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I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on things I wish I’d known about lodging and transportation in Cuba before going
- Entry, Exit, and Legal Requirements
- How to Book Flights or Ferries into or Out of Cuba
- Internet, Money, Food, Nightlife
- Transportation and Lodging (this post)
- Trip Report: Viñales
- Trip Report: Havana (coming soon)
I got around with taxis, shared taxis, buses, a scooter, and my own two feet. You can also rent a bike or car.
Don’t catch them in front of a hotel or where they are pooled waiting for tourists unless you want to pay extra. Flag one down on the street and then negotiate.
Yes, some taxis have taximeters, but the drivers don’t seem willing to use them. Or more accurately, they use them after negotiating with you, and then charge you the negotiated price, not the metered price.
Outside of hotels and at tourist sites where the queue can be 10-20 deep waiting a few hours to bilk one sucker. I don’t want to be that sucker. Use your own judgment on what to pay or try to negotiate with a few taxis to get an idea of the price.
I often walked from Vedado to Havana Vieja and then caught a taxi a few kilometers back home. That would run me 4 CUC. A trip to the airport from Vedado ran me 15 CUC.
I had one taxi driver rip me off. I had said I wanted to pay 4 CUC. He said 5 CUC. I told him I was only willing to pay 4 CUC, and he nodded, so I got in. When we arrived and I handed him 5 CUC, he handed back no change. I said, “We agreed to 4 CUC.” He said, “I never said that,” which was technically true. I decided to avoid a big scene over 1 CUC and got out, telling him he was a scammer.
Shared Taxis, “máquinas”
These are basically buses disguised as taxis that run a fixed or mostly fixed route down main streets. You flag the car down going the direction you want, tell him where you’re going, and he tells you whether he can get you there or close. I paid 1 CUC each trip, but you should confirm the price before getting in since you’re a gringo.
These were really fun because you are almost guaranteed to be jammed into a car with 5-6 passengers, and you’re the only gringo. I enjoyed joking around with the other passengers.
Your drop off might be a short walk from your destination, and you will have to stop to pick up and drop off other passengers, so this option is strictly for fun and a little money saving, not convenience.
Intercity buses from Viazul are really well run: professional, clean, on time, and full of other tourists. I used Viazul buses to go from Havana to Viñales and back.
I booked my Viazul bus tickets online before going to Cuba with a MasterCard. The email you get says that you must print out your attached proof of purchase.
I thought that was unlikely to be enforced, but I printed it out anyway. I’m sure glad I did because that was asked for at the bus station. In Havana and perhaps other bigger cities, there is a Viazul terminal that taxi drivers should know. In Viñales, and probably other small towns, the bus just picks up on the street in front of the storefront that sells tickets.
In Viñales, I rented a scooter for the day for the exorbitant cost of around 30 CUC (they’re about half that in Southeast Asia) from a rental place at the same location as Restaurante la Casa de Don Tomás, Salvador Cisneros No 140.
The scooter was a really fun way to explore Viñales because some of its interesting sites and caves are 10 km outside of town. I scooted to one with a few stops along the way, then went back the other direction to another cave, and had an ill-fated search for a lake along the way.
Renting a scooter was worth it, even at its too-high price, and was probably the same as (or cheaper than) hiring a taxi for the day.
My Own Two Feet
I felt extremely safe everywhere I went in Cuba. One of the few upsides of living in a police state is security. I thought nothing of walking through some neighborhoods between Vedado and Havana Vieja that, had they been in Central American countries, I would have completely avoided.
There are some great walking options in Viñales as well.
I didn’t do it. It is possible. I met some Americans who had paid 70 CUC per day and arranged their rental from America.
I didn’t do it. I saw them in Viñales at the town square for 10 CUC per day.
There are two main lodging options in Cuba:
- government-run hotels
- Rooms in private homes, “casas particulares”
I am normally agnostic about other people’s travel. I’ll tell you your options and let you decide, but come on, in this case, eschew the hotels and stay in casas particulares.
I stopped by a few hotels in Havana on my trip for the internet, and my casa owner in Viñales suggested I go to a hotel there to enjoy the pool, but I have not seen the inside of a hotel room in Cuba. I imagine they are up to world standards, but more expensive than you’d expect to pay for a similar stay in a similarly poor country.
Casas particulares are much more interesting. I know of no other country in the world where it is so easy to stay at the house of a typical local for such a small fee, and generally with the option to have local food prepared for you for your meals. If you travel to meet locals and sample local food, you really can’t miss out on paying 20 CUC per night for the chance. There are three main ways to book casas:
- On long-running sites like cubacasas.com
- By walking around in Cuba
- On Airbnb
I did not rent on cubacasas.com, but I wish I had. I figured I didn’t want to call to book, and I doubted that I could book a casa by email based on what I knew about Cuba’s internet. However, from talking to my casa owner in Havana, I think it would be very easy to book a casa via email a few weeks in advance through a site like cubacasas.com. Casa owners have easy access to some sort of internet that is extremely slow and only good for email, she explained. So, if I could do it all over again, I’d book my first casa on cubacasas.com before arrival, just to lower the stress of arrival by having a bed ready.
Then I’d book the rest of my casas by walking around. They are all over Havana, with very visible signs over the door.
And nearly every house in Viñales is a casa particular.
Walking around would let you see the rooms on offer–which vary widely–and the prices, which vary less. I paid 18 CUC per night, down from the 20 CUC offer, in Viñales. I paid 35 CUC per night in Havana for a room with a view of the Caribbean. Both of my casas had separate entrances for guests, which I appreciated, so I didn’t have to walk in loudly at night and disturb anyone.
My casa in Havana did not offer food. That’s pretty rare. I covered my meals at my Viñales casa in this post about food, money, internet, and nightlife in Cuba.
I booked my first two nights on Airbnb. I do not recommend it. Not only will you pay a little more than you’ll pay through other sites, but you won’t get the amazing Airbnb experience you’re used to.
My experience was a little off from start to finish. I was communicating with someone who was not in Cuba instead of the owner of the casa. Through Airbnb messages, I did set up an airport pick up at 1:30 AM for 25 CUC with the actual casa owner, which was nice because I was stressed about arriving so late and then maybe getting lost in a cab.
But the casa owner explained to me that the place I’d booked had a pipe problem, and he’d take me somewhere else. Isn’t that the classic line a taxi driver tells you to steer you to a place that offers him a commission instead of the ho(s)tel you have in mind?
He took me to another place, which might very well have been nicer, and I didn’t pay an extra or get any refund from him, so it worked out OK overall, but not the way I expect Airbnb to work. To get the experience you expect, book a casa through cubacasas.com.
Any questions about lodging or transportation in Cuba?
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