Navigating Viazul across Cuba

When many people think of Cuba, they think only of Havana, but do yourself a favor and go beyond the capital. We visited Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Playa Giron with Viazul. Each had its own unforgettable culture and vibrancy.

Like many visitors, we started our trip in Havana, but our journey with Viazul started long before we touched down. Here's our experience and 10 rules to follow:

Cuba’s intricacies make it difficult to plan as you would a typical trip. Often buses, cars and trains are not reliable because of the country’s infrastructure. We methodically built our trip with contingencies that thankfully weren’t needed.

We planned to give ourselves a few days in each city to see the central and western portions of Havana. This allowed us some cushion if the flight was delayed or other issues arose. We then mapped out a plan to spend time in Playa Giron, Trinidad and Cienfuegos with the goal of minimizing wasted time on the road and maximizing our time in the cities.

From there, we decided to book our tickets online to help shore-up (but never cement...because Cuba) our plans.

Online booking
It looks like Viazul may have launched a new booking platform in mid-2020 that wasn’t working when I tried to play with it, but YMMV. Here’s what we found when we booked in December 2019:

RULE #1: Book early and online (when possible)
Viazul used an antiquated booking system. It only sold 15 tickets per journey online, which must be purchased at least one week in advance. You must create a free account to buy your tickets. Be prepared with your passport details, although no one ever checked our passports outside of Havana. Within a week of the journey, tickets are only sold in-person up to the capacity of the bus. First come, first serve.

Almost all of our buses were sold out. We heard reference to a standby list for same-day travelers, but it never saw one. Drivers seemed to just do their own thing except in Havana where everything was done by the book and in advance.

Havana to Playa Giron
RULE #2: Keep checking the website
Any ticket out of Havana seemed hardest to get online. We tried to buy a month early and all of the seats for this route were sold out. Then, a week later somebody cancelled one ticket, but we needed three.

RULE #3: Buy the ticket when you see the ticket
I’m not sure how, but I ended up getting the site to allow me to buy two tickets despite it showing just one available. I figured it’s easier to get one ticket in Havana than three.

RULE #4: Print your confirmation before arriving in Cuba
I kept checking the site up until a week before we were due to leave. Finally, I ponied up the extra money to have someone from Zunzuncar go get the last ticket. I decided it was probably more convenient, efficient and, in the end, cheaper to have someone get it rather than gamble and buy when we arrived.

RULE #5: Be on time
Since this was our first trip with Viazul, and Havana is a major hub, we arrived an hour early.

The bus station was a flurry of activity at 6am, but mostly for Omnibus Nacionales, Cuba’s national bus company that’s off-limits for most visitors. 

We made our way to the Viazul office where there was already a long line waiting to check in at the single kiosk. 

RULE #6: Remember to exchange your confirmation for an actual ticket

The line moved quickly and we were soon at the front. The attendant spoke little English, but there wasn’t much to say. He compared the printed email with his computer manifest and wrote out our tickets. We were told to wait a few minutes before boarding. 

RULE #7: Follow the crowd, except when it’s not beneficial (see rule #9 below)
About 10 minutes later, a woman yelled out the cities where our bus was stopping and gave instructions, in Spanish, on where to find the bus. There was some confusion among those who didn’t speak Spanish, but they followed the crowd past the Omnibus customers and down a narrow hallway. A window on the side opened to the baggage office where we were allowed to check one bag each.

This was the only time anyone weighed our suitcases. You’re allowed 20 kg per person. The weight is combined for groups and our total came to 59 kg. The man behind the counter waved us down the hallway toward the bus stands where we found a waiting Viazul bus.

RULE #8: Bring a sweater

Viazul uses newer, Chinese-manufactured, buses instead of older models or even converted tractors on buses for locals (pictured above). 

These higher-end Yutong buses have more comfortable seats and an air conditioning that seems to only work on full blast. 

All long-haul buses have two drivers who drive the full length of the route and return the next day. We later learned Viazul is almost always on time, but this trip was the exception. Despite both drivers being ready to leave at 7am, there was some issue with the paperwork for the journey. The ticket agent kept calling for an “Andres,” but nobody responded. While the drivers kept joking with each other, it was clear the driver behind the wheel was getting agitated. At 7:30am, two women got on the bus and we pulled out….only to stop once again when the man who took our suitcases earlier came running out and started banging on the side of the bus. The driver stopped and two more women got on (don’t be them and follow rule #5). The drivers were very confused and talked with the attendant before we pulled out again. Then the driver’s cell phone rang. It was the ticket agent AGAIN asking if Andres was on board. The co-driver went through the bus looking for Andres when one of the women who got on raised her hand. It seems someone mis-typed Andrea.

8am is the peak of rush hour for most cities, but in Havana, where most Cubans can’t afford a private car, there was no traffic. The urban streets of Havana quickly faded into rural countryside. I was optimistic we would actually make up some time, but around 9:45am we pulled over to a restaurant off the main highway. Recognizing the delay, the drivers cut the rest stop to 30 minutes instead of the usual hour. Eventually, we arrived in Playa Giron for our stay.

Playa Giron to Trinidad
RULE #9: Trust, then verify
I bought these tickets online, but a few days before leaving for Cuba I got an email from Viazul saying they cancelled our 10:30am bus and booked us on one leaving at 2:45pm. However, they never sent a confirmation email. I figured I’d ask when we got to Playa Giron.

