I couldn’t help myself. I kept looking around waiting to see a blonde, pony-tailed girl in hotpants on rollerskates serving burgers and fries. From my vantage point in Francesca’s Café on Parque Central in Havana (a great place for breakfast, next to the Hotel Ingleterra), I may as well have been in 1950s America. A 1955 Cadillac. A 1956 Pontiac. A 1957 Chevy. And the only Thunderbird in town. All shined to perfection in pinks, purples, reds, golds, blues, greens … fascinating.
These were the tourist cars, the show cars, the convertibles that for €40* an hour will take you on a tour of Havana, cruisin’ down the Malécon promenade. There was no shortage of takers, mainly young American students over in Cuba for Spring Break, or elderly couples off the cruise ships reliving their glory days. All were having a whale of a time.
But I was strangely resentful. And sad. Yes, I know people have to make a living but there is something almost indecent about the way Havana prostitutes itself for tourists. Few, if any of the cars have their original engines – most have been replaced with diesel engines as petrol is too expensive. And this layer of untruth, this ring of falsity, niggled at me for days.
I was far more at home in the beat-up wrecks that patrolled the outer regions of the city, their paintwork dulled by years of neglect, their interiors stripped to the most basic seats and mirrors. Somehow, they felt more real. Down the country, ladas and older model Fords are more popular. We had one taxi that had to be push started. Another that had wooden doors. A third that had a phone pinned to the mirror using an elastic band – the GPS.
But down south, in Trinidad, the horse is king. Cowboys reign. And the pony and trap is the transport of choice. It was like stepping back into another world. Young kids road roughshod across the cobblestone streets, whirling their lariat. They weren’t playing at Cowboys, they were cowboys. Oxen had charge of the streets. As in Havana, the bicycle rickshaw was evident but as Trinidad is a very walkable city, they didn’t get many takers.
Buses are packed to capacity. Had we had more time in Havana, we’d have eventually navigated the city’s bus system. They looked as if they’d hold together long enough to get from A to B. Not so down south. Jammed full most of the time, they looked like they’d been put together using left-over piece of life-sized models. Trains are practically non-existent. The only one I saw or heard of was a steam train that goes once a day from Trinidad into the Valle de los Ingenios. It is supposed to leave at 9 or 9.30 in the morning, returning about 2, depending on what you read but schedules in Cuba are ephemeral. Like appointments and bookings. I met a gal from Colorado who twice had waited three hours on a beach to go diving. She’d booked and reconfirmed both times. The only way you know for sure that a taxi driver will come back to pick you up at the appointed time is if they offer to wait for full payment until later. If they take the money for the outward journey, don’t hold your breath. But then, that’s Cuba.
Expect to pay anywhere from €150 to €180* for trip from Havana to Trinidad by private taxi. And if you’re tempted to get a classic car, bring a wrap or shawl to put on the seats. That shiny plastic is a bitch in hot weather. Also, check the legroom (Fords are roomier). The roads are bad and what might on paper take a couple of hours, will take twice as long. But it’s worth the experience. If you’ve a lot of bags, chances are that the spare tyre will be removed to make room – bring the rosary beads. [Soft bags are better than hard suitcases if you’re travelling any distance. Some of those boots are quite small. If I were to go again, I’d rucksack it.]
There are no meters so agree a price up front. If you’re staying in a casita, check with your host to see what the going rate is. La Boca to Trinidad was €6 while the trip to the beach was €8. Don’t be at all alarmed if they stop to pick up someone else. Just because you’re in the car doesn’t make it your taxi. They’re big on efficiencies. Taxis in Havana are another story entirely – expectations as I’ve said are high. It won’t take you long to figure out when you’re being ripped off. The going rate to or from the airport to downtown Havana is €25. You have to queue for ages to get cash exchanged but there is an ATM in Terminal 3. If you don’t have the patience, the drivers will accept euro if you talk to the chief organiser first – the man who looks the most important – not hard to spot 🙂 But with euro, they will try (and often succeed – blush – but I was beyond caring) to get €30.
Again, had we had more time, and were we to go again, we’d check the new intercity buses. But while they might be cheaper for two, the downside is that they take twice as long as the original forever to get from A to B. Time is something that Cubans have a lot of.
Driving in Cuba is quite the experience. It doesn’t quite beat South Africa for potholes but it’s close. The drivers are familiar with the much-trafficked routes and zig and zag like the forward line of the best rugby team. It’s poetry in motion – once you get used to it and realise what’s going on and that the bottle he’s sipping from really is just coffee.
* 1 CUC = €1