Are you free spirits – travellers who prefer to venture off the standard tourist trail?
We most definitely are, but we found this particularly difficult to do in Cuba where Viazul bus routes reign supreme. There’s so much to see, but few advertised opportunities for alternative travel to some less visited destinations.
Cuba has some beautiful cities and a wealth interesting smaller towns. Each new place offers amazing architecture, bustling main squares and quiet little back streets.
There are stunning Caribbean beaches, pristine reefs and offshore islands.
Cuba is also famous for its unique revolutionary history. No trip to Cuba would be complete without learning something about Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the deep, proud history of a long struggle for independence.
There’s a cheap, plentiful supply of rum, hand-made cigars, and an amazing array of 1950s classic American cars.
But we found that tourists generally tend to visit the same set of touristy sites. To facilitate this there is a national network of tourist bus routes, operated by bus company Viazul.
Cuban Viazul bus routes
Fellow travellers who’d already visited Cuba, sometimes complained to us about their disappointment at having to “follow the tourist trail”. They’d regularly met the same people again and again on Viazul buses, who were obviously visiting the same towns, in much the same order.
Sometimes, of course, this can be fun, but it can also restrict the wonderful feeling of free travel, exploring new and different locations under your own steam.
For tourists, the Viazul bus network does at first seem like the only long distance public transport system that is of any use. In truth, it is probably the easiest method of transport for foreign visitors to figure out.
However, once you begin travelling around Cuba, it does seem to be a bit restrictive. We soon found ourselves, like our friends, longing for more freedom to explore further off the beaten track.
WHAT OTHER OPTIONS EXIST FOR THE ADVENTUROUS TRAVELLER?
Shared taxis (or collectivos)
Shared taxis for longer distance journeys are the next option most travellers discover.
At most Viazul bus stations you’ll find a crowd of enthusiastic taxi touts. They will be offering trips to most destinations at similar prices to the bus journey.
After we tried this for the first time there was no going back to the buses for us.
At first the touts can appear somewhat overwhelming. Many people ignore them with a terse “No, no, no!” as they head for the Viazul ticket counter, (which can also sometimes be an intimidating experience of non-existent customer service).
Don’t fear the taxi tout, as you will be missing out on a world of adventure and convenience.
It does help if you can speak Spanish, as you will probably be able to negotiate a better price. We observed, however, that many touts speak pretty good English too, so you shouldn’t have many problems. You must always negotiate – otherwise you WILL pay far more than a bus journey.
Our first intercity taxi
We arranged our first intercity taxi trip a day in advance, and our “fixer” took the address of our accommodation, promising that we would be picked up at 9am. He was true to his word.
Our first shared taxi journey took us from Trinidad to Cienfuegos – about 50 km. There were two other passengers, a mother and daughter from Italy, but there was plenty of space for us all, including our luggage.
The car arrived at 9am promptly, and we were very excited to discover it looked like this:
Our journey was quick and smooth, and we enjoyed chatting with the driver and our fellow passengers.
The only stop we made was when we came across another classic car by the roadside. It was obviously having some mechanical issues. The drivers chatted, gazed into the engine compartment for a few minutes, then we were on our way again. Apparently help had already been dispatched from the nearest city.
The benefits of taking a shared taxi
The journey took less time than the Viazul bus timetable allowed, we avoided the obligatory cafe stop along the way, and we arrived in Cienfuegos a full five hours before the only bus of the day was scheduled to arrive. This gave us lots more time to explore our new location.
We were dropped off at the door of our accommodation. This saved us either the cost of a local taxi from the bus station, or the hassle of lugging our backpacks around. We also avoided being pestered by accommodation touts.
Taking the train
If you want to get further off the tourist trail, and travel with the Cuban locals, then the train network might be the answer. To do this you really do need a decent grasp of Spanish. Fewer tourists venture onto the trains, and most staff only speak Spanish.
The Cuban network is old, and at times reliability can be an issue… as can comfort!
Mark Smith, the infamous Man In Seat 61, has plenty of useful info on Cuban trains. However, he does warn that many of the times published on his website are subject to change.
We found that the best way to take a train journey was to visit the station a day or two before your departure. This gives plenty of time to figure out when trains are actually running, on which days, and sometimes, if at all.
The Hershey Train – an easy day trip from Havana
Our first journey took us from Havana to Matanzas on a rickety old electric train “The Hershey Train”. This is by far the easiest train journey to make in Cuba. A short ferry ride from Old Havana drops you off right at the station in Casablanca. You will meet quite a few other adventurous tourists waiting for the train, as well as plenty of locals.
The journey winds through the countryside at a leisurely pace.
Our trip is told in much more detail in Vanessa’s “Taking the Hershey Train from Havana to Matanzas”
A little visited fishing village
Our next train journey was an interesting day trip from Sancti Spiritus. I had studied the map and found a place called Tunas de Zaza on the south coast. We checked out the train times at the station, and yes, we could head down in the morning, have lunch at the coast, and head back in the afternoon.
We asked our “casa particular” host about the journey. He confirmed that a few of his more adventurous guests had taken this route.
