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Getting around in Cuba

Taxis from the airport and around town
Most major cities have state-run cab services, usually newish Japanese, French or Korean cars geared to tourists. They charge in dollars and you can expect to pay $2-4 for a short journey and around $6 for a ride across Havana.

The police enforce an official taxi monopoly at most airports. The cost of a journey from Havana airport into town should cost $14-16 if in doubt ask the driver to meter the journey. Unofficial cab touts sometimes get a look in and you should pay around $10-12 from the airport into Havana.

Avoid taking cabs from your hotel the ranked cabs outside many hotels are often involved in a racket with the doorman or hotel taking a cut, especially outside the Hotel Melia Cohiba in Vedadao. You will almost always be better off getting a cab in the street they're delighted to stop for foreigners. A cab from central Havana to the airport will be up to $20 from a major hotel hail a cab in the street and the cost will be $12-15.

The locals use cycle rickshaws in the main cities these cost 5-10 pesos (less than 50c) a person for an average journey, though the driver/cyclist will often hold out for $2 from foreigners. $1 is fine for a medium trip possibly $2 if there are two of you. Maximum capacity is two people plus sometimes a child. There are also moped taxis for 2-3 people which will try and charge you the full cab price $2 is fine for a short journey with a maximum of $5 for a trip right across Havana.

Unofficial cabs also operate around the main hotels usually with old American or Russian cars - and almost anyone with a car in Cuba will give a tourist a ride just to pick up a few dollars. If you can't find a cab just try hailing a passing car. Negotiate in advance and expect to pay about $2 for a short journey and $4-5 for a trip across Havana. Remember that the average wage in Cuba is $10 a month.

There is now a lot of not-switching-on-taxi meters and over charging, so be prepared for this. Taxi jobs are sought after and the threat of a complaint usually works wonders. Again, if you are sure you're in the right just pay the correct amount when you arrive and threaten to call the police who will almost always take your side. Also beware of longer distance taxis picking up their mates en-route always specify that the ride is just for you and your party unless, of course, you want the company.

City buses
Cuban towns and cities use hand-me-down buses, often donated by other countries or bought second hand. In Havana there are also the huge, home-made Camelo buses train carriage length compartments with a humped section joining an old articulated truck cab. Not a pleasant ride, you will probably have to queue for some time to get on and Cuban buses are almost always packed. Pay the driver or put the money into the fare box. Passengers will also pass the fare to the driver. Typical fares range from 20 centavos to 1 peso a peso is worth 4 US cents. Cheap, but not a good way to get around.

Long-distance cabs
Locals often use shared cabs colectivos which congregate in different parts of the cities and near bus and railways stations you will see ranks of old American cars with a taxi sign in the windscreen. If your Spanish is good you may be able to use these and it is a cheap way to travel, but you will be expected to pay in dollars.

Both the official dollar cabs and many unofficial taxis and cars will take you longer distances, including between cities. You are almost always better off with the official cabs as their vehicles are newish and more likely to get you there. You can be more confident of the driver, too, as dollar taxi jobs are much sought after. Negotiate the price in advance to include fuel and expect to pay about 30-50 US cents a kilometre depending on the number of passengers and distance. This can be a good way to travel especially if you can share the cost.

Driving in Cuba Car Hire
The good news is that Cuba's empty roads, beautiful countryside and cities make for great motoring. The bad news is that all of the car hire agencies are state-owned, prices are high, the cars are rarely new and though the roads are generally not in a bad way, you do have to watch out for pot-holes and other hazards. However, unlike in many countries the police do not consider foreigners in cars as an opportunity to gouge cash in fact they have been instructed to make life as easy as possible for dollar-bearing tourists.

The car hire agencies operate from the main hotels, airports and a few have offices in a heavily touristed spots such as Varadero. You can also book car hire through UK Cuba holiday specialists. It can be advisable to book in advance during peak season, but you are unlikely to get the best deal or vehicle; people arriving with pre-bookings will usually get allocated the worst cars. Booking car hire in Cuba on the net seems to be impossible we found no sites offering Cuba car hire. If you can, get your car in Cuba especially if you are travelling off-peak season.

