Streets filled with classic American cars is probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Havana. It’s not far from the truth; these mechanical relics of the 1950’s are everywhere, and they’re not just for tourists. Cubans take them as well, in the form of maquinas (machines), botero (bottle) or almendrones (almonds, because of their resemblance to the curved body of a ’52 Oldsmobile). Unlike the tourist cars, which are bright, well-maintained, and usually sitting around Old Havana waiting for someone to rent them for $30 an hour, almendrones are constantly on the move, crisscrossing the city on set routes to pick up passengers.
The system took off in the last five years because of two changes by the Cuban government. First, citizens were allowed to sell and buy the pre-revolutionary cars. Until that point, cars could only be passed down from the original 1950’s owners to relatives. This meant that many cars that could not be maintained by the original owner were sold and fixed up by new owners. Then with the authorization of self-employed taxi drivers, the fixed up cars were turned into a collective cab system, greatly expanding the public transportation options.
Like a combination of Uber Pool and city buses, these cars will pick up and drop off passengers along the route, for either 10 or 20 Cuban pesos (about 0.40 or 0.80 CUC, around the same in dollars). Cars are operated by independent drivers organized into a government-approved cooperative that sets routes and prices. The routes run throughout the city, from Old Havana in the east, to Playa in the west, and various other north-south routes as well.
Almendrones prove to be much more practical and convenient than buses, which are sporadic and so packed that they make the Tokyo subway system look deserted. Depending on your route and time of day, you usually won’t have to wait more than five or ten minutes for a car. Of course, there are some downsides. If you don’t like to share, almondrones definitely aren’t for you, because there will always be other people in the car. Like a bus, the driver will constantly pick up and drop off passengers. And like a New York cab, you’re only supposed to use the doors on the right side, so you’ll have to step out if the person to the left of you wants to get off.
Unlike Havana buses, though, the car will only pick up passengers when it actually has room (that one’s a little joke for anyone who’s taken the bus in Havana). The cars are about as clean as you’d expect for an antique held together by duct tape and borrowed parts—so about as good as the New York subway (that one’s a little joke for anyone who’s taken the subway in New York). If it’s late or raining it may take a while to flag one down, and they may overcharge you, and they might not be legal. The door handles stick, the doors should or should not be slammed depending on the car, and there’s no AC—but they’re the best way to get around Havana.
From the outside, the almendron may seem like a brilliant bit of problem solving from a group of enterprising individuals using limited funds and resources. In actuality, it’s an attempt to keep the public transportation system from total collapse. Prior to the revolution in the 1950s, the streets of Havana were filled with new, private cars owned by the city’s elite. After the revolution, largely due the US embargo, car imports declined dramatically and the country relied upon a mix of existing automobiles and those purchased from communist allies like the Soviet Union. When the USSR ceased their support of Cuba in the early 1990’s, the country entered a state of crisis called the “Special Period.”
Over the next decade, which saw reductions in the availability of oil, automobiles and buses, the citizens did whatever they could to maintain a sense of normalcy. In many cases this meant jerry-rigging decades-old cars with new parts, motors, and interiors. This resulted in a city filled with cars from the 1950s, and it meant that Havana faced an immense difficulty providing public transportation to its citizens. The almendron system became a solution to the flailing bus system, which was unreliable even before the Special Period.
For a while the cars were only allowed to provide transportation to Cubans and were not allowed to serve tourists, but now the cars are available to all, although they come with a bit of a learning curve. The routes and aren’t published anywhere and even habaneros don’t know all of them. The drivers use a system of hand signals that, depending on where you are, what route you’re taking and where you want to go, may or may not tell you whether you want to flag down that particular car. And depending on where you are in the city, the almendrones could be traveling to any number of places in Havana, which could be nowhere near your destination.
It takes a lot of asking dumb questions to friends, a willingness to look stupid and a bit of Spanish, but once you get the hang of it, it’s immensely useful. You can take it in most parts of the city and within a few block walk of all the main tourist destinations. And compared to the other options, it’s more convenient buses and immensely cheaper than any taxi.
For most Cubans, the almendrones are still impractical, as the average Cuban makes only $20 to $25 a month. Forty cents for a ride means that if they took an almendron to work and back, they just wiped out that entire day’s salary. It’s much more expensive than the bus, which costs roughly 1/20th the cost. Of course, the drivers themselves make decent money for Cuba, probably pulling in upwards of $25 dollars a day after expenses. Just one more example of Cuban innovation adapting to the realities of Cuba.