“Yes, I think you two might like it,” he confirmed, obviously assessing us as “adventurous”.
We were vastly overcharged for the two -hour outward journey, paying just over the equivalent of US $1. On the return journey we paid the correct local fare of about 5 cents. See “Why Che Guevara would be ashamed…” for more on how and why this happened.
To be able to access these local-rate fares you need to have the local pesos, rather that the “tourist money”. Read more about this strange dual-currency system in our article: “Cracking the Cuban currency code”
We had read in several guide books how many services where no longer in operation. We found even less information once in Cuba. The only reliable way to find out, seems to be to visit the station.
While in Remedios we read about a possible train trip to Santa Clara, and went to check the times at the local train station. The place was utterly derelict, and it was obvious that there would be no trains passing any time in the near future.
Instead we flagged down a “collectivo” (shared taxi), paying just a couple of dollars each for the hour-long journey. Again, this would have been much harder, and probably have cost us much more, if we hadn’t been able to negotiate and chat in Spanish.
Long distance trains
There are several long distance trains that travel the length of the country, from Havana to all stops eastward, and back again. Journeys can be up to 20 hours long, depending on destination, and often involve overnight travel.
Heading back to Havana from the eastern end of the island seems to offer journeys at more reasonable times of day. We seriously considered catching the train from Santa Clara back to Havana towards the end of the trip. However, with time against us we settled again for the convenience of a shared taxi, which took us all the way to Vinales. This was our final destination before returning to Havana to fly back to Mexico.
In this way we also avoided an overnight stop in Havana, since it’s impossible to get a Viazul bus from Cienfuegos to Vinales in one day! There was very little difference in price, and we had a taxi to ourselves for half of the journey.
Venture off the beaten track by cycling
In both Remedios and Trinidad we hired bicycles for the day at a cost of $5 each. From Remedios we cycled out to the coast at Caibarien, where we didn’t see another single tourist. At the locals’ beach we drank beer and ate super-fresh fish at absolute bargain prices – one of the bonuses of getting off the beaten track.
Bicycles vary in quality and reliability. Our bikes in Remedios were new, but hadn’t been put through their paces. Vanessa’s pedal refused to stay connected, and we had to find a small repair shop along the way. This was all part of the adventure, as some friendly locals escorted us to a back street workshop, just outside of Caibarien.
In Trinidad, by contrast, we hire super quality mountain bikes, maintained to a high standard. It seems that bike hire is becoming much more popular and so quality hire shops are opening in the larger cities and towns.
TIP – bikes are rented by the day, usually between 9.00am and 6.00pm each day. In Trinidad, we asked if we could collect our bikes at 6.00pm, giving us a choice of the best bikes, and providing us with a head-start the next day. The answer was yes, and we were out the next morning and on the road to the coast before 7.00am. The beach was empty when we arrived!
Once in the countryside, you’ll find the roads are relatively quiet and we enjoyed our days out, covering distance and seeing places we’d not otherwise have experienced.
Rental cars and scooters offer another option for independent travel, providing you with easy access to more remote destinations. A scooter will cost around $25 to $30 per day, depending on how well you negotiate, and how busy the rental operator is. A car will cost $40+, depending on the model.
Self guided hiking in Vinales
We toyed with the idea of renting a motorbike in Vinales, but had so much fun hiking the trails through the tobacco plantations to the caves in the mountains, that we didn’t bother in the end. Again we used our Map.me app to discover trails through the countryside, and in this way avoided having to join any of the guided tours.
Many hiking tours start after 9.00am (giving time for you to enjoy your casa breakfast), but we wanted to be out and about by dawn, avoiding the large groups and the hot sun later in the day. It’s perfectly safe to make your own routes and in this way found a couple of caves, one which we were guided through by a local for a small payment, but with the noticeable absence of any other tourist.
We still got to meet local tobacco farmers, but again we paid directly for our tour, paying less than in a group and had a completely personalized experience!
So if you plan to visit Cuba, make sure you step off the Viazul tourist bus, and try to experience some of Cuba’s roads-less-travelled.
We thin you will have much more fun doing so.
How speaking some Spanish may improve your experience of Cuba
We SERIOUSLY suggest you learn the basics of Spanish before heading to Cuba. You will be able to negotiate prices, and find your way to off-the-beaten-track places with much greater ease.
You may also be able to negotiate something few get to experience. At one point we had to take a taxi that wasn’t shared with others – there was nobody heading in the same direction at the same time. We were quoted a price, which we managed to bargain down a little.
When it was clear that the price wasn’t going to get any lower I made a jokey suggestion in Spanish.
“Ok. We will pay this price, but only if I get to drive the car.”
The tout looked at the owner of the car, who nodded in acceptance. I was amazed.
I got to drive a 1954 Chevrolet over 50 kilometres through the Cuban countryside. This just would not have happened if I hadn’t been able to communicate and joke in Spanish.
We took our first steps in Spanish with Marcus Santamaria’s wonderful Synergy Spanish lessons. Learn simple, quick, and very practical Spanish right from the start.