Trinidad is about 320Km (200 miles) from La Habana. A morning’s drive (with time for coffee) where I come from but half a lifetime by Viazul bus. The bus ride itself is reasonably pleasant but the rigmarole of buying tickets so time consuming, we did the trip returned by taxi.

Our landlady insisted that the Taxi Colectivo owned by her son’s friend was reliable, fast, and completely safe. And is it a new car Juanita? “Si, si, nuevo” we were assured. New is a relative term and at first glance it seems our definitions are far apart. However, on closer inspection, perhaps not. The car has door handles on the inside so is clearly a superior breed.

One passenger, a young fellow from Hong Kong, is already aboard but, with nobody else in sight, we anticipate a comfortable ride on the back bench. However, it is not to be; “sorry ladies” from an American voice at the window indicates this taxi ride is full. We squash a little closer and welcome him to the collective.

The American enquires about a stopover at the Bay of Pigs but the driver indicates it is not on our route (surprising because the bus driver pointed it out on the way down). After a little back and forth it becomes clear that Viazul favours the scenic route whereas we’re taking the Autopista Nacional (Highway 1) which bypasses Playa Girón and Playa Larga.

Bicycles, tricycles, horse drawn carts, livestock, hitchhikers, buses, pick up trucks, and every shape of motor vehicle imaginable share the road back to La Habana with us. On narrow country roads between Trinidad and Cienfuegos, we notice a tooting variation that says “passing now” as well as the familiar “I’m about to pass”. Presumably the driver being overtaken knows to keep a steady pace and avoid swerving to the left.

The taxi driver has a rudimentary understanding of English; we have a few words of Spanish; our travelling companions seem fluent in both. When I remark that the car is blessed with 4/80 air conditioning (four windows down and 80 miles an hour), our American insists on sharing the joke. The explanation, after being conveyed to the kid in the front seat, is painstakingly translated, and is finally appreciated by the driver.

Having had a long stop at a thatched highway roadhouse just a few days earlier, we immediately know to decline when our driver offers a coffee stop. Petrol is another issue though as we have to fill up along the way. Anywhere else it might feel a little shady to have fuel siphoned from a tank beside a farmer’s house but here the nonchalance of both parties indicates it’s all part of the routine.

Freeways quickly become boring, Cuba doesn’t have a ‘stop, revive, survive’ ethos, and from time to time, it feels like the driver needs matchsticks in his eyes. The American somehow has been to this country often, starting in the dark days when he and a few others brought in vaccines and medicine for people in rural areas. He keeps the back seat amused, pointing out local landmarks and trading insider knowledge, and raises his voice just loud enough whenever it seems the man at the wheel might fall asleep.

On the outskirts of La Habana, the driver comes into his own again and skilfully navigates his way to our separate hotels. We two, at least, are pleased to be back in the city where the pace is slower, taxi drivers are alert, and pedestrians reign supreme.

This article is based on a holiday in Cuba in February and March 2015. The trip in the Taxi Colectivo, door to door from Trinidad to La Habana, was the same price per person as the Viazul bus.

In February and March 2015 we had a magical, memorable trip to Cuba. Some tales from that time are written up on VOYJA. Here’s a link to our travel tips page.