Living in Cuba

Exploring and Living in Cuba

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By Air

 Before you set out to explore Cuba you should realize the country is bigger than it appears on maps—nearly 1000 miles from end to end. The fastest way to get around is by air. Cubana de Aviación Tel: 7/834-4448( has inter-island flights connecting Havana with about a dozen regional airports including the Island of the Youth. Aero Caribbean Tel: 7/879-7524 ( offers many charter flights and service to those areas not served by Cubana. This carrier service operates several domestic flights to various Cuban destinations including Varadero, Havana, Cayo Largo, Gerona, Cayo Coco, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Nueva Gerona. One-way domestic prices are about half the price of round trip flights, depending on your destination. Tickets may be purchased at airline offices or at tour desks or travel agencies.

By Train

 Ferrocarriles de Cuba operates all passenger trains. In Cuba train travel is one way to get from one place to another. It also allows you to see some of the sights and countryside along the way. Cuba has around 8000 miles of railway with two-thirds used by the sugar industry and the remaining part for passenger service. The main rail line passes through the center of the country from Pinar del Río Province to Havana to Santiago de Cuba at the other end of the island. There are also several branches off the main line that go to smaller cities and towns.  There is an electric train that goes from Havana to the city of Matanzas.

 Don’t expect to find the same kind of comforts as you do on European and U.S. trains. Traveling by train is not for the faint of heart. Cuba’s passenger trains are most often slow moving, unclean, have windows that don’t open, air conditioning that is too high or too low and schedules that are unreliable. Despite these shortcomings, if you do travel by train, choose first class called primera especial since air conditioning is usually available. Regular class is traveling on slow-moving trains that make stops frequently in every small town. Trains seldom run on time and schedules can change over night. The overnight express from Havana to Santiago offers fairly good service. The 600-mile trip takes about 16 hours and the train passes through many cites along the way. This is the best way to meet Cubans and see the country.

 In Havana tickets may be purchased in advance at the Ladis Tel: (formerly known as Ferrotour office) behind the Central Railway Station or Estación Central de Ferrocarril in Habana Vieja Tel: 61-4259. In Santaigo de Cuba at the other end of the rail line, contact Ferrotour at to make reservations.

For complete information about Cuba’s trains see:

By Highway

Cuba has about 10,000 miles of paved roads. The main highway—La Carretra Central or Central Highway—goes almost from one end of the island to the other running from Pinar del Río in the west to Santiago for a total length of over 800 miles. There is also an eight-lane expressway linking only part of the island. It extends from Pinar del Río to just east of Santa Clara. Other highways go from Havana to Varadero and another joins the cays around Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Coco. In addition to the paved highways, there are a number of small or secondary roads that traverse the country at various points and unpaved “farm-to-market-roads”. Many roads are unpaved and full of potholes.

 When driving in the countryside, only drive during the day. Be sure to watch out for livestock, pedestrians and bicycles. Also, remember to take along some type of map and be careful of blind curves when travelling in mountainous areas. During the rainy season improved roads can turn into quagmires. Try not to venture off the main paved road or you will run the risk of getting stuck in the mud and possibly stranded in a remote area.  To drive legally in the country you must be 21 years old and have either an International Driver's License or a national driver's license.

One difficulty about driving in Cuba is that there are virtually no road signs or markings. Major junctions and turnoffs are often not indicated at all. The lack of signage also extends to highway instructions. Often a one-way street is not clearly indicated as is the speed limit, which can cause problems with the police.

Some of the main highways like Autopista, Vía Blanca and Carretera Central are generally in a good state, but be prepared for roads suddenly deteriorating into chunks of asphalt and unexpected railroad crossings everywhere. There are hundreds of them without safety barriers.

Speed limits are technically 50km/h in the city, 90km/h on highways and 100km/h on the highway or Autopista.

Bus Travel

 Buses are the backbone of Cuba's public transportation system. Almost everyone depends on the bus system for travel within and between cities. Cuban buses or gua-guas (wha-whas) are used in cities and towns for local travel. All that is required is having the patience to stand in long lines to use this form of transportation. For long distance travel there are air-conditioned interprovincial tourist buses. Many of these buses are newer European models. They go to and from Havana and service most of the country. There are also smaller, less comfortable buses with no air conditioning that travel frequently between the majority of the cities and towns.

  Bus travel is inexpensive and quicker than travelling by train. Be sure to make your reservations in advance, especially during the peak tourist season, weekends or holidays. All major cities and most towns have bus terminals. Viazul ( other companies offer modern air conditoned bus service to resort areas. They are the biggest bus transportation network of the country designed specially for the tourists and with a big structure at a national level.

