Getting around Cuba is deﬁnitely one of the more difﬁcult things I’ve done in my life. Factor in that I was paranoid as hell because (1) I’m an anxious person by nature; (2) Cuba was my ﬁrst solo trip; (3) I speak next to no Spanish; and (4) as much as it destroys me to admit this, I didn’t have the trusty internet to save the day. To say that transportation in Cuba is complex is a bit of an understatement.
From the moment I set foot on the rickety little Silver Airways plane at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, I knew I was in for more than I bargained for. The plane was three seats across. My ﬂight consisted of 6 passengers (there were almost as many crew members), and I was the only one who spoke English.
The fact that I managed to make it through customs and to my ﬁrst host’s casa without getting myself killed is a miracle in and of itself. Did I mention my Spanish is muy mal? In Santiago de Cuba, the ﬁrst stop on my whirlwind Cuban adventure, you’d be hard-pressed to ﬁnd people ﬂuent enough in English to converse with you, let alone help you get where you need to go. Thankfully, girl carrying suitcase is a pretty universal sign for “I’m lost and need a taxi.”
Feet, meet Asphalt. Asphalt, feet.
I did not take taxis everywhere. I spent the majority of my time in each city hitting the pavement, exploring on foot. Getting around this way, ﬁrst and foremost, gives you a great perspective on the local lifestyle. Most Cubans do not own cars, especially in more rural areas. Beyond that, it saves you a bunch of money. Even though (depending on the city) a short taxi or bicycle-taxi ride will only run you about 2-5 CUC, short taxi rides add up fast, especially once you get to bigger cities like Havana, where those same short distances will run you 10 CUC. I averaged about 5-7 miles a day on foot. The added beneﬁt of walking everywhere is that you tend to lose weight, even if you eat whatever you want. (I dropped 10 pounds on this trip.)
My ﬁrst afternoon in Santiago was spent with my host giving me the 10 cent tour on foot. I refused to pay for WiFi, which was only available in local parks anyway, so throughout my trip, I got a map of each city from the host I was staying with and spent about 10 minutes with them ﬁguring out where things were in relation to the house. (Fun Fact: I had not actually ever used a real map up until this point.) The local knowledge was immensely helpful, and I spent a good deal of time wandering around and getting lost and falling into random hole-in-the-wall places until I somehow managed to ﬁnd my way back home. The beauty of Cuba was that there were plenty of people that were more than happy to help me ﬁnd my way if I got lost.
City-Hopping on a Budget
When I initially began planning this trip, I intended to rent a car and drive myself across the country. Don’t do that. Just no. It’s insanely expensive. Had I gone through with this, it would have cost me about $900 just to rent the car. This did not include fuel or car insurance.
And remember how I said I wasn’t paying for the internet and had to use real live maps for the ﬁrst time? I should also mention how I get lost going to the bathroom… Can you imagine? Me. In a car. With a map. Trying to ﬁgure out road signs in a language I don’t understand, without Siri guiding me and telling me when to turn left. Knowing my luck, I’d end up in a ditch somewhere without cell service.
In the interest of saving my wallet, and myself from what surely would have become an even worse horror story (think FBI involvement), I opted to travel by bus. For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed my bus rides. It is also cost-efﬁcient. I spent a grand total of $107 on bus fares. Traveling in this way got me to 5 out of the 7 cities on my trip. And while not all of my bus trips were so glamorous, I am convinced that traveling a country by bus is the best way to see as much of it as possible.
The Bus Ride From Hell
I’ve never been a fan of public transportation of any kind in any country. I’ve spent my young adult years in cities where public transportation was not only not readily available or convenient, it was almost impossible to get where I needed to with what the city had to offer. Because of this, I have almost always gotten around by car, except while traveling, and even then, primarily by rail. So bus rides were an entirely foreign experience for me.
But public transportation in this country, well, you need an extra dose of patience to handle that (and patience is not something I come by easily).
Pro Tip #1: Make sure you book your bus tickets well in advance and that you print out multiple copies of your conﬁrmation page, just in case. Trust me.
Pro Tip #2: Make sure you get to the bus station in plenty of time. Not an hour later than you should and as the bus is leaving the station.
I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking: “But Amy, those seem like big fat DUHs.” Well, so does, “Don’t stick your hand in the cage with the tiger,” but they still include that in the volunteer manual, don’t they? Nine times out of ten, guidelines are written down because somebody was dumb enough to make the mistake. In this scenario, I am that person. I’m the idiot that stuck my hand into the tiger cage. Don’t be like me. Learn from my mistakes.
