So now you know how to get here, what the money and lodging situation is like, but most likely you plan on doing more than just hanging out in Havana. Most people laughed when I said I would like a week in Havana, but really it’s a good amount of time if you enjoy seeing all the different sights, experiencing Cuban life, etc. There are several noteworthy parts of the island, some of the most popular being Varadero (all-inclusive resorts so lots of foreign tourists but fabulous beaches), Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Isla de la Juventud. Snorkeling and scuba are incredible in the reef areas as they remain relatively untouched and unfished. Historical diving is also quite popular with plenty of sunken ships, planes, etc., to explore.
The easiest way of getting around is flying, but that isn’t as cheap, most times, as the buses. Tourists cannot use the peso buses and are restricted to the very reliable, dependable, and air-conditioned Viazul buses. Unfortunately, those wonderful attributes also equal higher prices. For comparison’s sake a hour bus ride to a nearby area of interest in Mexico will generally cost around 30 MXN (about 2.50 USD) one way. In Cuba that same bus trip will cost you 15 CUC. That’s $2.50 versus $15. Big difference, especially if you’re doing a roundtrip. Getting between cities is a little better, and sometimes you can hire a cab for a bit less, but plan on spending quite a bit to explore Cuba. Outside Havana lodging and food are similarly priced with the all-inclusive resorts being naturally more expensive (but cheaper than in many resort areas elsewhere).
If you do wish to fly, most of the local aviation companies have their offices located in Havana at Calle 23 just up from the malecón. Bring some patience, a snack, and some more patience. The normal system of waiting is to arrive and call out “¿Último?” Someone will hopefully answer “Yo!” and that means you’re behind that person. This works for pretty much every line in all of Cuba. Except for the air travel offices. Most likely you’ll be instructed to take a number. This is usually a worthless exercise, but go ahead and take the number and then keep an eye on who arrives after you. You’ll pretty much just have to jump up and sit down when the next agent becomes available. If anyone complains, pretend you don’t speak Spanish (if you do) and carry on. If you’re staying in one of the fancier hotels, many times they have a travel office that can assist you without near the hassle. Try to avoid visiting the offices between 12-2:30 when chaotic lunch breaks are common.
Havana is a remarkable place and can keep you VERY busy between museums, buildings with outstanding architecture, a plethora of restaurants, and more than enough people watching to keep you busy for a very long time, so as I said before make sure to allow yourself plenty of time here. To get around Cuba there are taxis that charge about 0.50 CUC per km (if they don’t use the meter, their tip is included in whatever fee you agree on) and the bus system. If you plan on grabbing the local bus, know it is not like many Latino countries where you can flag a bus down anywhere along its route. You will need to find a proper bus stop. The buses are very hot and crowded and dirt cheap (about 40 cents to go very long distances). If you ride the bus, be wary of pickpockets. The close quarters are too much temptation for some thieves. If you are planning on seeing many of the big tourist attractions, you may want to consider taking the tourist buses. Route T-1 will take you through most of Havana and passes by the largest sites. It costs 5 CUC per person and you can hop off and on all day long from about 9 AM to 6:30 PM. It is air-conditioned indoors and has an open deck on top. The T-3 bus goes to the Playas del Este, costs 3 CUC, and has the same time schedule as the other bus. It is air-conditioned as well. You can catch both buses at any bus stop along their route (look for the bus stop that shows a picture of a bus and says tourist on it) and buy your ticket from the driver’s assistant if you don’t already have one. Alternatively, you can catch them in front of the Parque Central in Old Havana.
There are also bici-taxis (bicycle taxis) and Coco taxis. These are generally only peso fares, and therefore aren’t supposed to pick up tourists. However, for some of them it’s worth the risk to offer you a ride and charge you 1-2 CUC. Don’t worry about getting trouble, though. The onus is on them, and they’ll get fined if a police officer sees them and feels the itch. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal since there are often bici drivers who will offer you a ride right in front of the cop standing on the corner, and they aren’t quiet about it. Coco taxis look like a 3-wheeled motorcycle with an open shell on the back. If you try to flag them down and they seem to ignore you, see the above. You will also find horse-drawn carriages. These can be fun to take and are priced reasonably. Always haggle with any fare you’re quoted by them, and the tip is included; however, feel free to add another 1-2 CUC as a tip if you were charged 5 CUC or more.
In the next article on Cuba, we’ll get a little more personal and talk about some of the places to see, etc.