From the moment you set foot in Cuba, you will find a well-rounded infrastructure that will allow you to travel around the country with ease. Domestic flights as well as air-conditioned buses and taxis will take you wherever you need, through whichever path you desire to explore, whether it’s on the National Highway (Autopista Nacional), the Central Road (Carretera Central) or any other road or air-bound route. Nevertheless, if you consider yourself a free and adventurous spirit you can opt for a different way of getting around: hitchhiking. This post is for those daring travelers.
“Botella’, literally “bottle” in Spanish, is the word used when referring to hitchhiking in Cuba. This term has other meanings in the island as well; locals use it to name the actual container, salaries obtained without working and, of course, a free ride. As you might have guessed, I will focus on this last practice, which can turn out to be an exciting adventure, packed full of surprises.
Before sharing my drops of wisdom as a “hitchhiker” myself, I would like to inform you on how getting a lift became such a popular and extended practice in Cuba. A few decades ago, during the so-called “Special Period”, a moment of crude economic crisis after the downfall of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, fuel prices rocketed and its importation descended considerably. This situation led to endless blackouts and the reduced circulation of vehicles. Under these conditions, people used hitchhiking as one of the few modes of transportation available.
Thankfully, the circumstances have improved in the last few years, but taking "botella" or "coger botella" is still common practice for Cubans, particularly among students and low-income workers, due to the unreliability of public transportation. "Botelleros" (people who ask for "botella") either hitch a ride in taxis and tour buses that are empty on their way back from a trip or climb on the back of a converted truck with passenger seats. All options are valid; the important thing is to get moving…
Once you have decided your destination, here are some tips to help you get to where you need to go; botella-style:
1. Find out what the best boarding point is
The first thing is knowing where to begin your hitchhiking journey: a spot where plenty of vehicles will definitely be passing through when heading to the destination you seek. For example, if you are in Havana and wish to get to Matanzas or Varadero, your best options are the Berroa bridge and the flashing traffic lights at Alamar, locally known as El Intermintente de Alamar. On the other hand, if you are heading to Pinar del Rio, Vinales Valley or Las Terrazas you can stick your thumb out at Novia del Mediodia, a boarding point in "La Lisa" neighborhood. Finally, if you wish to travel further into the island through the National Highway, you should look for the Ceiba tree in the Reparto Obrero neighborhood or take an exit on the "Primer Anillo" (Havana’s first ring road). Although these places are quite far from central Havana, they are all well known by locals and drivers, so getting there will certainly not be a problem.
2. Head out early
As they say, “the early bird catches the worm”. In Cuba, your safest best is to head out at dawn, or as early in the morning as possible; this way you can avoid the scorching heat of the afternoon and the darkness of the night (especially in Cuba where there aren’t many street lights) in case you haven’t yet arrived at your destination. Be warned, it is not safe for anyone (especially foreigners) to wait at remote boarding points once the sun goes down. You must also keep in mind that as the day advances more "botelleros" line up, so the competition for a free ride gets tougher.
3. Avoid halfway destinations, unless it’s another main city
Sometimes making various stops during your voyage can be strategic: if you are in no rush or you simply want to get going and cut short the waiting time in finding someone who heads to your exact destination. However, these rides can also bring several setbacks, especially if you are left in the middle of nowhere, in a small village or town near your departure point. For instance, if you go from Havana to Varadero, avoid being dropped off at intermediate spots like Santa Cruz or Jibacoa, because it is highly difficult to ask for "botella" from there. You should not, however, be afraid of getting off in the city of Matanzas, as many buses, trucks and taxis follow the route to Varadero.
4. No rides at noon
Noon is a terrible time to ask for "botella" not only due to the insufferable sun rays which are strongest at this hour, but also because most drivers are having lunch so the roads are almost deserted and the few drivers that pass by are not usually willing to pick anyone up. This is why heading out early is a golden rule. It is better to wait past lunchtime, when vehicle circulation gets going again; but remember not to wait until it’s too late!
5. Travel light but with plenty of water and sunscreen
When hitchhiking it is important to travel as light as possible, without any flashy objects or big bags that will complicate getting on and off the vehicles. You must keep in mind that drivers will be doing you a favor, so it is polite not too delay them by having to pack heavy luggage into the boot. Moreover, moving around with hefty baggage will also make you slower and clumsier in case you have to compete for "botella". What you must not leave without though, are a big bottle of water and sunscreen, as there is no way of knowing how long you will be waiting and it’s vital to keep yourself hydrated and protect your skin from the sun.
6. Bring a friend along for the adventure
Good company is always appreciated; a partner will make the wait seem less frustrating and come to your aid in case you need it; plus, it is always fun to have someone to share the experience with and take your picture during the journey. You might have to let some vehicles pass by if there is only room for one, but it will be worth it.
7. Use bright signs
This tip is optional. Although the use of bright signs is not very common in Cuba, it might help to draw a sign with big letters that announces your destination (for example: Santa Clara, Matanzas, Vinales). This will make the process faster as vehicles will immediately know where you are heading and will only stop if that is also their destination. If you get creative with your sign-drawing skills, locals might even give you a ride solely for your originality and wit. Bon voyage!