The vehicles on offer are generally second-hand Hyundais, Toyotas and Nissans bought in Canada and Mexico, though there are a few Fiats and Peugeot/Citroens are also now common. The vehicles are generally knackered, but well-maintained and they will get you about. Most agencies also have good networks of depots which will get you out of trouble, and almost any Cuban will know a mechanic honed on years of keeping 50 year old American cars on the road, so a 5 year old/100,000km Toyota Yaris will present few problems. $10 will usually get you back on the road.

The vehicles on offer range from small cars for around $30 a day, through lower medium hatchbacks and mid-sized cars for $40-50. A few agencies also have people-movers, four wheel drives and even some relatively upscale Audis, though these will cost you.

The key to getting a good deal is to try several agencies most of the larger hotels have at least one. Insist on checking the vehicle out and negotiate particularly during low season. You will generally find you can shave $5 a day off the price and get insurance thrown in, which can otherwise add $5-10 a day. Additional drivers are generally charged at $15 one-off, though some agencies will try and push for another $5 a day - you should resist this on a longer rental.

Another little scam is the habit of insisting on your paying for a full tank up front in cash. The charge is generally 50% more than the fuel costs at the pump and if you don't bring the car back bone dry you lose even more as there's no refund. It's suspected that much of this cash is pocketed by the staff.

Insurance usually covers you for all but the first $250-350, but check the agreement to make sure. One-way rentals are difficult you often have to rent for at least a week and pay up to a $250 supplement. Weekly rentals get discounts off the daily price and you will also be asked for $200-250 refundable deposit, which you can usually pay on your credit card. You will, of course, need a driving license or an international license.

If you are not charged up-front for the petrol, make sure the vehicle is full on return or you get charged a high price for the shortfall. Petrol/diesel is around 90 US cents a litre at the fairly plentiful service stations and you have to pay in dollars (a few take credit cards, if their machines are working) peso petrol stations have queues, often run out of fuel and you will need a Cuban ration card too.

Having said all of that, car rental is a good way to see Cuba. Although many of the roads are lumpy, they are also pretty empty.

A Soviet-built motorway called the Autopista runs from Havana to Sancti Spiritus, about half way along the island to the east. This road continues as the Carretera Central from Sancti Spiritus to Santiago de Cuba, a single-carriage road which is fairly empty and mainly in reasonable condition. To the west of Havana is the Havana to Pinar del Rio Autopista. Try the smaller roads too they are generally OK to drive on and you get to see the real Cuba.

Beware of disappearing road markings and eccentric signs, not to mention campesinos on horses, arthritic Polish tractors spurting clouds of black smoke and occasional massive pot holes, even on the Autopista. When driving in Cuba always be prepared for a lack of signs they are almost non-existent and don't expect the locals to be too hot on directions most don't travel very far.

Look out for horses and carts and animals on the road as well as for cyclists and vehicles at night without lights. The local mutts are not very car-savvy and often sleep in the middle of the road in quieter towns.

Drive on the right and speed limits are 40-50km/hour in towns and villages, 60km/hour on smaller roads, 90 km/hour on highways and 100 km/hour on the Autopista.

One final warning: in a country with few cars and vestigial public transport hitching is the main method of getting around. Publicly-owned Cuban vehicles must stop for hitchers. You do not have to, but it can be fun and a good way to meet Cubans plus they can help with directions. There are very few stories of problems with hitchers, but women should take the usual care. Cubans are also not above taking you out of your way to get where they want to go so beware! There have, however, been growing reports of Cuban hitchers surreptitiously robbing drivers, dipping into bags etc. We suggest securing baggage carefully if you do pick people up.

A few minor scams to watch for: security guards at hotels may well wash you car overnight and demand a dollar or two you are not obliged to pay up. In rare cases security guards demand a couple of dollars overnight parking fee in some motels only pay if this is stated in writing at the hotel desk. Some city centres have parking attendants who will try and get a dollar off you for car parking the usual price is more like a peso and 25 cents is more than enough.

