Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Art of Making Do: Transportation in Cuba

It's pretty much inevitable: when you think of Cuba, you think of the cars.

And rightfully so, because they're everywhere and it's perhaps the most appreciated, consistent landmark in this amazing country.  But the reason those cars all still roam the streets is only a part of the complicated system of transportation in Cuba, and of course that system is a result of the complicated governance of the nation.

When the Revolution occurred in 1959, Fidel Castro decided it would be a nice touch to prohibit anyone from buying or selling cars that were any newer than that year.  If you do the math you'll notice that just a little time has gone by since then - and you'd better believe the Cubans have noticed it, too.  With cars, as with everything else, they make do the best they can.  If I had a dollar for every time I saw a dedicated car owner bent over an open hood tinkering with an ailing vehicle, I'd have been able to buy another round for my friends at El Floridita - Cubans work on these cars day and night to keep them running.

While they clearly take pride in the cars they've kept running for years, I'm not sure it's what most drivers would choose.  We asked one cab driver if he liked his old Russian car and got only a shrug in response.  "It's what I've got."

As a side note, there are numerous colors of license plates in Cuba and each has a particular meaning.  Yellow plates signal a privately-owned car, blue are for state-run vehicles like our tour bus and other public transportation.  Red plates are reserved for rental cars and black signals a foreign diplomat's embassy car.  The one I brought home for my wall? That one's a pretty spectacular shade of yellow.

Anyway, no new cars = lots of old ones.  But the streets of Cuba weren't the car museums I expected them to be: there are lots of not-so-great oldish cars, too. That's because the government allowed designated "deserving" Cubans to purchase cars from Cuba's friend the USSR - doctors, athletes and other favorites of the Castro government got access to now-old Russian cars that frequently pop up on Cuban streets.  And every once in awhile you'll be shocked by a brand new car, usually a Kia.  That's because Raul Castro authorized the purchase of new cars last year.  Few can afford them but the change came with those magical and rare words in Cuba: car sales and purchases can now happen "without any prior authorization from any entity."

The airport provided a perfect sampling of the mix of Cuban cars.

You'd think Cubans got their fill of old car sight-seeing on the streets every day, but in Havana there is - I kid you not - an old car museum.

And at the Santeria museum there's a room devoted to a treasured 1907 Cadillac.  Rumor has it that Cadillac offered the museum $30 million for the car but the offer was turned down because the relic was a source of pride to the museum.  I can't find any evidence that the story is true but it was a gorgeous car whether or not it's worth $30 million.

It isn't just cars on Cuban streets, however: there's a broader mix (and fewer choices) of transportation options than I've ever seen anywhere else.

First, there's my favorite option: the Coco Cab.  These motorcycle-powered beauties earned their name because they're shaped like coconuts, and they're my favorite mode of transportation thus far in life (perhaps to be replaced by the camel - we'll see).

Buses are plentiful, as well, though too frequently they're the air-conditioned tourist variety and not the kind that will help the crowds of Cubans waiting to get from one place to another.  Cuban buses are infamously crowded and unpleasant - the older variety are referred to as "camels" (not the kind mentioned above!) because they're trailers hooked to a big rig and can carry as many as 300 people.  Raul Castro has taken steps to get those off the street and reportely purchases new buses to go into public transit circulation, but I never saw anything new or nice pulling up to transport Cubans.  "American movies are rated in Cuba with colors to warn about sex, violence or drug use," Erik explained.  "The joke is that on any Cuban bus you'll get all three."

And yet they aren't deterred because frequently the bus is the only way to get from here to there.  So they wait. And wait.  And wait until the next overcrowed, overheated bus arrives.

A slower alternative: bicycles.  There are bikes everywhere - some new, and some remnants of the 1 million bicycles Fidel bought from China when the failure of the USSR meant fuel was going to be in short supply for the forseeable future (note: it still is).  Bikes are an effective way to get around town...

To transport a friend...

And to deliver goods across town.

It's not unusual to see a motorcycle, though the high cost of gas makes it a less efficient travel option.

Trains do exist in Cuba but they are far slower than their designers intended due to the run-down train tracks.  In all the time we spent in the bus driving over the western half of Cuba, we only saw one train that I remember.

And when all motorized and human-powered options fail, Cubans turn to their horses.  The references to Amish country were many as our group realized that horse-drawn carriages really are a part of life both in the cities and countrysides of Cuba.

This combination of so many varieties of transportation makes for fascinating street scenes (and signs!).

Yes, that's another funeral procession.

The thing that stands out in almost every street in Cuba: there's rarely any traffic here.  There just simply aren't enough cars to create traffic jams so the streets are uncluttered and the sounds of traffic aren't as noticable as in most cities on earth.

