A large part of enjoying Havana is how you get around. The easiest and most fun is the colectivo shared taxi, where for 50 cents (or CUP) or 10 CUC, you ride a classic car and one of the most convenient modes of transport between Miramar, Vedado, Centro and Vieja. But be ready to cram with five other passengers and your destination and pickup is near the limited routes allowed the collectivo.
Great for rubbing elbows with locals although there seems to be an unspoken rule of being quiet, considerate to fellow passengers and keeping said elbow to oneself.
It’s a neat way to ride as many varieties of classic cars as you want to – whether Chevy, Buick, Dodge, Plymouth – all are lovingly maintained, a surprisingly smooth ride with gleaming interiors of chrome and wood. A private charters that may cost as much as $50 an hour.
Private taxis cost a lot more – a white Lada would charge USD 4 or 5 from Vedado to Vieja; a yellow cab and Cocotaxi at least USD 10 and of course the price leaps in peak season, late at night and sometimes even if the driver feels like hitting you up for whatever reason.
Besides, the collectivo is fun. You get up close and personal, squished against locals two in the front and up to four in the back. Often, passengers in the front seat have to lend a hand closing your door by casually reaching over your lap the mechanism get jammy. Passengers are amazingly courteous and quiet on the ride – sometimes the driver may carry on a lively conversation with a rider but there seems to be an unspoken rule about not bothering your fellow passengers.
Best of all you get to stick it to the snooty, overcharging taxi mafia like the ones hanging round the Melia Cohiba Hotel.
It’s easy to to ride colectivos near the city center -check the route map below or ask a local to point out the nearest street serviced by shared taxis. The old cars, oftentimes cool classics, have a small yellow and black “Taxi” sticker on the right hand corner of the front window. Wave them down, have a city map with you, and point out wherever you need to be, if the guy swung open his door, hop in. Pay when you get in.
Colectivos pick up and drop off anywhere along its prescribed route, most often near bus stops. The routes run roughly east-west parallel to the Malecon near and in the city center, and north-south to the west.
The useful east-west route I took from Vedado eastward to Habana Vieja and Centro runs along Avenida 31 then along Linea, then southward on Calle L toward the University of Havana and continues east again along San Lazaro past the football stadium. It finally turns right to head south along Paseo de Marti and the Prado.
The second city route (dark purple in map above) is farther inland is marked in dark purple. Both routes converge at the convenient northwest corner of Parque Central (Neptuno and Paseo de Marti). Note: Website Cuba Junky maps a different east-west route which I’d never taken, along Neptuno.
The north-south Vedado route, which I also didn’t get to try but seen the colectivos ply, runs south along Paseo and ends at the National Omnibus station and the National Library at José Martí Square.
I was really lucky to hop into 20 year-old Carlos’ green Buick for my first colectivo ride. After he dropped off all his other clients, I mustered the courage to ask if he’d take me on a private drive for $10 an hour, and wait if I needed to leap out to take photos. It was hilarious how he threw open the hood of the car and peered at the engine each time he had to stop and wait, as a pretext to avoid getting ticketed. I noticed a lot of other drivers doing the same but perhaps it was for real given all the patch-ups needed to keep these old vehicles running.
Some colectivo drivers can be bad-tempered – like the one I thought would kick me out of his car for slamming his door (the thing swung shut as the car moved forward) . But not a single collective driver overcharged me as yellow cab drivers. However, no-one thanked me for tipping either, maybe figuring I was being stupid instead of appreciative! Several drivers were really nice and accommodating, delivering me right to the doorstep of my destination, off-route without charging any extra.
Suggestions – you can pay with 0.50 CUP, but they will happily take 10 CUC instead. Don’t ask the driver what the fare is, you have to act like KNOW to avoid being charged double as a tourist. By a map from Infotur (see below), mark your destination on it along with memorizing the nearest intersection.
My second choice after Colectivos – the three types of local taxis marked in black and white, or all white, or yellow and black Lada taxis. Cheap and cheerful, they are usually beat up clunkers but ask for only 4 CUC anywhere from Vedado to easternmost Habana, but these seem to be fewer in number. Probably because Ladas are so awful and hard to maintain! I’ve been in two literally held together with wires, with ripped upholstery and huge panels (with sharp edges) cut out of the inside of the doors to maintain window and lock mechanisms.
If you’re going cheap, dont mind a tourist crush, the bright red double decker Hop-on and Hop-off Bus, with three extensive routes covering major sites and hotels, it’s a quick, stress free way to orient yourself by staying on the bus and see as much for as little as possible. There are two convenient transfer points – Parque Central Stop for the T1 and T3 routes; Restaurant Cecilia Stop for T1 and T2 routes. Buses depart every 30 minutes from Parque Central. Major cons – It’s not a guided or even well-narrated tour (the recording is unintelligible), the many stops can stretch your round trip interminably, its not air-conditioned so beware heat and fumes and you may be stuck in a long wait if you hop off at certain stops. If you’re in a group more than 4 people, book a proper bus tour or a semi-private tour instead.
Cubataxi – the official taxi company.
I really don’t like this option as I experienced a few aggressive drivers, but you may not have a choice. If you don’t see a meter when you enter, negotiate a price. About 10 CUC Vedado to Habana Vieja. Prices depend on distance, time of day and traffic conditions. There are different colored and sometimes operate under different names but the priciest and newest are the yellow ones with black lettering on the side door.
The official choice
The Grancar – An experience, not a mere ride. Classic and vintage cars (Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Studebaker, Plymouth, Pontiac or Buick) and driver are rented by the hour or day ($30/hour minimum) by the Panatrans Group. There are also banks of these cars and coco taxis at strategic points in Old Havana; in front of the museum of the Revolution and next to the Plaza de San Francisco.
Cocotaxi – Three-wheeler motorbike cabs – tourists are allowed on yellow ones but they aren’t any cheaper than a regular taxi. They’re all over Havana, especially the tourist areas. Tourism has pushed prices up even for local girl Yuneisi, who was spitting mad as she argued with our driver for the whole ride over the 10 CUC cost which she said should’ve been 6 CUC in low season. In true spirit of whacky Cuban economics, the grinning driver told us “I charge more the quieter it gets!” It’s worth it – the ride along the Malecon was super fun.
Bicitaxis – Not taxis at all. They’re trishaws, and are everywhere in Old Havana. Bicitaxis aren’t allowed to ferry tourists but still do – just beware of being taken on convoluted routes to avoid the police then you might be asked to pay more than the 1 CUC – just make sure to have a map with you not be taken in a too-crazy route and overcharged.
Where would you obtain the invaluable tourist map?
Head for Infotur offices (the official information offices), with two locations in Havana Vieja, one conveniently just east of the busy and central Obispo y Villegas intersection. At $5 each, they’re not cheap but the ink rubs off, so get two. Infotur is also great for the latest and correct information such as the fact that Cigar Factory tours in Havana end at noon, instead of the 5 p.m. reported in several top tour guidebooks. It’s a great resource for the non-hotel staying tourist as it also sell tickets to the ballet and advises where to book group tours, as well as get you in touch with private tour guides and drivers with cars.