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Driving and Public Transportation

Cuba - Driving and Public Transportation


Driving

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. Any traffic tickets received are noted on a rental car sheet and are deducted from your rental deposit. Note that 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, which can take months. For this reason, many countries advise their citizens not to rent cars in Cuba.

Generally traffic is light, especially away from Havana. Outside of towns and cities traffic is usually very light, with no cars for miles. Be warned - you also share the highways with cyclists (sometimes going the wrong way, and at night usually without lights) and horse-drawn vehicles. Also note that 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.

Expect to encounter checkpoints when traveling in the interior of the country.

Gasoline costs CUC 0.85/Regular, CUC 0.95/Special and 1.10/Super per litre. Tourist rental cars are not supposed to use regular.

Yank Tanks

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).

Hitchhiking and the "Amarillo"

The Cuban government's system for facilitating hitchhiking is by far the most economical way for foreigners to travel in Cuba, though a flexible schedule and good Spanish are a must. Known as "El Amarillo" ("the yellow guy") for the yellowy-beige uniforms of its administrators, the system consists of points along main routes where certain vehicles are required to stop and pick up hitchhikers. Amarillo points ("el punto amarillo") along major highways are often full service rest stops for hitchhikers, with water, peso-priced food, and a 24 hour indoor waiting area.

To use the system within cities, just keep your eyes peeled for a man or woman in a yellow / beige uniform standing along the road near a line of people. Tell the official where you need to go, and wait. To travel long distances, you need to get to the "punto amarillo" on the edge of the city in the direction you're going. Ask a local for help on the best way to do that. Then as you pass through cities, ask what bus or taxi to take to get to the "punto amarillo" on the outgoing road at the opposite extreme of the city. This can be tricky, and it's often worth it to take a local taxi. If you can find a Cuban to accompany you on your journey, their help will be invaluable.

In daytime hours, when the amarillo is present, you pay a nominal amount of money (approx. 20 pesos from one city to the next) to the official when you find a ride. The money all goes to the government; drivers don't get any. As a result, it's much easier to travel long distances at night, when the amarillo has gone home and drivers can make some money picking up hitchhikers.

Of course, it's always possible to hitchhike just by sticking out your thumb to passing cars, but be prepared to give the driver 20-50 pesos for a long ride.

Most of the rides you get will be in the back of large trucks, open to the weather. This is an exciting and beautiful way to travel the Cuban countryside. Though an accident would obviously be very dangerous for passengers, school kids, older adults, and parents with small children using this system every day. Make sure to bring protection against sun and rain and, if traveling at night, wind and cold.

Hitchhiking is the only system where you can travel for Cuban prices without paying a tourist premium. Given that transportation is one of a tourist's biggest expenses in Cuba, this can make your money go much farther. Tell folks you're a student (not a tourist) to avoid funny looks and price gouging.


Bus

Víazul is Cuba's hard currency bus line and is by far the best choice of public transportation to tour the island. They run comfortable air-conditioned long-distance coaches with washrooms and televisions to most places of interest to tourists. The buses are getting a bit grubby, but they are reliable and punctual. Complete schedules can be found on the Viazul website (the Varadero - Santa Clara - Cienfuegos - Trinidad and return service is missing from the website but runs daily). The buses can be used theoretically by anyone, including Cubans, but in reality, few Cubans can afford the convertable peso fares. Reservations can be made in advance, but are usually unnecessary except at peak travel times. Do not waste your time making an on-line reservation on the website -- that feature rarely works. Refreshments are not served, despite what the website says, but the buses stop for meal breaks at highway restaurants with bad food. (Bring your own food!) The buses are often over air conditioned, so bring along something warm to wear. Note that most westbound buses from Santiago de Cuba run overnight.

Astro is the bus line that most Cubans use. Most seats are only available for sale to Cubans, who pay in their local currency, but two seats are reserved for anyone, including foreigners, wishing to pay (a much higher fare) in convertable pesos. This fare is slightly cheaper than Viazul. The seats reserved for Cubans are always sold out, sometimes weeks in advance. Astro recently renewed their fleet with 300 new Chinese coaches that are as confortable 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 than Viazul, so it can be useful for tourists. Schedules change often and should always be confirmed in advance. Reservations are essential. If the two convertable peso seats are unsold, they will be given to Cubans on a standby list. For this reason, many travellers try to avoid Astro when possible so that they don't take a seat away from a Cuban, who may have been waiting for days and cannot afford any other means of transportation.

There are also local provincial buses, consisting of overcrowded old beat-up eastern European buses that may or may not be running.

It is also possible to travel between some popular tourist destinations, such as Havana and Varadero, on special tourist minibuses carrying 4-5 people. The cost is a few dollars more but highly recommended if you are not planning to sleep the whole distance - plus you can ask the driver to stop along the way!


Taxi

Official taxis are pretty expensive for long distances. Between Havana and Viñales, for example, will run about CUC 90-100, although this can work out cheaper than traveling by bus or train if you split the fare between several people. If you're up for a little adventure, you can find some enterprising locals willing to (illegally) play "taxi" with their old car for a little less money. Be aware that if they get caught, you will have to get out of the car. Although you will not be in any trouble with the authorities, you may find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no transportation.

Taxis are the most convenient way to get around within the big cities. There are several types of taxis, including the official government taxis, the private and potentially unlicensed "yank tanks", and the small three-wheeled coco-taxis. They're fairly abundant and not hard to find - they tend to group in front of large hotels, but it will usually be cheaper to find one elsewhere.


Bike

Calm roads and beautiful scenery make Cuba an ideal country for biking. You will have to bring your own bike as bikes suitable for trekking are not readily available in Cuba. Roads in most places in Cuba are reasonable, but it may still be a good idea to bring a mountain bike. Mountain bikes are stronger and allow for better driving off-road. Make sure to bring all spare parts you might need along the way, since they will not be available in Cuba. As casas pariculares are available even in relatively small towns it is easy to plan an itinerary. Food for on the road can often be obtained locally for cheap Cuban Pesos, but make sure if you travel through more remote areas to carry enough food (and water!). Bikers are often met with enthusiasm and interest; when taking a break you will often be approached by curious locals. It is possible to take bikes on a tourbus, like "Viazul", to cover larger distances. You have to arrange a personal agreement with the driver however, who will expect a little bonus in return. 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).


Train

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 Francès between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, which runs on alternate days. It uses equipment that was formerly 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. Foreginers 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!


Plane

The fastest and most comfortable way to cover larger distances is on either of the Cuban airlines, Cubana de Aviación or Aero Caribbean.


Boat

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.


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