Transportation: Cuba in Review 2

I really hope you enjoyed my post yesterday about Cuban food.  If you ever have a chance and there is a Cuban restaurant near you, you should really check it out.

One of the most interesting things to me, especially as someone who thinks about public policy and planning a lot is transportation in Cuba. Once you get past the three biggest problems for Cubans (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), transportation is an easy pick for 4th.

Havana’s transportation system by all accounts was great in the 1950s.  All of the best American cars were being sold in Cuba and the island was a showroom for some of the most beautiful cars of the time.  The scary thing is that many of these cars are still on the streets today blast dark diesel into the air.  Most of these old cars serve as machinas or black market taxicabs.

It’s not a machina, but it’s my favorite car that I saw in pretty much the whole country.

A few blocks from our apartment in Mirmar is a stand where you go to pick up a machina.  Machinas have fixed rates for different places.  For instance, to stay in Mirmar, it was 10 national pesos, while to leave Mirmar and go through the tunnel to Vedado or La Habana Vieja was 20 national pesos.  Most Cubans can’t really afford to take machinas very often.  For Cubans, that is a lot of money, while for a tourist like me, it was a great bargain, especially after understanding that these existed instead of Cubataxis, the government’s company which usually were significantly more expensive.

A machina near the stand where we used to pick them up off of 5th avenue

It’s very difficult to have a car in Cuba, since there are massive shortages of everything needed for cars.  More simply said, cars are expensive, so not many people have them.  It seemed to be a requirement to have been a mechanic in a past life if you wanted to own a car.  Beyond the half-century-old American classics that grace the streets are an occasional Peugeot and a TON of old Soviet cars.  Humberto, the director of our program, drives a white Fiat Polski.  When driving a Fiat Polski, you have to open the hatch in the back where the engine is, because it air cools.  Why a Polish made Fiat still exists in Cuba should tell you how much of a luxury have a car at all is and how tough things have been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Humberto’s Fiat Polski

I should say that there were some luxury cars.  Foreign diplomats drive BMWs and Audis typically.  I did see a couple Volkswagen Passats like the one I used to drive and a couple of new-looking Hyundai sedans.  The funniest to me of all foreign diplomats were the Americans that seemed to follow us from Havana to the Bay of Pigs.  They were driving around a bright blue Jeep, which stuck out like a sore thumb.

The Jeep that was following us. This is it parked at the Bay of Pigs.

For those Cubans who aren’t taking machinas, driving their own cars, or riding their own bikes, there is a bus system.  The bus system is incredibly cheap.  For less than 1 national peso (a national peso is about 4 cents American), you could ride the bus.  The problem is that buses are often overcrowded. There is also no bus schedule to speak of.  Cubans assume the bus will come every half an hour or so, but at times it is incredibly late.  In some areas, they aren’t marked and just known by locals.

There are some trains in Cuba, but I learned from Xavy that there is a two-week waiting period typically to take one.  There are several airports, but planes are two expensive for most Cubans.  Jose Marti Airport in Havana was especially odd, because the different terminals of the airport are on opposite sides of the city.

I found it amazing on the trip to find that some people still use horses in some rural areas for transportation.  While traveling outside of Havana on the central highway, it wasn’t that surprising to see a horse and carriage, someone on a bike, or even people walking down the side of the road.  It looked more like a scene from a post- apocalyptic United States.


One thought on “Transportation: Cuba in Review 2

  1. I’ve read before that the main reason all the cars in Cuba are so old is because the US stopped allowing car manufacturers to export to Cuba and the Soviet Union cut many of its ties back when it stopped providing Cuba with all of that aid (military, industrial farming equipment, etc).

    So most cars in Cuba are just super old, which gives it a feel of the 1960s always. Not exactly environmentally friendly, but certainly pretty awesome aesthetically.

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