There are no chicken buses in Cuba. There are many forms of transportation, but not a single chicken bus – I guess the United States embargoed the sale of their old school buses along with everything else.
That being said, foreigners are very limited in which long-distance public transport they can actually take – and several (admittedly uncomfortable) forms are reserved exclusively for Cubans.
If you are on a package tour (which many visitors seem to be), you get ferried around in exclusive air-conditioned coaches by Transtur or Transgaviota. However, for those of us travelling independently, there are essentially 2 options.
Option 1 – ViAzul Coach
There are at least 2 long distance coach companies, but it is almost impossible for foreigners to take the Omnibus Nacionales. They simply refuse to sell you a ticket.
Instead, you have to take the ViAzul coaches (much more expensive and incredibly expensive compared with a chicken bus), which are reasonably modern, air-conditioned and made in China.
The slogan for ViAzul is:
Punctual – if the trip starts from where you are getting on, then yes, they are punctual in starting out. But as the journey goes on, the timing slips further and further and further behind as the bus driver stops to pick up other unscheduled passengers, stops to do his grocery shopping, stops for who knows what other reason. The worst case of this was from Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba – a 5-hour bus trip that took us 6 because of all the unscheduled stoppages.
Comfortable – yes, the seats aren’t bad, but the air-con is turned up so high it is ridiculously cold, especially given the moment you step out the door it is at least 36 degrees and 90% humid. I had long pants, socks, shoes, t-shirt, hoodie (with hood pulled up) and windstopper jacket on during the 16-hour trip from La Habana to Santiago de Cuba and my feet were ice blocks when I stepped out into the heat of the day.
In addition, although most of the buses have toilets on board, I have yet to be on one where it works. At least, unlike chicken buses in Central America, they do stop for toilet breaks every 2-3 hours, but make sure you have some Moneda Nacional for the bathroom!
Safe – have to admit, they are pretty good about overtaking and driving responsibly. Despite the fact that there are many very, very slow frustrations on the road including horse-and-cart, ox-and-cart, people-on-bicycles, people-on-low-cc-motorcycles, cars-that-barely-go, etc (see first image in post).
They are also pretty good with the luggage – insisting on luggage tags (most of the time) and checking off against the luggage tags when you arrive at your destination. Infinitely nicer than having to lug your bag onto a chicken bus and keep an eye on it the whole trip, but really don’t appreciate the extra 1 CUC “tip” they ask of all foreigners (not locals) for actually putting the bag on the bus.
Another useful tip if you are going to use ViAzul (learned through much confusion and bafflement) – book your ViAzul ticket more than 1 day in advance so that you get a piece of paper that looks like this:
This you swap during check-in for a piece of paper that looks like a boarding pass (though generally seating numbers mean nothing).
If you book the day before they put you on a “list” – which is essentially a waiting list. If you are on the list but don’t have the piece of paper – they will check everyone with a piece of paper in first and only if there are seats remaining sell you a ticket. They never explain this to you though – very, very important if you are doing long trips (e.g. La Habana to Santiago de Cuba).
Oh, and if you organize your Casa Particular in advance – they usually send someone with your name on a piece of paper to pick you up at the bus station. It’s generally a little more expensive than just grabbing a “taxi” when you arrive, but it is easy and they absolutely know where the casa is.
Option 2 – Collectivo Taxi
In the western, more touristy part of Cuba at least, there is another option of taking a Collectivo Taxi from one place to the next. As the name suggests, this is a taxi that takes several passengers (who are not necessarily travelling together) along a certain route. I did this twice – from Trinidad to Viñales and from Viñales to La Habana. It is slightly more expensive than ViAzul (usually 2-3 CUC) but the advantage is that you don’t have all the intermediate stops that the bus has to make and the taxi picks you up and drops you off at your Casa Particular. This is really important in La Habana where the ViAzul terminal is out in woop woop and it would cost at least another 10 CUC on top of the bus fare to get to where you were staying.
My experiences with Collectivo Taxis were 2/3 good. 2/3 were in oldsmobiles and went relatively smoothly. 1/3 was in a clapped out Peugeot and a total a disaster – I’ll write more about that another time.
Had an interesting revelation during my long trips here in Cuba. For 5 months in Central America on the chicken buses, I never once put my earphones in to listen to music. Never felt the desire. But within ½ hour of being on a ViAzul bus – my earphones were in and I spent the entire trip connected to music. My thinking is that in a chicken bus, you have to live in the moment and you can’t escape from being part of your surroundings, no matter how uncomfortable you might be. Therefore, music just doesn’t fit. However, in ViAzul, you are in a hermetically sealed capsule with no connection to your surroundings, so music works well to keep you entertained. I’m sure not all travelers feel this way, but that seems to be how it works for me at least. Even in the Collectivo Taxis here in Cuba where there was no air-con and the windows were down – I never even thought to put my music on.