Cuba’s properly most well-known and popular asset are the old mid-century colorful cars scrolling the streets throughout the island. A classic tourist activity in Havana is to rent one of those iconic cars, and go for a drive on the seaside drive, el Malecón. However, the cars are not only for tourists. The old 50s cars are used all around the island as taxis colectivos, or las máquinas as the Cubans call them.
Their function can best be compared with a small version bus. In Havana, they run in a comprehensive net of routes all over the city, where they drop off and pick up people along the way. And you can easily jump on for a ride!
In this post, I explain how to use los taxis colectivos de Habana. Ready? Let's go for a drive!
How much does it cost to use los taxis colectivos in Havana?
The price of los taxis colectivos is fixed at $10 pesos nacionales (CUP) per person within the city of Havana. If you are crossing the tunnel, the price is $20 pesos nacionales. You will most likely not need to worry about that. If in doubt check out this map. Don't start asking about the price, as the driver might take it as an indication for giving you a private tour.
You can alternatively give the drive a 1 CUC coin (25 CUP) if you are driving two together or get the change from him in pesos nacionales - thus, don't start giving him bigger bills in CUC or you might not be able to get your change!
Los taxis colectivos will not take you to a specific address but instead, they drive along the main roads of Havana. If they ask you for a specific address, quickly clarify with them that you don't want a "taxi privado" but "una máquina". Requesting a specific address implies that they will drive you in a private taxi, and the price will be a completely other. You can read more about do's and don'ts for using the taxis colectivos here.
Getting on a máquina
So, first of all, we need to get on one of those taxis colectivos. Place yourself on the side of a street, by a crossroad or junctions in the direction you want to go, and wait.
When you see one of the old cars with a little taxi-sign in the window, you pull out your hand to signal that you would like to go with them. If you are traveling more people together, you can indicate the number of people by showing that number of fingers.
Don't be offered if the car doesn't stop, it usually means that it is full. Sometimes the driver pulls out his hand and shows you a half-open upright-facing hand (a bit like a cup). This means the car is already full. But mostly they will just drive past you without signaling. I would highly recommend not traveling more than three people together as it might be hard to find a taxi with enough space.
If the car stops, quickly approach the driver by addressing him by the window or opening the door and ask: ¿Para dónde vas? or ¿Vas a/por…(place the name of the street your what to go to)?
If your Spanish is a bit rusty, go for the ¿Vas por…? as this only requires you to understand a sí or no. If you receive a sí quickly jump in on the backseat. Now you are on your way in a taxi colectivo.
You will need to tell the driver yourself when you want to get off. So, you are still not so used to the streets of Havana, I recommend that you use the offline version of your map on the phone or start out using the máquinas to a place you can recognize. For example, from Vedado to Parque Central.
When you approach the place you want to get off, kindly tell the driver so. If you are in the back of the car, you will properly need to shout for the driver to hear you. Approach him with:
Déjame allá en la esquina, por favor or ¿Puedes dejarme en la próxima esquina? Or the more simple version: Aquí, por favor or Déjame aquí, por favor.
Before he stops, give him the money. Sometimes this includes the other passengers helping out a bit with passing the money to the driver. Jump out, and end your trip with a Gracias!
Using the máquinas, of course, requires a minimum knowledge about the streets of Havana. However, the máquinas usually drive on the bigger roads in the city.
My advice is starting out catching a shared taxi somewhere on calle Neptuno by Parque Central towards the university or calle 23 where the hotel Habana Libre is located. Or the other way, going from the university down San Lazaro towards Parque Central. Since both the Parque Central and the university are good landmarks easy to recognize from the backseat of a car.
However, you should be very aware of not ending up with a private taxi if you take it from the beginning of calle Neptuno or Parque Central since these are touristic hotspots, and the taxi drivers are completely aware of the fact that tourists don't usually know the difference between "taxi privado" and "taxi colectivo" - but hey, now you do!
The dialog would be something like this:
From calle Neptuno: ¿Vas para calle 23?
From the university/San Lazaro: ¿Vas para Parque Central?
If you are interested in a bit more profound view on the current status on shared taxis in Havana, then I can recommend reading this article from Havana Times.
A misconception of many visiting Cuban is that these máquinas are only for Cubans. I have never been denied to enter or anything, and you get a great authentic feeling for Cuba. If you are interested in more tips on how to get an authentic Cuban experience then check out my guide to experiencing Havana like a local here.
Enjoy, and have a great ride!