Friday, 30 March 2012

Cuba - Transport (or lack thereof)

“One man's trash is another man's treasure.”
- Popular idiom

One of the most striking things in Cuba is the age and lack of transportation. Many people have seen the classic images of 1950s Americana plying the streets of Havana and this is part of the reality. The other side of Cuban transport is exceptionally bad pollution, woeful overcrowding and a lot of waiting (at least for the Cubans).

We only saw a man riding an Ox for tourists.
The fastest form of transport in Cuba is probably a trip on one of Cubana's domestic flights aboard a Russian jet. The slowest form of transport in Cuba is probably the Ox drawn cart but vying with this for title of slowest transport would be walking or cycling depending on the level of activity. Ranking slightly higher than the Ox drawn cart is the horse drawn cart (a regular feature on the 6 lane Autopista Nacional) and above that a variety of Chinese two stroke motorbikes probably followed by aged trucks, local buses, old American cars, soviet cars, modern coaches and the fastest land transport; tourist rental cars (principally mediocre Hyundais and nasty Geely (Chinese) hatchbacks.)

There is a chronic shortage of vehicles in Cuba due to a lack of investment, the trade embargo and a lack of private and public capital to purchase cars. The scarcity value means all sorts of relics and decrepit vehicles still have a value when long ago these would have been scrapped in the West. Driving on the motorways under each bridge you encounter various groups of people and often a person dressed in yellow whose job it is to find them transport. The cheapest and most uncomfortable form seems to be the truck/bus which is basically a lorry with a big metal container on the back to carry people. Aside from this you regularly see American cars with more than 6 people on board, regional buses which are literally packed, people in the boots of cars, 4 people on a motorbike, people in tractor waggons etc.

Cuba has a relatively laid back populace as many of these people under the motorway bridges must wait for hours to get a ride as they stand pesos in hand by the side of the road. Such a laid back attitude and 30'c heat may also explain why I never saw a Cuban running until we got back to Havana. The only time I saw a throng of Cubans running I looked up in surprise to see the rarest of sights; an empty metropolitan bus was driving into the Havana Centro about to stop. Literally 50-100 people were running to the stop. Some young guys ran onto the moving bus before it got there through the open door.

One of the most puzzling sights in Cuba was the occasional spotting of a high end car. I saw the odd E class Mercedes but these had government official plates on them. More surprisingly I saw a brand new Camaro on the Malecon, a brand new 5 series BMW on the Autopista and a brand new Peugeot RCZ in Havana. The explanation we received from the Cubans we asked about this was that they are usually cars owned by either Cuban Americans or foreigners married to Cubans who are able to buy such cars as long as they register them in the name of a Cuban citizen.

Similarly we hired a driver for a day trip who had a nice new Hyundai car on tourist plates. He explained that the car was rented long term by an Italian friend living in Cuba at favourable tourist rates and sublet to our driver who paid all the costs but as a Cuban could not rent the car at such rates. To highlight the scarcity value of cars in Cuba he explained that after a tourist rental car has done 250,000km it can be bought by a Cuban from the government for a fixed price around CUC6,000. The value of a 5 year old Hyundai with with 150,000m on the clock in the UK must be only around £1,000.

Once again transport demonstrates to the tourist the vast gulf between them and the ordinary Cuban. The government owns a fleet of 'Transtur' air conditioned Chinese buses for bus tour tourists alongside the 'Viazul' intercity coach services. There are air conditioned tourist taxis that hang around outside the big hotels. The rental cars are generally cheap but new Asian vehicles although one can find some fairly fancy Audis.

In theory tourists cannot travel on Cuban buses and truck/buses but I think one could do if one could actually fight ones way on board. The most 'authentic' Cuban transport we took was a 'collectivo' taxi in Havana which cost only 0.5CUC each for the ride into town stopping periodically to pick up or deposit its various passengers. The old American cars run 'collectivo' routes due to the big seats being easily able to accommodate at least 6 people.We also rode a Lada taxi which was pretty tiny and a Coco taxi (Cuban version of a turistic tuktuk) which was pretty fun. My advice to any traveller would be to always haggle over the price of the route (nobody uses the meter) and if on your first attempt to negotiate the price down the driver simply shrugs his shoulders and says 'ok' you know you didn't haggle hard enough.

With so many old and poorly maintained vehicles the air pollution can be pretty awful in particular in Havana. The stink of auto fumes from an exhaust without a catalyst is something all but banished from the developed world these days but in Havana it is pungent.

The state of Cuban roads can be equally hazardous. In theory Cubans drive on the left but in reality they drive on whatever part of the road is not potholed whilst weaving between horse and carriages. Probably the greatest danger is the cattle that periodically roam over the Autopista. This is not too much of a problem during the day with next to no traffic and a kilometre of visibility. However as one of our taxi drivers attested the 'vacas' are something more of a fearsome hazard 'en la noche.'

One must be very careful with auto accidents in Cuba because if you have one you will be unable to leave the country until the case has been resolved. We saw surprisingly few accidents but did get stuck behind one when on the bus in Playa in western Havana. An old American car had hit the back of a pickup truck. The pickup had some paint on it and had lost the rear bumper. The cars were blocking the road on an intersection and there were a couple of policeman there on motorbikes. We waited probably ten minutes for them to clear the cars out of the way after this very minor accident. The Australian guy behind me said the accident was there earlier when he came past before. I joked that they will probably get some chalk out next and draw round the car. Would you believe the policeman did in fact pull out some chalk and start tracing the tyres of the American car...

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