Road trip with a Difference – Cuban style
To see how much the real place lives up to the promise of these photos, and to find out what life is like motoring the roads of Fidel’s island, my partner and I recently took a 1,500 mile road trip in a rented VW Bora.
We had organised a leisurely route starting off in Havana and heading down south to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, then east to Santa Clara – cradle of the revolution – and Camaguey, then back via the hills and rainforests of Pinar del Rio, in the far west, before returning to Havana.
First things first then – the much-photographed cars of the 1950s. Tourist hype? Not a bit of it. While a few have been restored and are used as taxis to lure hard currency from visitors to this socialist island, the vast majority are local transport, ingeniously held together with filler, and random parts from other vehicles. Often they have been “re-engined” with the internal mechanics of anything to hand, from a tractor to a truck, and stutter along in clouds of black smoke, their once-sleek bodies now pitted and repainted peculiar shades of emulsion.
A down-at-heel Kaiser Henry J – note the rear light fashioned from a plastic bottle with a Sunbeam Minx behind
Fast forward a few years in automobile production and you come up against the next major contribution to the island’s car pool, fraternally sent by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The most notable example of this is the boxy Moskvich sedan (literally “son of Moscow”), although the bigger vaguely-Chevy-inspired Volga and the more modern-looking 2140 (a Fiat 124 clone) are also to be found everywhere.
A Moskvich 2140 side by side with an earlier Moskvich 408 in downtown Havana
Finally there are the brand-new modern cars – Hyundais, Toyotas and so on, most of which seem to be used as airport taxis and the like. Ordinary Cubans mainly travel in the back of open trucks or in strange trailer-like buses, so in our silver VW Bora (previous generation Jetta), we stood out pretty clearly as foreigners.
Hiring a car isn’t actually that difficult – credit cards are accepted and there’s the usual hard sell on extra insurance. What they didn’t tell us until we set off on our travels was that road signs simply don’t exist in Cuba, so you need a very good map and preferably a background in the Boy Scouts. A compass would also have been invaluable.
We headed out of Havana towards the main multi-lane central highway in the centre of the island…or so we thought. The city is seemingly designed with sweeping circular boulevards which eventually go back to the seafront. Three times this happened to us and we began to think about needing another night in Havana. Eventually we worked out if we followed the boundaries of Lenin Park it would get us out of the city.
Finally then, we reached a surprisingly large highway intersection. Which way to go? Not a sign in sight or even an obvious slip road. Virtually no traffic either, and every time we slowed down a group of people thought we were stopping to give them a lift – a national pastime in Cuba – and we didn’t quite feel ready for that. Finally a traffic policeman on a motor bike turned up. We yelled “Trinidad”, he pointed the opposite way to where we were facing and encouraged us to do an illegal-feeling U-turn across the central reservation.
This is a highway like no other. It is wide and empty enough to land a jet on. Cows wander on the carriageway, people sit selling melons and bottles of unidentifiable liquid by the side of the rode, or nurse their broken Studebakers along at 5mph. Gangs of workers minutely tend gardens under the blazing sun
The surface is pretty good, even if speeding along is no way to admire the scenery and the regular and pretty entertaining political posters glorifying the revolution. Gradually it dawned on us there was something else missing besides the traffic. There are no direction signs off either. Guess-where-we-are-now must be a national pastime.
Ultimately, of course, we adapted, becoming dab hands at asking directions, trusting our intuition and battling along farm tracks trying to get back on the carriageway.
Buying gas was another adventure, with each station seemingly having its own arcane rules – my favourite one being the one where you had to locate some upstairs office to guess the amount of fuel and pay in advance, then rescue the car and join the anarchic queue at the pumps. To be fair, other stations had attendants who were unfailingly pleasant and courteous and went out of their way to help us despite our lack of Spanish.
Parking in towns invariably involved paying someone – occasionally uniformed officials, sometimes passers-by – to “guard” the car, as apparently there is a black market in detachable items like wipers and mirrors. In some places this seemed a sensible precaution, in others a real imposition, and the most scary part of our trip was an encounter with an obvious chancer who demanded convertible pesos – the hard currency all Cubans crave – simply because we had stopped to take a picture. Attempting to drive off with him hanging on to the half-open door was probably not the wisest move, in hindsight.
Cuba is the first place I’ve driven where the small print of the rental agreement includes a hefty fine for returning the car dirty. Which explains why the two of us and a very helpful female parking attendant spent an hour at the end of our trip with paraffin and tissues removing blobs of tar picked up on the way.
Whilst getting to Cuba may not be straightforward for Americans, plenty of Europeans and Canadians head there by the planeload. Would I recommend to them the pleasures driving in Cuba? Yes, if they want the chance to escape the tourist ghettoes, see the fantastic scenery and experience the automotive relics of a bygone age still in service. It’s also a great chance to meet people struggling bravely to cope with the strange other-worldly culture of a political system like no other.
Even the road signs might get fixed one day. At one hotel I finally mentioned our difficulties to the suave manager and he solemnly agreed before reassuring me: “It’s OK, Fidel knows about it.” In the meantime though, don’t forget to pack that compass!
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