I was watching a program this week where the featured car was a Lada Riva, hosted by a well known, middle-aged (now ex) BBC presenter with an interesting choice of shirts. It was very interesting and much more enjoyable than my one and only Lada experience…
I was in Cuba with my partner and we wanted to get a taxi. Now, when you think of Cuba and their cars, you will probably picture brightly coloured 1950’s American classics, Fords, Cadillacs and the like. There are certainly plenty knocking about and Havana is full of them. However, another popular car out there is the Lada Riva. The Lada Riva, as I now know, was modelled on the FIAT 124 and production began in Russia in the 1980s and stopped only recently. The car was modified for the Russian roads but all in all, is a pretty awful car. The one we took for our 114 mile journey from Vinales to Havana was no exception.
Getting around Cuba is an interesting experience. The journeys themselves are pretty straight forward, but getting those journeys arranged can be tricky. Before we arrived in Cuba, we’d read some advice about travel; if you want to travel anywhere in the country, ask five different people for information and form a conclusion. It also suggested agreeing a price of a taxi before you get in one and not to trust any Russian planes. The first two pieces of advice are invaluable – I can’t vouch for the third.
Initially, we were staying in Havana for five days and travelling to Las Terrazas for a few nights and finally on to Vinales. We had planned on getting the bus to Las Terrazas but we didn’t know when they ran. One tourist information place told us that there were two buses running on the Saturday that could take us there, but the bus station was three miles out of town and we would need to get a taxi to it. Another tourist information place told us that the buses didn’t run on Saturday and the next one would be Monday. As we had over-budgeted and were physically struggling to spend all the money we’d taken, we decided to get a taxi. We started making enquiries…
The hotel we were staying at said that they knew a taxi driver and he could take us to Las Terrasaz for 100CUC. Another taxi driver said that he could take us there and bring us back for 100CUC as a day trip rate. The decision was getting a little stressful, so we decided to go for a walk and get a few more quotes. Normally when you’re walking around Havana, there are taxi drivers everywhere and they all want to offer you their services. If Havana had a soundtrack it would be salsa music and “Taxi?” However, when you do want a taxi, they all go into hiding.
We eventually stumbled across a group of taxi drivers (I don’t know what the collective term is) who were laughing and joking with each other and enjoying the sunshine. As we approached them, we asked how much a taxi would be to Las Terrasaz. “60CUC” one gentleman said smiling. We shook hands and told him to pick us up the next morning.
One thing I can say about Cuban taxi drivers is that they are true to their word and very friendly. The next morning, our driver was there, on time and still wearing the same smile under his black moustache. His car was a bright yellow South Korean import with air conditioning and the fifty mile journey to Las Terrazas was pretty straight forward.
The next taxi-booking experience was much simpler as we got our hotel to organise one. The seventy mile journey from Las Terrazas to Vinales was 50CUC, and we travelled in a bright yellow South Korean import.
When it came to leaving Vinales, we opted for a taxi again. We’d been told by our hotel about a taxi rank in the town centre and that we’d have to book one from there. As we ventured into town, we found the taxi station and went to book. Havana was about 120 miles away so we estimated that we’d need 120CUC to get back. We were charged 60CUC.
“You will have to pay now, and we will pick you up from the taxi station” the lady at the table told us. We explained that we were staying at a hotel three miles away and asked if it was possible to collect us from there.
“OK” she said, “but there would be an additional 5CUC charge because the hotel is three miles away.” She went on to say, a little hesitantly in case we backed out of the deal, “so you would have to pay 65CUC now”. We paid there and then; this had to be the bargain of the century. We checked the price again to make sure that the 65CUC wasn’t a deposit. At this point I was struggling a little with the Cuban taxi pricing system.
The next morning, our taxi arrived on time. The driver confirmed that the fee had already been paid and that no more money was necessary, so we clambered into the back and got going. This time however, we weren’t travelling in a bright yellow South Korean import, we were travelling in a Lada; a white one from Russia. As we got in, we reached for our seatbelts – there weren’t any. However, it did have those black, swivel ashtrays in the car doors, next to the door handles – they were all the rage in the eighties. It was a good job I couldn’t see how many miles this car had clocked up, as I imagined it had done a fair few over the last forty years.
In Cuba, spare car parts are expensive and hard to come by and this makes car repairs a little tricky. Our little Lada was no exception to this rule. The seats were so well used that you could feel the springs digging into your legs and judging by the ride, the suspension had gone too. The car did have air conditioning, but due to the age of the car and the probable certainty that some of the seals had gone, keeping cool came with the addition of re-circulated diesel fumes. I tried opening a window, but that didn’t help much. It was a long 114 mile journey. My partner fell asleep for most of it, but I wasn’t sure if she was tired or overcome by fumes.
As knackered as the car was, it did make it to Havana and got us there in one piece. We tipped the driver and thanked him for the ride. We spent our last few days in Havana not doing very much and when it came time to leave for the airport we booked a taxi at the hotel to get us there. Much to our relief, a South Korean import came to pick us up. A nice yellow one.