 Transportation can be challenging in Havana, whose 2 million residents must endure inadequate bus service and relatively expensive, sporadic access to collective taxis. Half of the 700,000 Cuban cars are privately owned, including the 60,000 vintage Buicks, Chevys, Fords, and Cadillacs still on the road thanks to the genius of Cuban mechanics. These vintage cars delight older Americans as reminders of a time when our cars had not only plush leather upholstery but also lots of leg room and no bucket seats. Most of these almendrones, as Cubans call them — are now taxis. Even locals splurge and hire the most splendid of them for weddings and other special occasions.

 Gas sold in convertibles or CUCs and is widely available in stations all over the country. Service stations are often open 24 hours and may have a small parts store on site. Gas is sold by the liter and comes in regular (CUC$0.90 per liter) and especial (CUC$1.10 per liter) varieties. Rental cars are advised to use especial. All gas stations have efficient pump attendants, usually in the form of trabajadores sociales (students in the process of studying for a degree).


 Havana has plenty of taxis for tourists, businessmen and foreign residents. Taxis may be found around most hotels and in other areas of Cuba's cities. Since winter 2008 all taxi companies work under one name: Cubataxi (Tel. 7/855-5555-59).. Be aware that when the taxi has no meter, negotiate a price before you get in the taxi. If they have a meter, at daytime the meter code is "1" at night time "4" these numbers calculate a different price per km To make it complex, some still work under their old names: Panatax is the cheapest. The most expensive taxis are Turistaxi, Transgaviota and Taxi OK. They are white with red signs and yellow with black signs at the side.

There are several types of taxis found in Cuba. Official taxis for tourists include a meter; these are the easiest taxis to take, as the meters are reliable and accurate. If the driver does not turn on the meter, simply ask him to do so. If the driver isn’t able to do so, ask for the rate in advance. 

Fares start at a flat rate of CUC$1 and cost an additional CUC$1 for each kilometer. A common fare between Old Havana, Vedado, and Centro Havana neighborhoods is CUC$3-5. To go from Old Havana to Miramar will cost CUC$8-12. These fares are approximations. The most economical cabs are the yellow old-style Panataxis without air-conditioning, followed by the new yellow models with air-conditioning.

It is not uncommon to encounter tourist taxis without meters. Taxi drivers claiming their meters are broken are usually attempting to rip off tourists. If this is the case, get a quoted rate before taking a taxi to your destination. Rates for metered taxis and unmetered taxis tend to be comparable. In the case of unmetered taxis, negotiating a fare is acceptable. 

Almendrones are a a type of collective, carpoll taxi used only by Cubans, and it comes at a reduced rate, payable only in Cuban pesos. Pedal or Bici-Taxis which are like rickshaws. Yellow Coco Taxis (Tel. 7/873-1411) are motorized tricycles that look like eggs on wheels. They are adequate for short trips around the city. Both of these types of transportation can be found throughout Havana and are cheaper than traditional taxis. Negotiate the fare with your driver before accepting a ride.

The author has occasionally used both of these types of transportation while in Havana.

After your arrival at the Havana Jose Marti International Airport you can hop into a Havana Airport taxi and head for the city center. The journey is approximately 20 to 30 minutes long. There are two main Havana Airport taxi services that can transport you from the airport to wherever your destination on the island is. Taxi OK and Panataxi are the said services and they can be accessed at the Terminal 3 exit; their representatives’ telephone contacts are (07) 877 6666 and (07) 555 5555 respectively.

Car Rentals

You must be at least 21 years old and posses either an International Driver's License or a valid driver's license your passport, a refundable deposit (cash or credit card). However, once you've factored in gas, insurance, it isn't cheap. Prices vary with car size, season, and length of rental. Bank on paying an average of CUC $70 per day for a medium-sized car. Some say that it's actually cheaper to hire a taxi for distances of under 150km.

Rental cars come with a recommended CUC $15 to CUC $30 per day insurance, which covers everything but theft of the radio. You can choose to decline the insurance, but then the refundable deposit you must leave upon renting the car soars from CUC $250 to CUC $500. If you do have an accident, you must get a copy of the denuncia (police report) to be eligible for the insurance coverage, a process which can take all day. If the police determine that you are the party responsible for the accident,you lose your deposit.

To avoid hassle, you can hire both a comfortable, modern car and a driver with a growing number of companies, most notably Car Rental Cuba whose drivers are skilled, punctual, bilingual and friendly

There are also individuals who have their own cars and work as private chauffeurs.  They will be glad to take you to your destination or show you the sights.

