Visitors may have a more difficult time finding their way around and becoming accustomed to the differences in automobiles, safety and reliability. If you ever plan to visit Cuba, you’ll also need to know a bit about the currency there, so that you don’t end up paying 24x your cab fare each trip.
Here is a quick guide to transportation in Cuba. How to get around, how to negotiate cab fare, and what kinds of cars you can expect to see on the road.
Here’s What You’ll Find Driving in Cuba:
There’s an old joke in Cuba that the mechanics are so skilled, they are able to take car parts that wash up on the white sand beaches and make them run again inside the bodies of these old classic cars. Fords, Chevrolets and Buick, some dating back as late as 1940, are abundant on the roads in Cuba. Cuban citizens have become accustomed to making frequent repairs and improvising when the parts they need are not available.
Why Aren’t there New Cars in Cuba?
In 1960, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba after Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship. Tensions rose when Cuba nationalized much of its industry, implemented financial redistribution, and began giving the mansions of the wealthy Cubans to their housekeepers when those Cubans fled to Florida after the overthrow. The U.S. didn’t like that so much, and implemented a blockade that meant that no commercial, economic or financial trade was allowed between the two countries.
As a result, for over 50 years Cubans have been unable to purchase goods from America, including automobiles and automobile parts. Before the embargo was implemented, Cuba was a hub for American tourists and business people, especially during the 20’s when prohibition existed in the U.S. When the embargo set in, Castro nationalized American interests, and anything American-owned became property of the Cuban people.
There are Two Currencies, so Pay for your Taxi Carefully
Cuba operates using two separate currencies as of 1994. The Cuban Peso (CUP), which is predominately used by Cuban nationals to buy food and living materials. It’s also what Cubans receive when they are paid by the government for their profession.
Then, there’s the CUC, or Convertible Peso, pronounced “kook”. The CUC is the tourist currency, which is used by foreigners in hotels, in fancier taxis, at restaurants and bars, and anywhere you might find tourism. The approximate conversion from Dollar to CUC is 1:1. The CUC is worth approximately 24x the amount that a CUP is worth. Therein lies a problem: now, bartenders and taxi drivers make way, way more money than the brain surgeons whose salary is paid in CUP. It also creates an incentive for taxi drivers to charge tourists in CUC, when really, you need to pay for transportation in CUP, or you’re paying 24x your cab fare! So instead of paying the equivalent of 50 cents to get from Marianau to Havana city, you’re paying $12!
Here’s What to Look For:
Most Cubans don’t own their own cars. The maintenance is too expensive unless you have specialized mechanical skills, so they ride the Guaguas. These are the buses that you’ll typically see running to and from schools, on larger streets, and in communities. Cuba has a very cheap national transportation system, and bus fare is extremely affordable. In Cuba, you’ll see people of all walks of life on the Guaguas, going to the grocery store, to and from work, and out to see friends and family.
If you’re a visitor in Cuba, chances are you’ll want to take a taxi. There are a variety of taxis: the more recognizable yellow cabs, the beautifully restored Chevys that shine baby blue and fire engine red, and the beat up old Buicks and Chevys that have paint chipping off their exteriors, no air conditioning, and sometimes no seatbelts. These are Máquinas, or communal taxis. They typically travel up and down the same street in a set route, and you’ll have to know when to yell stop. You’ll be seated next to other Cuban nationals, and it’s a great time to strike up a conversation if you know Spanish. It’s the most legitimate way to travel like a local, and it’s quite exciting if you’re not used to living so on the edge.
If you’re looking for a more recognizable way to get to your destination, there are always yellow cabs around for tourists. Just keep in mind, they will definitely be charging in CUC!