Pro Tip #3: Carry small bills/coins. You’ll need to pay for bathrooms on the road. And the bathroom guy doesn’t break 50s. Just sayin’. (I can just feel you rolling your eyes at me. It’s okay. We were all rookies once, right?) By this point, you’re probably wondering about the story behind all of these massively helpful, professional idiot-proof tips.
Well, long story short, I caught my bus from Santiago to Baracoa as it was pulling out of the station. Because of this, I didn’t have a printed ticket from check-in (because I didn’t check in), so the bus driver took my conﬁrmation page as my ticket. This became a problem when I tried to board my return bus and didn’t have the printed conﬁrmation page (even though I was able to show the lady the email that looked exactly like it). I also, literally, can’t speak enough Spanish to save my life, so I couldn’t even communicate that all I wanted was to buy a new ticket. (Tears don’t help. No sympathy.)
The angel of a man in line behind me did speak Spanish, and saved my life. He was able to help me get a new ticket (there’s 6 CUC down the drain), which is a minor miracle since bus tickets sell out pretty fast.
You’d think that was the end of the story and everyone lived happily ever after, right? Nope.
I forgot to mention how I hadn’t eaten since about 7 o’clock that morning and my last bathroom break was around 5:30pm during the ﬁrst leg of my bus trip. (I was headed to Trinidad and had to take two buses to get there from Baracoa.)
Pro Tip #4: Bring snacks.
My bus also broke down at 1:00am at some random gas station in Camaguey. Cuban gas stations are very interesting in the wee hours. I’ll just leave it at that.
All told, I went about 28 hours without food and 18 hours without using a bathroom between my two bus rides and my second bus being delayed about 4 hours. If I learned anything from this incident, it’s that I can push my body a lot further than I ever imagined (hopefully, I’ll never need to again), and that most things really are mind over matter.
You can read the full details of The Bus Ride From Hell here. I promise there are some good points.
Fossils on Wheels
Perhaps the most iconic thing that comes to mind when people think about Cuba are the classic cars. Whenever I talk to people about getting around Cuba, it’s the ﬁrst question they ask. And while, yes, I did get to ride in some amazingly beautiful, and yes, classic cars, it wasn’t quite the time-warp to the 50’s that you’d imagine.
In large tourist areas like Havana and Varadero, most of the vehicles were beautifully maintained. This was not necessarily the case elsewhere in the country. Honestly, the majority of my taxi rides felt more like I was being chauffeured around in a fossil on wheels than a luxury classic car. They were uncomfortable, made a lot of noise, discharged rather unpleasant exhaust fumes, and showed their age.
All that being said, it was still an incredibly cool experience and deﬁnitely a blast from the past. Older cars were much more common than we would see in the U.S., even though modern vehicles are more easily accessible than they used to be. One thing to keep in mind is, old does not equal classic.
Ride-sharing, while hip and trendy in the United States, takes on a whole new meaning in Cuba. Collectivo taxis are a popular way to get from city to city cheaply and without taking a bus.
I took a collectivo from Matanzas to Havana (about 64 mi/102 km), and because I split the car with three other passengers, me and my luggage got to Havana for only 10 CUC. This was
pretty comparable to what I paid for buses and, while the car wasn’t in the best condition, it was still a lot more comfortable than taking a bus.
Any time you’re traveling in a foreign country, it’s important to stay calm and be patient. Understand that this is likely going to be a somewhat uncomfortable experience, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, growth happens outside your comfort zone. I can honestly say I am a more informed traveller and a better person for all of the obstacles I experienced on this trip (and let me tell you, there were many). At the end of the day, the journey really is as much of an adventure as the destination.
About Amy Rebecca Krigsman
Hey there! I’m Amy. Dreamer. Wanderer. Adventure seeker. Perpetual goofball and laughaholic. And now amateur travel blogger.
I’ve always felt the need to move and fell in love with travel at a young age. Fed up with trying to fit my square peg into the round hole of conventional lifestyle, I’m trading in my 9 to 5 grind for a life of adventure come September. Where I’ll end up is still a mystery, even to me, but I guarantee it will be nothing short of spectacular.
I’m passionate about immersing myself in new cultures and discovering each city like a local. I believe travel should be authentic and accessible, and my goal is to bring those experiences to my readers.
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