When we arrived, the office was closed with a sign saying it would reopen “tomorrow at 8:45am.” I got up early the next day and went to the office, but it was still closed. I hung around for a bit in a long line that became our own United Nations. There was a group from Spain in front of me, some young adults from France behind, several Italians near the front and four Korean women at the head. Around 9am, a frustrated German man walked up and claimed the sign was here when he arrived three days ago and he had no faith the office would reopen. I then translated the message to the Spanish who told the Italians who told the French and I worked with the Koreans.

RULE #10 Drivers make the rules outside of Havana
A bus pulled up at 10:20am so we ran up and explained our predicament. My mother, who speaks fluent Spanish, explained the situation to the co-driver. He was doubtful we’d get on the later bus, if it even ran. This bus was full, but he agreed to let us sit in the front row that’s usually reserved for Viazul staff. 

I couldn’t help but notice the bus had 343,355km (213,351mi) on the odometer. Judging from the off-center degree of the steering wheel, I hoped they at least put some money into maintenance.

Our bus largely emptied in Cienfuegos so we moved into the regular seats for the rest of our trip to Trinidad. We later learned the 2:45pm bus did run as scheduled.

Trinidad to Cienfuegos
After two iffy experiences, I made sure I was early (rule #5) to get our tickets. 

The line was to the door even an hour before departure, but as I waited, I realized it was just a large group that was talking to one man who needed to check in for his bus. There were several buses leaving around the same time, so when I got to the front, the man at the desk told me to wait a few minutes so he could finish up the bus that was ready to depart. Soon, he handed over the stack of blank boarding passes to another worker who issued our passes. I then returned to our casa to wait until it was time to board.

The bus was almost fully loaded when we returned, so we had to split up to find seats. 

Even though it was a non-stop bus, we stopped twice. Once for the driver to exchange empty water bottles for full ones from a woman on the side of the road (Rule #10). And again when a passenger got motion sickness. Still, we arrived on-time to Cienfuegos.

Cienfuegos to Havana

Unlike most terminals, Viazul and Omnibus share a waiting area in Cienfuegos. The Viazul agent works out of a small, air-conditioned office and a short line extended out. Before long, he came out to ask anyone going to Havana to come to the front. I went into the office behind another man and was surprised he was using an actual printer for the tickets. Everywhere else, agents hand-wrote the information.

A few minutes later, a very hyper man came out to ask those going to Havana to bring him our bags. He could barely focus as he tagged them. On some he forgot to place a tag (Rule #9). There was also confusion about where the line started and ended because he clumped us together.

Our bus arrived early and all of the bays were taken. The hyper man tried to move out buses that had finished unloading. Eventually, our bus pulled in and we got seats together. 

The drivers seemed to be in a hurry and we ended up leaving 8 minutes early (rule #5). I hope nobody was left behind in the confusion (rule #7).

We made good time towards Havana. Our bus was “express,” so it didn’t go off the national highway to stop at Playa Giron or Playa Larga. 

Unfortunately, we still made the long rest stop so the drivers could eat. We got an expensive coffee and sat around waiting for them to finish their meal. There is a bathroom at the stop, but you have to tip to use it. 

Eventually, we pulled into Havana about 10 minutes early.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

How early should I check-in?
Viazul recommended we arrive 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes before departure depending on when and who you asked. It really depends how lucky you’re feeling. Generally, 60 was very early, 45 seemed right, but rushed, 30 was cutting it close and any less you better pray the line isn’t too long, unless you’re going from a very small stop.

How should I get to/from the terminal?
We used an arranged driver or walked. It’s hard to find drivers for early morning departures, so expect to pay more and ask your casa for help. There were usually plenty of taxis waiting at the terminals. Havana has a taxi area that was very busy. Most drivers wanted us to pay 15 CUC to get to Old Havana, but we knew better than to pay more than 10 CUC. We worked with a contact who helps connect travelers with private drivers to get an affordable ride.

It helps if you already have a casa booked because some will try to steer you toward a casa where they can earn a commission.

Are there bathrooms on the bus?
No, but there are breaks every few hours. In an emergency, you can ask the driver to pull over.

Can I stretch at stops?
Not usually. The drivers are focused on boarding passengers in a short time, but you can ask if they’re early.

What if I can’t make a reservation?
Zunzuncar will go in-person to buy your ticket for a 10 CUC fee. It’s best to place an order at least a week in advance to have the best chance at getting it. Alternatively, you can buy when you arrive or same-day, but it’s first-come, first-serve.

What if I still can’t get on?
There are usually taxi drivers/collectivos hanging around the bus stations. They often charge more than the bus, but may be better for large groups because they will go directly to your casa without any stops along the way. If you’re solo or only with one other person, you may try splitting the cost with someone else in the same situation. For example, in Playa Giron we needed a local driver to get around. The first driver I asked turned us down because he was trying to find a fare going back home to Havana so he didn’t have to ride empty. The second driver we approached agreed to take us around if we could be back by 5pm so he could take another group he was scheduled to bring Havana.
Navigating Viazul across Cuba Navigating Viazul across Cuba Reviewed by Brandon on June 01, 2020 Rating: 5

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