Riding the non-tourist road in Havana

Havana cars

The taxi pulled toward the curb and shuddered to a stop. It was already filled with people, but we squeezed our way in to join the crowd—four of us in the backseat, three up front. Then we took off, hiccupping down the road at a tortoise pace inside a vehicle with the temperature of a sauna. Beside me, one of the passengers was engaged in a heated debate with the driver, the two of them yelling to be heard over the pounding beat of salsa pouring from the radio.

Their rapid-fire Spanish was too quick for my beginner-level ears to completely translate, but their passion transcended language barriers. I whispered to my friend, who’s fluent in Spanish, to tell me what they were saying. He said they were talking politics, and about the corruption of the government. It gave me a bit of a thrill—here I was, an obvious outsider, but privy to a conversation that Cuban authorities would prefer the tourists not hear.

There are some places where the divide between tourist and local is driven so heavily, it can be hard to escape and find the “real” culture beyond the hotel. For me, one of those places has always been Cuba—a country where tourists and residents use different currency, visit different nightclubs and are even given different ways to travel, all so that you’ll only see what the government wants you to see. It takes effort—and often a bit of illegal maneuvering—to find the real Havana experience.

In Havana, the transportation system includes two types of taxis: the “tourist” taxis and the “Cuban” taxis. Generally, the tourist taxis are newer cars (although there are definitely exceptions to this rule), especially if you grab one parked out front of the Hotel Parque Central or Hotel Saratoga. They’re also a pricier ride.

On the other hand, “Cuban” taxis—or peso taxis—are usually old jalopies that seem to wheeze rather than ride down, the street while tourist taxis whiz past. They run along set routes and passengers hop on and off as they please, paying a flat rate of 10 to 50 pesos—real pesos, not the convertible pesos that tourists are to use.

I was in Havana for the weekend visiting a friend—a Brazilian expat who had been navigating his way through Cuba’s capital for close to five years. As an official rule, tourists aren’t permitted to ride in Cuban taxis. But if you know how they work—or, as in my case, you have a friend who can show you the ropes—it’s easy to score an illegal ride in this much cheaper and more authentic option.

Our taxi rode through the downtown core toward the leafy neighbourhood of Vedado, where we had plans to meet friends for lunch. But with each shudder the car gave, it seemed to slow and bounce a bit more, rattling my bones and tossing me side to side between my friend on the right and my politically passionate seatmate on the left.

Finally, the driver pulled the dying car off to the side of the road and told us the ride was over. His vehicle was in need of repair and we couldn’t go on. It’s something that could happen to any taxi in any country, but it seemed particularly fitting in Cuba, a place where sputtering 1950s Chevys still roam the streets in a throwback to the days before the revolution and subsequent American trade embargo.

We climbed out and the car pulled away, headed off for repair. For everyone in the taxi with me, it was the most insignificant of rides—just another day of commuting in Havana. But for me it was much more; it was a glimpse into the city life that I, as a tourist, would not normally be allowed to see.

This article originally appeared on TravelandEscape.ca.

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