Thou shalt only take designated tourist taxis. That’s what my trusty guidebook had dictated in my pre-trip studies. For once I thought I might actually do some serious research on my destination prior to my arrival. I had never been to a communist country, my Spanish was limited to ‘dos cervazas, por favor’ and I was travelling solo. On day two of my trip, I left the well-highlighted, dog-eared guide in a taxi, all of my homework sped away into the streets, liberating me from such nonsense.
Havana is a bustling, beautiful city. Vibrant music spilling into the streets, women proudly flaunting their curves, and men boldly sharing their appreciation for such curves. Frozen in the 50s, struggling to move forward, as buildings crumble and faded paint flakes away, the locals dance as though they lack a skeleton and are quick to share a smile. Havana is a photographer’s bliss.
There’s a lot of ground to cover. Markets, museums, statues and ice cream shops abound. Getting around, the proper, well-behaved tourists are limited to the official yellow taxis, polished antique cars and the cute coco taxi – a giant yellow egg mounted to a rickshaw. Super fun, and priced for tourists.
To go from my hotel Habana Paseo – which is lovely and I would recommend despite their fondness for what I suspect is spam – into Habana Vieja (old Havana) by proper tourist taxi will run about 7 pesos. Two trips a day over the course of a week, it adds up for the shoe-string budget traveller. There must be a better way.
The bicycle taxis are an inexpensive way to get through inner Havana, but they are geared towards the locals. However, flash a cute smile and some pesos, especially if you’ve grabbed a local to tag along, and it’s a great way to explore. The risk is that if you’re spotted by police they may ask you to hop out and get back into a proper taxi. Shame on you.
The best options are the old-style taxis. There are two types – the ones that tourists take, beautifully painted in bold colours, with fancy decorations hanging from the rear view mirror. These are fun, the driver will chat you up while trying to look down your top, no discretion whatsoever.
Even better are the taxi collectives. Again – not for well behaved tourists, nor the faint of heart. They are totally random, found along busy streets and cram packed full of locals. They are held together with bits of string and coat hanger. It is baffling, how they’re still running, and by the constant roadside repairs, it would seem their longevity is hard-earned.
How to catch one.First, you need local Cuban currency. Cuba has two sets of money – one for Cubans, one for tourists. I can’t even begin to explain it, read about it here. Tourist pesos are widely accepted but if you’re sneaking into an alleyway market the locals frequent, it’s wise to have a stash of cash used by the locals. As you’re already breaking the rules using a local taxi, it’s more polite to use the local cash. If you’re stuck though, a tourist peso is welcome, as it’s about twice the regular fare. Go to an ice cream shop and offer up a trade, be generous about it, and respectful – this is bending the tourist rules, and not easy to pull off. Restaurants and hotels will not swap currency with you, but discreetly ask a patron and you might get lucky.
Next, stand on a busy street. Look for a black puff of exhaust – emerging from the plume of smoke will be a relic, a giant old 56 Chev. Smile cute, and wave at it. They will pull over for about two seconds, you climb in, scrambling over the laps of two others in the back seat, and hand the driver 50 centavos (about half a tourist peso). That’s it. Get in and go. There is no discussion about where you want to go, or where the cab is going. Sometimes you have a moment where you can say “Habana vieja?” and they might nod. But mostly, you assume they’re simply going in the direction they are pointed. So, if you want to go that direction too, hop aboard.
As my ass will attest, this is not luxurious travel. I spent the bulk of a day just hopping into random taxi collectives, taking in the sites. I have no idea where I went or even how I got back to my hotel, but it was a gorgeous tour. The backseats are often a strip of vinyl barely containing decades old metal springs. Springs that will dig in, and leave a lasting impression.