Cuba Taxi Roulette – Tales from a Boulder Family’s Trip

By Denise Milligan
Photography by Al Milligan

Al Milligan is a professional photographer based in Boulder.  This is is first story for Boulder Viewfinder.  He joins us as one of our staff photographers and we look forward to more photo stories from him. Thanks, Denise Milligan, for the story.

Cuba is famous for its cars – 1950s (and older) American cars are everywhere. A few have been lovingly restored. But most have been “lovingly” patched together with bubble gum, tape, and bits of other vehicles. And because of the increasing tourist trade in Cuba, everybody and their brother is cashing in on the lucrative taxi business – even if it is, strictly speaking, a bit shady.

Havana Cuba

My family and I spent 5 days in Havana over the Christmas holiday. With Frontier, American, United, Southwest, and other US-based airlines flying to Cuba, a lot of people from Colorado are headed there. In fact, we met a couple from Denver in the El Floridita bar (famous for being one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hangouts) in Old Havana.

Havana Cuba

Although we were told that renting a car isn’t as complicated as it was just a few months ago, there were no rental cars available during the holiday. No matter, though, we learned that parking in Havana is nearly impossible. So we were quickly immersed in the intriguing world of the Cuban Taxi.

Havana Cuba

Taxis are the way to get around Havana unless you’re staying in or near Old Havana, in which case you can easily walk to all the main sites in that area. But you’ll need a taxi to get to some of the more distant sites, like Ernest Hemingway’s home.

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When you’re ready to hail a taxi, brace yourself. You’re in for an adventure. Well, that is unless you choose to only go with the “legal” taxis – the traditional yellow version that is metered – and much more expensive than the unofficial taxis.

This is where it gets interesting.

It would appear that anybody and everybody can stick a handmade “Taxi” sign in the window of their old beater car – or truck – or bicycle – or horse carriage – or motorized mini-car. Normally I’d wave you off of jumping in one of those jalopies. But in Havana, they’re everywhere, and you can get a cheaper ride if you know a few little tips.

Havana Cuba

These unofficial taxis don’t have meters. So ALWAYS negotiate the price before you get in. The prices will vary depending on how far you want to go, the time of day, if the taxi has a meter (which 99% don’t), if it’s a communal, a private, or illegal taxi. Don’t expect to be able to pay for the taxi with a credit card because they’re all cash only. In fact, we didn’t see any taxis, restaurants, or stores in Havana that took credit cards.

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Note: When traveling in Cuba make sure that you bring plenty of cash, and convert it to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso – worth about $1 US, with about a 12% exchange fee). Don’t bother getting any CUPs (Moneda Nacional that only the Cubans use).

Not only do businesses not take credit cards but I didn’t see any ATM’s. Cuba is a cash only country. I can’t tell you about the hotels and how they operate because we stayed in a house we rented from AirBnb. But we were told that most of the modern hotels take credit cards, and also have a money exchange.

Havana Cuba

The first full day in Havana the six of us piled into a rickety taxi and headed to the outskirts of town. Suddenly the driver gestured wildly for 2 people to duck. Turns out that it’s illegal to have more than 4 people in a regular-sized car, and 6 of us were crammed in the taxi. That scene was repeated multiple times during the trip, with 2 kids hiding in the back seat. Now we have a family joke about smuggling the kids in and out of Havana.

We rode in taxis that:

  • Had little to no upholstery – springs poking you in the knees
  • Looked and felt like they were held together with bailing wire and bubble gum
  • Several that you could smell the car’s oil and gas ( I guess that’s why the driver avoided tunnels)
  • A Chevrolet that had a Dodge steering wheel, a Toyota diesel dash and engine and sounded like it was going to come apart with every bump we hit
  • One that we felt like getting out of and pushing it so we could get up the hill
  • Had no seatbelts (none of them had seatbelts)
  • You couldn’t open the back door from inside the car; it could only be opened from the outside

Havana Cuba

The man who managed the house where we stayed was awesome at arranging taxis for us, but even he, as a native Cuban, could never guarantee what would show up. Two days in advance we arranged for a van to take all 6 of us to Viñales, which is about a 3 to 4 hour drive from Havana (depending on traffic, and whether or not you had to take turns walking up hills).

We were very clear that the vehicle HAD to accommodate 6, and have air conditioning. The driver showed up, we piled in, and 2 blocks later our son-in-law said, “Errrrr…. I don’t see any air conditioning.” So I asked the driver (he didn’t speak English), “I thought this car had air conditioning?” To which he gestured toward a vent and said “Yes, of course it has air conditioning! The air comes in through the front, and it blows out this vent – it works great!”

Havana Cuba

We got out.

The moral of the story? Don’t be shy. But don’t be foolish either. The taxi experience can be one of the most memorable parts of your visit to this beautiful Caribbean island.

Havana Cuba

Havana Cuba

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