Buying a Car

Foreigners cannot buy or own cars, the only way is to buy it in a Cuban's name which is risky or be a legal resident through marriage. Since 1959, Cubans could only freely purchase autos made prior to that year. In 2011, Cuba legalized private, person-to-person sales of used cars. Cubans can now buy and sell used cars from each other. Before, Cubans had to request authorization from the government to purchase a new or second-hand vehicle, usually a rental car, from state retailers. To buy a newer used or even a brand-new car required a state-issued permit, which authorities usually only allotted to VIPs, such as athletes, and those deemed vital to the Marxist regime, such as doctors.

Cuban president Raul Castro is permitting new regulations that allow Cubans to buy cars without the government permit, effective Car dealerships are still state-controlled and the prices are marked up substantially.

Cuban car retailers are marking up the price of new cars by 400 percent or more, and used cars were selling at astronomical sums. Conside wages average about $25 a month. It's a very, very small number of people who could think of affording such prices.

Diplomats, foreign businesses and select Cubans will still need government permission to import a new or used car without the huge markup.

For now foget about importing a car. As the Havana Times states,Aduana General de la República de Cuba (General Customs of the Republic of Cuba) has a website, called AduaCuba, which is available in both Spanish and English – although the English section is less detailed – and which can be found at

 To access the English language section, go to the site’s homepage and, on the right-hand side of the thin blue banner, click on “English” (written in red). This takes you to the “Cuban Customs” page.

On the AduaCuba homepage, there is a relatively new document available, only in Spanish, entitled Normas, Aduana – 2011, Repúbica de Cuba (Norms, Customs – 2011, Republic of Cuba). It is the first edition of the main custom regulations currently in use and can be downloaded as a PDF document. Because so many people – both visitors to Cuba and Cubans travelling abroad – do not know much about Cuban customs regulations, this document is intended as a corrective to this situation and, by implication, to facilitate and speed up entry into the country.

Under the section entitled Vehículos, Motores y Carrocerías (Vehicles, Engines and Chassis), there is a detailed discussion about what groups of people are authorized to import light automotive vehicles into Cuba. These groups include foreign business associations, travel agencies, bank and financial representatives, foreign technicians working in Cuba on contract, foreign journalists accredited in the country, etc. In each case, authorization must first be obtained from an official Cuban ministry or national organization.”

Driver’s License

To drive legally in Cuba you have to be at least 21 years old and hold a valid Cuban license, a license from your home country or an international driver’s license. You’ll have to be a legal resident to obtain a Cuban driver’s license.

Finding Your Way Around

 In Cuba most addresses are given as locations and street numbers are occasionally used. For example, in Havana the address of a building, business, restaurant, hotel or home may be described as between two streets on a certain avenue, then followed by the neighborhood or district. Streets (calles) and avenues (avenidas) are almost laid out on the old Spanish rectangular grid system centered at a main square or plaza with parallel streets (calles) running perpendicular to avenues (avenidas). Some towns have even numbered streets running perpendicular to odd-numbered streets. An address may also be given as being on the corner (esquina or esq.) or between (entre, or e/) cross street.

 However, be aware that many streets have changed names but continue to be known by their old names. This practice of streets having two different names is common. Below is a list of both the new and old names (in parenthesis) of the main streets in Havana.

  • Argamonte (Zulueta)
  • Aponte (Somerulelos)
  • Avenida Antonio Maceo (Malecón)
  • Avenida de Bélgica (Egido & Monserrate)
  • Avenida Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (Avenida del Puerto)
  • Avenida de España (Vives)
  • Avenida de Italia (Galiano)
  • Avenida de la Independencia (Avenida de Rancho Boyeros)
  • Avenida de las Misiones (Monserrate)
  • Avenida México (Cristina)
  • Avenida Salvador Allende (Carlos III)
  • Avenida Simón Bolívar (Reina)
  • Brasil (Teniente Rey)
  • Calle 23 (La Rampa)
  • Calle G (Avenida de los Presidentes)
  • Capdevilla ((Cárcel)
  • Enrique Barnet (Estrella)
  • Leonor Pérez (Paula)
  • Malecón (Avenida Maceo)
  • Máximo Gómez (Monte)
  • Padre Varela (Belascoaín)
  • Paseo de Martí (Paseo del Prado)
  • San Martín (San José)

  There is a section in this guide that has a table with the approximate distance between many points within the country. It should help you find your way around if you travel by car. Due to a lack of space we couldn't possibly include all of the cities, larger towns or beach resorts.


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Cuban Spanish

Official Guide to Cuban Spanish

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