Cuba’s properly most well-known and popular asset are the old 50s cars. A classic tourist activity in Havana is to rent one of those iconic cars and go for a drive on the seaside drive, Malecón.
However, the cars are not only for tourists. The old 50s cars are used all around the island as taxi collectivos or 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. And you can easily jump on for a ride!
Getting on a máquina
It works the way you place yourself on the side of the street in the direction you want to go, when you see one of the older cars with a little taxi-sign in the window, you pull out your hand to signal that you would like to go with them.
Don't be offered if the car doesn't stop, it usually means that it is full. Sometimes the driver pulls out his hand on show 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 pass you.
If the car stops, quickly approach the driver by addressing him by the window or opening the door and ask:
¿Para donde vas? or ¿Vas a/por…(place the name of the street your what to go to)?
If your Spanish is a rusty, go for the ¿Vas por…? as this only requires you to understand a sí or no. If you receive a sí quickly drop in, and you will be on your way.
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?
Before he stops, ask him the price. The price will always be in CUP/pesos nacionales. All the máquinas charge the same price, so it is only need to ask the first time you use it. When I visited the price per person was 25 CUP (=1 CUC) within the main areas of Havana, and a little more if you are going further. But double check by asking.
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 start out catching one in the beginning of calle Neptuno by Parque Central towards the university or calle 23. 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. The dialog would be something like this:
From calle Neptuno: ¿Vas para la universidad o calle 23?
From the university/San Lazaro: ¿Vas para Parque Central?
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.
Enjoy, and have a great ride!