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Getting around in Cuba

By Road

It’s getting easier for the visitor to get around in Cuba as the government pours its money into bettering tourist infrastructure, tourism being a valuable source of precious foreign exchange. There are a large number of car rental firms in Cuba. Renting a vehicle (around USD 50 a day) is the most convenient way for the independent traveller to get around. All car rentals, and there are many of them, are state-owned. Cars, usually of 1940s -1950s vintage, vary in their upkeep. Choose yours carefully before taking to the road. Chauffeur driven services are also on offer. You’ll be required to put up a refundable security deposit and between USD 15 and USD 10 as insurance. Cuba has left hand drive. There is one motorway called el autopista that runs through the island from west to east, from Pinar del Rio to the extreme east of the Sancti Spiritus province, through Havana. This road is wide and has little traffic on it. The alternative Carretera Central runs through prettier country but the Cubans have figured as much and the road is often crowded with slow moving traffic.

The bus network has improved substantially and it’s easy to find many buses between the major resorts and towns. The fact is that local buses have, in many cases, been rerouted to make this happen and bus travel within a town is a toughie. These buses are crowded and at any time there’s a long queue of locals waiting to get into the next bus that trundles along. There are many taxis, more often than not these are the big American cars, fins ’n all, that were imported before the 1959 revolution; taxis are both state-owned and privately run. Foreigners pay for their tickets and their taxi rides in dollars. Bicycling around Cuba is an interesting way to get around this beautiful island but it can get very steamy under the bright sun. The numbers of roadside repair shops where for a peso you can get your puncture patched make it a largely hassle-free experience. The difficulty lies in hiring a cycle. There aren’t many cycle-hire shops and the ones that do rent out cycles have stocks of gearless Chinese ones that were imported in the early 90s.

Coger botella your way through Cuba, it involves not much more than getting to a junction or a bridge and sticking out your thumb in the direction of your journey. Hitching has become a significant means of getting around ever since the Soviet collapse triggered the country’s economic collapse causing, among other shortages, fuel scarcity. Vehicles, anything that was motorised and moved, were obliged to take on passengers and earlier there were even legions of yellow-garbed assistants that would flag down vehicles for the traveller. It’s safe to hitchhike in Cuba and gets only as expensive as a few pesos a ride.

By Air

Air travel entails shuddering through Cuban air space in aged Russian biplanes. Scheduled flights connect Havana, Varadero, Santiago de Cuba and Holguin airports. Cubana runs these services. Three state-owned companies charter planes for flights to destinations other than these.

By Train

The railways connect most cities and towns. The major line, the Havana - Santiago one, passes through Matanzas, Santa Clara, Ciego de Ávila, Carnagüey and Las Tunas. There are many smaller offshoots from this line and there are small independent lines too. There is a train service between Havana and Pinar del Rio. There are two services: normal and especial. Normal trains are fairly comfortable and run everyday. Especial trains are air conditioned and faster, and consequently more expensive. You have to buy your ticket at least an hour in advance from the train station. Foreigners are required to show their passports at the time of booking. The rules require foreigners to buy tickets in dollars but on some lesser-used routes they may be allowed to make a peso purchase.

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