Scooters, motor-bikes and bicycles
Scooters can be rented at many hotels, especially in the resorts. They are often old and unreliable and real motor-bikes are difficult to come by. You can bring your own de-mountable bicycle by plane or hire in Cuba, especially in the resorts, but bikes are not usually allowed on buses and trains. Cuba is generally a good place to cycle, though black smoke from old cars, buses and trucks can be a problem and bikes are frequently stolen.

Cubans are big hitchers due to the lack of transport. On many main road junctions and under bridges on the Autpopista an official queuing system for buses, trucks and lifts operates under the watchful eye of a queue master in a yellow jacket. Foreigners are usually welcome to join in. In the country people hitch rides from anywhere and government-owned vehicles (red plates) are obliged to stop.

Cuba was one of the first countries in the Americas to build a railroad in the mid-19th century. Not much has happened since then. Havana and most of the main towns have railway stations and a main line runs east-west along most of the length of the island. But the service is slow, fairly uncomfortable and unreliable.

Most main destinations have 2-4 daily services each way, but the old diesels are often late. The especial services can be a little faster and are air-conditioned. A typical journey time from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in the far east is scheduled to take 12 hours, but can easily take several hours more. But if you are not in too much of a hurry, trains can be a good way to see Cuba.

Foreigners have to go to the Ladis office in the main stations to pay for their tickets in dollars. It is worth doing this at least a day in advance as trains get fully booked. The Havana Ladis office is not in the main station building, but 200 metres away down the side, along the tracks. In smaller stations ask a railway employee where to buy a ticket and they will usually take you around the often long lines of Cubans.

A first class one-way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba costs around $42. Economy is about $30. The seats are reasonably comfortable, but trains are almost always full. Cuban railways also seems to have perfected the art of switching the air-conditioning full-on at night and off during the day. Food is minimal, so take your own and a cup if you want a drink as these are not supplied.

Long-distance buses
Cuba has a reasonable long-distance bus network using oldish, but serviceable coaches. Prices and journey times tend to be slightly less than for trains. You can get tickets at the central bus stations in most towns and usually need to book at least a day in advance.

There are reports of the baggage loaders conning tourists with tickets that there are no seats, but, needless to say, pulling the relevant strings for $10 resist, if you're up to it. Buses often follow the fine Cuban tradition of turning the a/c up full at night, so take something warm.

By air
Cubana, the state airline, operates services to most main towns. However they still operate old Soviet planes, including AN-24 bi-planes, on most routes though they have recently purchased some newer Airbus A320s which they mainly use on South American routes. You get a discount on internal flights if you book from the UK in conjunction with a Cubana flight to Cuba. Otherwise most cities have Cubana offices, which can be time-consuming and often hopeless at changing or refunding flights. You can also book through some hotel travel desks.

If you want to travel by air you should book in advance a flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in the far east of the island is around $68 one-way. Two other state-owned airlines, Aerocaribbean and Aerotaxi also fly to a few destinations. You usually need to book at least a day or two in advance. One final word Cubana airlines has just about the worst safety record in the world.

Email and telephones
Unfortunately telephones and email come under the heading of how the Cuban government gouges yet more money out of visitors

The local phone system is cheap, but antedeluvian, with ocassionally working public phones which take pesos. These can only be used for domestic calls. Hotels charge very high rates even by the usual standards of hotel phone charges especially for international calls.

There is a network of card-phones run by the Cuban phone company, Etecsa, but set up by a Brazilian telecomms operator. These are not cheap, but at least are a lot less expensive than calling from hotels the lowest denomination cards are $10 and international calls usually around $2.50-$5.50 a minute. There are also a few Etecsa call centres in the main towns and tourist areas where you can pay and call from a booth.

Cubacel also operates a mobile phone network and phones can be rented at Havana's Jose Marti Airport this is a convenient, but expensive option. It is expected that soon European-standard mobiles will work in Cuba but, again, this will be a very expensive option.

Recently the government has set up email facilities in many of the main tourist hotels the downisde is that access can be incredibly slow due to poor lines, the cost is high at around $5 for 15 mins and the system is geared to rip-you off as you usually have to specify and pay for the time in advance, with a 15 minute minimum, and start again if you run out which you probably will because logging on can often take 5 minutes. Sadly in telecomms, as in so many areas, the Cuban government assumes all tourists are rich and an easy source of cash.

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