asked if you want a taxi into town. Realistically, this is the best option. The bus service involves a long walk and this is not the place to hitchhike.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to get the standard price of a taxi into Havana from the airport which is a 20-30 minute ride depending on exactly where you are going. Typically, you will be asked for CUC 25. The proper-metered price should be around CUC 15-20 depending on the type of taxi (see below). Argue if you want or simply pay up and get on with your holiday.

What is the best way to get around inside Cuban cities?
Inside Cuban cities you can catch Cuban buses, which have significantly improved over recent years. Very few foreigners take these buses but if you work out the schedule and routes there is no reason why not. A better option is the máquinas. These are large old American-made cars which serve as communal taxis running specific routes typically charging 10 Cuban Pesos (MN) for a ride. These make for an interesting experience and offer a small glimpse of normal Cuban life.

The easiest option is simply to take a taxi or arrange for a private car. Official licensed taxis are easy to distinguish since they will have proper markings and a meter although often the price will be a matter of discussion! Although they are now almost all part of one state-owned company (Panataxi) the quality of the cars varies from a battered old Lada to a Mercedes Benz and the price reflects this to an extent (although the drivers often claim this is not the case).

Private taxi drivers often driving battered old Ladas (again) also will be available outside many restaurants, clubs and other tourist attractions. These are now (mainly) legal and there is not the concern in the past that you have to learn a story about how your driver is your new best friend (what’s your name?). Typically private taxis are no cheaper than state ones although they may be more available in certain locations. Although solo female travelers should exercise caution if alone at night, there are very few reported incidents involving private taxis and there simply are not the same safety concerns of a place such as Mexico or Venezuela.

How easy is it to hire a car?
Hiring a car is tricky in Cuba. It is imperative that you make a reservation with a reputable foreign travel company as far in advance as possible. For various reasons, there is shortage of cars available for rental and in busy periods there will simply be no cars available.

The cost of hiring a car is approx CUC 100 per day for a full size car, which is a shock to people used to places such as Mexico, which has a large and competitively priced sector. While you can pick up a car from the airport, it may be easier to deal with the car issue the next day once you have got settled into your hotel and can deal with the paperwork, which typically is tedious and time-consuming. You should take out Cuban car insurance regardless of your own coverage.

Once you have your car, good luck trying to find where you are going since sign-posts in Cuba are notoriously poor. Try and pick a copy of the comprehensive Guía de Carreteras (published in Italy), which is excellent. This is sometimes available for sale at the airport, although if you can get a copy before you travel it would be much better.

Bear in mind that if you have an accident in which a third party is injured, you may be prevented from leaving the country until any legal process associated with the case has been fully resolved. While there is no real enforcement of drunk driving legislation, Cuba has a zero tolerance policy and in the case of an accident, if any alcohol is found in your blood, you are likely to be presumed guilty for any accident.

Can I rent a motorbike in Cuba
Wow Cuba does motorcycle tours from Canada. Check them out at www.wowcuba.com

Should I consider taking the train?
Let the train take the strain. In Cuba everything associated with train travel is a strain. They are slow, unreliable, with disgusting toilets and you will need to watch your luggage on overnight trips. On the other hand, they are a great way, if you have the time and the patience, to experience the real Cuba and to interact from a broader cross section of Cuban people.

The public railways are operated by Ferrocarriles de Cuba and serves all of the provincial capitals of Cuba. Getting a ticket is usually no problem since foreigners pay in CUCs. The prices are reasonable and the seats, although old and worn, reasonably comfortable.

The train stations, despite their occasional architectural splendor (at least on the façade), are generally chaotic and dingy places where it seems like mission impossible to find out what’s going on and where and when your train may leave. Again, this is a glimpse of a non-sanitized Cuba and once you settle down you will be able to see through the patterns.

Trains are either special (air-conditioned, faster with fewer departures), regular (slowish with daily departures) or lecheros (milk trains that stop at every route).

What is the bus service like to get around Cuba?
Bus travel is a dependable and (relatively) comfortable way of getting around Cuba. There are two bus companies in Cuba: Astro and Viazul (see www.viazul.com). Although some foreign students may use Astro, realistically Viazul is the only option for tourists. The buses travel between all major cities in Cuba according to a regular timetable, which is pretty much adhered to. They are air-conditioned (if a little too much so at times).

At times popular routes may be booked up, which means that it makes sense to book if you can in advance. The only real disadvantage with buses is that in places like Varadero you then get stung by the local taxi driver to actually get to your hotel.

What are the Hop-on-Hop-off buses?
These are red open topped Double Decker buses, which were introduced a few years ago in Havana and Varadero and have proved hugely popular. They link all the major sites in a particular location and charge CUC 5-10 per day for a full day pass. There is also a possibility of getting one, which runs from Havana all the way to the Santa María beaches at present.

Should I consider hitchhiking or giving rides to hitchhikers?
Inside Cuban cities, there are usually people looking for a ride at most traffic lights. These are disproportionately young women, which leads some to the conclusion that they might be prostitutes. Actually they are generally simply looking to hitchhike (botella), which is a well-established and acceptable means of transportation in Cuba. The culture of hitchhiking has been created from the general transport crisis associated with the special period as well as from the culture of solidarity and low crime levels. There are more young women looking for a ride simply since they generally get a ride quicker then old men!

Longer distance hitchhiking is also popular especially around holiday times. In Cuba if you drive a state-owned car, it is legally enforced at certain hitchhiker spots where the amarillos (official state-paid traffic supervisors so named for the mustard yellow uniforms they first wore; the uniforms are now blue but the name stuck) will organize and prioritize ride seekers.

If you are going to hitchhike, you will need some Spanish language skills. Be prepared for a long wait in certain places and be aware that as in any country hitchhiking is never entirely safe.

Should you pick up hitchhikers if you have hired a car? Absolutely, although again you need to exercise common sense and not leave valuables around and be more careful if driving alone. Many visitors to Cuba love to pick up hitchhikers to get an insight into Cuba and to help them with directions once they get lost!


  Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert
cpbaker@earthlink.net | www.christopherpbaker.com

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

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