Traveling from city to city in Cuba can be a bit complicated, especially if you’re traveling on a budget. Here are the options that you have for traveling medium to longer distances within Cuba:
There are colectivos that drive on fixed routes within cities and then colectivos that drive longer distances, even across the whole island. If you read my article about using CUP to save tons of money while traveling in Cuba, you already know about the short-distance colectivos. These longer-distance colectivos are a little different. These are many times pickup trucks with the bed converted into benches or wagon-style cars to fit more passengers. Drivers will wait until they are full and then leave for the destination. If you are headed to a popular destination, there might be colectivos leaving all day long. Generally though, it is a good idea to go early just in case they only leave in the mornings or fill up fast.
Colectivos heading to a certain destination will often congregate on one street and take turns driving groups out of town. To find them, you can ask around or if the bus station is nearby, head there, because there will often be people hanging around outside trying to sell you colectivo tickets before you enter the bus station. These same people will often tell you that the bus is full to get you to ride with them, but that usually is not true. They will sometimes be trying to sell spots for the next day, but you can ask them where the colectivos leaving for your destination meet and ask if there are any leaving today.
Be careful with colectivos though. They may be trying to scam you. Never pay up front and be aware of a plan B if you felt any distrust towards the person arranging the ride. The best policy with colectivos is just to go the day that you want to leave and don’t pay or agree to anything until you see the car and driver along with other people inside or ready to board.
I got scammed by a guy that told me that he was selling spots in a colectivo. When I met with him the next day where we were supposed to leave, he told me that the car broke down but that he had tickets for a camión. As I needed to leave town that day and all of the tourist buses were full, I had no choice but to buy from him. Little did I know, he charged me over three times what I should have paid for my “seat.” More on camiones below.
That being said, colectivos are often a great option. They may save you a little bit compared to tourist buses, but it’s usually a negligible difference. The main advantage to colectivos is their speed. They’ll get you where you’re going the fastest.
Literally meaning truck, camiones are big tractor trailers where the back trailer has been converted into a sort of bus with big cutouts instead of windows. The seats are benches wide long enough for two people in which they will cram four. There is no A/C and only a crappy TV mounted in the front to try to distract you from the absolute misery that is riding in camiones. I have done windy, cliff-edged bus rides through the Andes where everyone is puking, a 36 hour non-stop bus ride in Mexico, overnight ferries in Thailand, full-day boat rides up the Amazon river, very bumpy propeller-plane flights over the Colombian mountains and many other rough forms of transportation. My 16 hour camión ride was by far the worst. I truly hope that I never experience that agony again. When it rains, you get soaked. When it’s hot and sunny, you get burnt to a crisp. When it starts to smell, it only gets worse. When your back and legs start to cramp, there is nothing that you can do because you are so tightly crammed next to the your seatmates that moving isn’t an option. What about going to the bathroom? Well, you just better be able to hold it. I could go on, but I think you have been warned enough. For a short distance, I might do it again. But most definitely nowhere near the 14 hours that I rode in the mid-July heat with the intense humidity and scattered showers that pounded us with every second.
Comfortable enough to close your eyes for a few hours, this is definitely the premium form of transportation in Cuba unless you are just flying all over the tiny island. These buses travel long distances faster than camiones but a bit slower than Colectivos. They are more expensive than camiones by a lot and a bit more than colectivos, although not always, so ask around. These usually have A/C and sometimes an onboard bathroom. They usually leave when they are scheduled to leave. And if you overnight, you might actually get a little sleep. I had mostly good experiences on tourist buses in Cuba. They are more expensive than in the rest of Latin America, but so is Cuba in general. The only other downside of riding in the tourist buses is the swarms of people that will practically stampede over you trying to get you to stay in their Casa Particular once you arrive at your destination. I took people up on it in two different cities and stayed in the worst casa I ever had in one and the best in another, so no helpful advice there really.
I never flew within Cuba, but obviously this is the fastest and most expensive option. If you want to go from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, it is definitely worth considering, especially if you plan ahead and find a good deal. Otherwise, it is a 12+ hour trip each way on a tourist bus (or a bit less on a colectivo) that will cost you around $40. That is the trip that I did in the camión and as if it needs to be said again, don’t do it to yourself.
However you travel in Cuba, be aware that it is more expensive to travel here than the rest of Latin America. Regardless, it is SO worth visiting. Check out more of my Cuba articles here.
A few ‘alternative’ forms of transportation in Cuba
If you want to go on an unforgettable adventure in Latin America with a small group that won’t make you feel like a tourist, check out the No Strings Travel trips page here.