CC Travel: Havana – Curbside Classic Central

Havana is cool. There is no better way to put it. If you love old cars, Havana is one of those places you have to visit. I love Havana. It’s cheap, the food is good, the people are friendly, it’s beautiful and there are the cars. They’re everywhere.

This is my first bit of writing for CC. Some of my pictures from Cuba have been featured here from the CC flickr page.

I have a thing for taking pictures of cars. Where I live, in Eastern Canada, I might see a vintage car once a week in the summer (other than my daily driver), and forget about seeing one in the winter. This started when I was a kid. My wife has gotten used to me jumping out of the car with my camera all excited about some rusted wreck sitting behind a body shop or in a field. So you can imagine how I reacted in Cuba.

Estimates of 50,000 to 60,000 pre-1960 cars still in use in Cuba are not hard to believe when you’re there.

First, a little history. It’s hard to guess when exactly the last new American car would have arrived in Cuba. Although the revolution started in 1956 it was not until the beginning of the 60’s that importation of American goods, including cars, was halted.

In retaliation for Castro and the Communists seizing and nationalizing all private companies, including a large number of US holdings, President Kennedy (after ordering a lifetime supply of Cuban cigars) banned all trade with Cuba. I’m guessing that somewhere between ’59 and ’60 anyone with money in Havana would have decided that heading to Miami might be a better bet then buying a new Cadillac.

Before this time though, the Cuban economy was booming. A postwar increase in the price of sugar had money pouring in, and Cuba had become the playground of America.

The Cuban government actually asked US mafia bosses to set up hotels and casinos. Tourists could freely do things in Cuba that were not legal at home. This would probably explain the large number of Cadillacs still rumbling around Havana.

I was not there at the end of the fifties. I was, as the saying goes, just a twinkle in my mother’s eye…literally. My parents spent their honeymoon in Cuba in 1960. Their description of Havana is not too far off from what we see today.

I have been to Cuba a few times in the last 10 years. The last time was for work in February, when I managed to stretch 2 days of work into a 1 week trip. Most people head to Cuba for the resorts and beaches. I go for the cars and the city.

The city, like the cars, is worn and scarred. But everything is authentic. These people really use these cars. Most no longer have their original engines. Soot belches from crappy Russian diesel engines burning crappy quality Venezuelan diesel. Column shifters have been replaced by floor shifters crudely cut into the transmission tunnel. This gives the cars a decidedly farm tractor like ride and sound. But they are still on the road. You see cars from the 20’s right to the end of the 50’s. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. At rush hour the traffic jams are almost exclusively 40’s and 50’s cars! Taking car pictures here is like shooting fish in a barrel.

I’m not sure if there are laws in the US discouraging travel to Cuba, but I think every old car nut should do it. Sooner rather then later! If the US travel restrictions are ever lifted the place will change fast. I’m guessing that given the opportunity, most Cubans would much rather have a new Corolla (or new anything) than a beat to crap ’51 Chevy.

You don’t have to just look at them, you can ride in them too. There are convertibles that hang around all the large hotels waiting for tourists. Often these cars are nicely fixed up. For about $10 you can get a 10-15 minute tour of Havana in one of these cars. For the same money I spent over an hour in ’52 Cadillac I picked up at a taxi stand (pictured below). We toured central Havana and further out neighborhoods like Vedado and Miramar. These neighborhoods really give an impression of how wealthy the city was.

Decayed and crumbling, Havana feels like it is frozen in time. At the same time though, it feels alive with music and color. The people are friendly and I have always felt safe. Even wandering around with a bulging camera bag.

Although classics probably only make up a quarter of the cars that you see on the streets, there are still more than you will see anywhere else on the planet at one time. Classic car aficionados will no doubt get a sore neck trying to keep up with the rolling car show.

The hotel I stay in has a weird vibe. It seems like it might be an ex military base hidden under some bright paint, or some East German architect’s idea of what a true socialist vacation spot should look like (perhaps there is no difference). I like it. I always figure if you’re going to go somewhere offbeat like Cuba you should try to stay somewhere that gets you in the spirit of the place.

I’ve stayed in other places, including renting rooms in peoples homes, but I like where this hotel is. It’s in a pretty outer suburb of Havana called Playa Del Este on a nice local beach only a 15 minute ride from the centre of the city. It’s nice to be able to hit the beach in the mornings and still hang out in the city all day. Best of all, it’s really cheap.

Even out there the car spotting is great. Many Cubans don’t have full time jobs or jobs at all. They pile into all kinds of cars and head out to the beach. The parking lots themselves are fun just to wander around.

At night there are live jazz bands in the restaurants and jazz clubs all over Old Havana. Cigars, rum, entertainment (maybe the topless Tropicana Show?) and a ride back to the hotel in a 57 Chevy or a huge DeSoto make for evenings that cannot be found anywhere else.

Every time I leave Cuba, I have the same feeling: I’ve walked so much that I don’t think my knees or hips can take anymore, my throat is sore from all the pollution, and my tan has stopped washing off in the shower. I don’t want to go home.