Since the energy crises of the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries stopped supplying Cuba with the petrol it needed, “every possible means has been used to get around the island”. I read this in a guide book and let me tell you – it’s so true!
You can see vintage American cars and Soviet vehicles made in the 1970’s along sided on the streets with bicycles and one-horse carriages! Getting from one place to another, from home to work, is not an easy task for Cubans. They usually don’t have a car, and if they do drive – it’s probably some old thing that you can only find improvised parts for in local workshops. (Cubans were not allowed to have any private property, don’t know if that changed over the years.)
Hitch hiking to work
So, they can either go by bicycle, if the office is not that far, or hitch hike. Every time I took a bus from my Varadero hotel to go to Havana I was surprised that so many people who work at surrounding hotels were just standing on the road, still in their uniforms. They were hitch hiking, waiting for some lorry or a truck maybe to give them a lift.
The bus I was in was obviously for tourists only and the Varadero peninsula is pretty long, far from the small settlement where they might have lived. There were some whose houses were in Matanzas town, 50 kilometers from the hotel area.
So, you often see people hitch hiking all over the island. Have that in mind if you are renting and going on small road trips, since you can always give someone a lift. But if you do rent, try to get a full tank while in Havana or other town, since petrol stations are not that frequent on the open road.
Crowded camello bus
How about the public transport, you might ask. Well, I did see few crowded buses that only a Cuban can do. I mean, it seems you would have to have some special skills to climb up, squeeze in and then go down at the very station you choose. There were not enough buses when I visited, so those that I have seen in Havana for instance were only covering the city. There were no intercity lines at all.
And that one in Havana? Well, you just have to admire Cuban resourcefulness. There were not enough buses, so how do we make the ones we have – bigger! At least that’s what it looked like to me. You see a bus on Havana streets, like it was cut in two and another wagon put in between. It becomes long and heavy, so you add some bigger tires and a truck cabin to pull the construction. And there you go – the pink city Havana bus or the camello (the camel) as locals call it!
Rickshaws and sidecars
It’s easy to stumble upon traditional horse carriage in the countryside, while you can often see rickshaws in town areas. Both not oil dependent, hence the reason. I have also seen carriages pulled by a horse with tires instead of wheels, or something that was once a van, but now it’s only its shell with front wheels as those for carriages, no tires and all. You get confused by cars pulling a trailer full of people, but then again – you just stand in awe because of the ingenuity of Cuban people.
There are motorbikes on the road or town streets, older models, but there are also – sidecars?! Just imagine seeing sidecars so often in various colors, sparkling red or blue, all cleaned up, that you actually begin to wonder if you have woken up in an old movie! I was fortunate enough to ride in one in Cuba (still remember my bruised knees), you can read about it in one of the previous Glimpses. I will never forget the journey!
Chevrolet… and a cocotaxi
And now, the thing Cuba is recognizable for all around the world! Old cars in Cuba, vintage American cars! You can often see old Chevrolet models in town streets, but there are lovely Cadillac cars as well. I just had to get into the pink one, didn’t care how “touristy” that might have been! And one can say that Chevrolet cars are among the most popular since they are appreciated for their durability and passenger space – all the essential things here! It’s very easy to find one, they are often used as communal taxis.
As if this was not enough, you can also visit the Old Cars Museum in Havana with all sorts of “Ford” models. Now you will step into another movie scene – but the black and white one.
Never the less, you can get all sorts of taxis here, from sidecars to a Cadillac. There is one cute little thing, all yellow and round. It’s cold the cocotaxi. It’s an egg-shaped scooter that can carry two passengers and it can be very useful for short rides around the city.
As a tourist, you will have a lot of fun with all of these means of transport. Cuba is really an open-air museum where you can witness an old movie-like scene and stand there in awe as another old-timer, brightly pink, just passes by!