That doesn't, however, mean you're not in danger of getting hit by a car.  Cuban drivers are aggressive and I frequently witnessed them actually speeding up when a pedestrian stepped into the street in front of them, honking madly at the two-legged transport mechanism who dared to threaten their road space.

They have a liberal sense of what that road space entails, too.  Lane markers are mere suggestions, to be heeded when you want someone to get out of your way.  Cubans honk their horns enough to make up for the lack of traffic on the road.  They honk when they want to pass, they honk when they're passing and they want other cars (or bikes or horses) to stay out of their way, they honk when they're going through stop signs and they honk when animals are in the road.

Even the stoplights seem to cater to the impatiences of Cubans behind the wheel.  Both red and green lights have large numbers counting down the seconds until it is time to either stop or go, depending on your direction.  For people like me who eagerly await a green light, this countdown is ingenious.

For those without other options or with time to spare, hitchhiking is a way of life in Cuba.  On every highway and sometimes in the middle of city streets, you see groups waiting for someone to pass their way.

It is a widely-accepted fact (probably true in every nation) that women have better luck at hitchhiking.  Men will hold out money as cars pass; women never do.

The hitchhiking success rate is pretty good because government help is on hitchhkers' side.  There is a designated car-stopper at each major gathering spot on highways.  All state-owned cars must stop, declare their destination, and take whatever passengers the car-stopper says are to be added to the state car's load.

Those cushy tourist buses are, of course, a key target for hitchhikers but they're never successful - though they're state owned, tourist buses are waived off by the car-stopper, who knows that loading the air-conditioned bus with hitchhikers might dampen tourism's appeal.  (Though it would have made the long drives far more interesting.)  How were our buses better than Cubans' transportation?  As I mentioned, they're air-conditioned.  That alone would set them apart, but in addition these Chines buses have comfortable seats, an ice chest (for water or, if you're one of my busmates, beer from roadside stands) and a bathroom that mirrored the comfortable roominess of those found on airplanes.

That's not a shameless reuse of my moment with the osprey....it's the best picture I have of our bus.

We all loved the signs on the side, though we would have preferred that one on the right to mean "ejection seat" rather than "reclining."

There were even two TV screens that folded down on the rare occasion when Erik showed a film instead of sharing information over the microphone.

Bonus points if you recognize Che as a baby.

Those state-owned buses don't come without strings attached.  Our bus driver had to record every minute detail about our destination before he received the bus in the morning and when he turned it in at night.  Failure to complete the information could cause him to lose his job.

And at the end of a long day of driving, Tolon would return the bus to its storage spot in Havana.  No take-home vehicles for the Cuban government employees!

Possibly the worst job in Cuba: getting the bugs off all those huge windshields.

My bus buddy, who let me sit in the jump seat next to him when I wanted a better view or time to myself. No day will ever be quite as complete without Tolon's gracious help exiting the bus countless times.

If this longer-than-reasonable blog post wasn't enough for you, click here to see my photo album of Cars in Cuba.


  1. I really enjoyed your blog! I found your blog when I was trying to research to see if there was any info on the $30,000,000. offer for the Cadillac! We just returned from Cuba and my husband is having a hard time believing that one! We also had Erik as our tour guide, but we had a different bus driver named Elias. We went with the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and they used a company named Chamber Explorations out of Redondo Beach, California. I can't say enough good things about our trip! Erik was great! My husband is also having a hard time swallowing the "100% cure for stomach cancer" story too, but my Doctor said Cuba is know for there advanced medicine and health care system, so who knows?

    1. Your note made my day - I'm so glad you enjoyed the blog! I get so excited when I meet people who have been in Cuba, and what a small world that you got to know Erik too. Chamber Explorations was the company I traveled with, as well...I was so nervous about the concept of group travel but I thought they did a wonderful job. I'd love to hear more about your trip!

  2. Your blog is so great! It seems like you are writing about my trip I took, so many similarities! And so recent too! We just got back on Sept 26, 2012.
    I got Erik's personal address because I wanted to send him something he would enjoy from the USA, but I can't think what that would be! Maybe you have an idea for me? I am not a very well traveled person (talking world travel) I've beeb to the Dominican Republic and Tahiti/French Polynesia, Canada. It was our first group travel too. We knew it would not be a "vacation" but more like a 9 day field trip, but since it was Cuba we were willing. We are so glad we did. Hoping to go to Italy for a month in April with my daughter (we'll see if I can pull it off) Keep writing - you have a gift for it!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


Thank you for your comments! Don't worry if they don't show up right away - I read every one and they'll post as soon as I get to a computer again.