Perhaps the most iconic aspect of Cuba are the many vintage automobiles that tool about all over the island. Cuba has been essentially cut off from most markets since 1960, so most of the vehicles that were on the island at that time are still there and operational. The U.S. was the biggest trading partner with Cuba prior to the embargo John F. Kennedy imposed after the Cuban Revolution, so many of the cars you see on the roads are classic U.S. makes. Soviet models are also prevalent, but they aren’t as pretty.
To me these cars are representative of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Cuban people who own them. They have passed these cars down from generation to generation and keep them on the road. Many of the classic cars are used as collective taxis, or collectivos. Since it’s not common for everyone to own a vehicle, the average Cuban gets around using this system or by the bus.
Collectivos operate like the name suggests: collectively. They ply certain routes, like La Rampa or Linea (main boulevards) in Vedado or from Miramar or Vedado to Central Havana or Old Havana or some combination in between and vice versa. You signal them from the curb, just like hailing a regular taxi. However, when the driver pulls over, which he may do even if he already has passengers, you tell him where you are going along the regular route. So for example, to get from home to school, we needed to take a collectivo from Avenida 23 (La Rampa) & Calle C in Vedado to Calle 28 & Avenida 31 in Miramar and then walk the 15 minutes to school. But if we gave the school address, no one would take us since it was off the regular route or they would charge us a regular taxi fee if the car was empty of other passengers. So we gave the 28 & 31 in Miramar address or the name of the closest cafe at that intersection. The driver then decides if he wants to take you – usually you get an inverted nod or he pauses long enough before driving away to allow you to enter the vehicle. If he’s not interested, usually he just drives off. Everyone already in the collectivo shifts over to allow new passengers to enter or exit the vehicle as needed.
When you reach your destination, you pay the driver a set fee for your seat: either CUC$0.50 or MN$10, ideally in exact change. If you are riding for a long time, sometimes the driver will charge you double. We had a couple drivers try to charge a non-Cuban price (CUC$2 or more), but they will generally try that as you get in so you can either negotiate down or just pass on that collectivo and wait for the next. Almost without fail, if an empty collectivo stopped, the driver would try to charge a CUC$5 flat rate for all four of us, which is obviously more than the standard rate. We just declined and waited for the next one.
When you get in and out of the collectivo, sometimes a difficult endeavour if it’s full or falling apart, be careful with the door. The driver and sometimes other passengers will admonish you if you slam the door too hard. This is not surprising or unreasonable given that these cars are not only the driver’s livelihood but also twice as old as I am.
Most of the nicest cars on the street – fresh paint, gleaming chrome, restored interiors – and all of the convertibles are not collectivos. They are taxis strictly for tourists. They will take you for a drive along the Malecón, the famous 8km ocean drive from Old Havana to Miramar or just through Old Havana.
Title quote: Chuck Berry
Midwestmagellan note: This post basically acts as fan service to my dad who is obsessed with old cars. Enjoy!