Words and Photos by Anthony Wiseman
Back in 2016 Trevor and I were invited to a Friend from New Yorks’s wedding in Miami, no less, how fabulous! Well, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to visit a place we had long heard about, although not too much about, Cuba.
Cuba, is only a very short distance from the mainland of the United States and is very close to Miami, yet actually worlds apart, and decades behind. And so, we found out that travel to Cuba from the US was not actually possible for us, and we had to enter from a non-US departure point; for Trevor and I, we chose to travel to Mexico City, and spend a few days there and then travel to Cuba.
The travel to Mexico city was easy and the city itself whilst it is a vast expanse that goes for miles, has a nice variety of old and new buildings, – although more new than old due to the number of earthquakes that are experienced; many just need to be replaced due to damage. The roads are very busy although reasonably well maintained; the footpaths though can rise and fall all over the place, so care needs to be taken whilst walking and exploring the city. Oh, and driving, I would say leave that to the locals; it’s busy and rules don’t seem to apply, more say your prayers, and hope for the best.
Anyway, back to Cuba. We did enough research to understand that participating in an organized tour would make the journey less stressful than it otherwise needed to be. We selected a small group tour with Intrepid tours that had only up to 15 participants; we also thought we may only get there once in our lives so took the opportunity to do a 15-day tour that traveled around almost the entire country. This turned out to be a great choice.
My main reason to go to Cuba was to see how this time capsule of a country existed. I knew there were lots of old cars that were still in daily use, and images that I had seen showed shiny examples of vehicles from the early 60s. So that was the main reason for visiting Cuba. However, I wasn’t too aware of the political history or what it would be like in a communist country with a heavy influence on socialism.
Arriving at the airport in Havana we were greeted by a private driver to take us to the Casa that we had been allocated to stay in for the first few nights. We had arrived a full day earlier than the start of the tour, so this gave us the opportunity to do a little self-exploration. The Casa was in the historic part of town and upon arrival, the host was out and had a helper greet us; her English was not strong though, and through gestures, we managed our first few hours until our host arrived home. One thing we quickly realized is to forget asking for Wifi passwords or perhaps dropping down the street to the local café for a bite to eat, as this just wasn’t common. We decided to have a short walk from our Casa until our host was home and try to find a place to exchange some currency to local, as using credit cards and ATMs is not available so cash was king. Our host upon her arrival home was fun and very hospitable, and happy to suggest walks close to home until the official start of our tour.
We decided to turn in early so that we could wander the streets the following day; also there was no internet or phone reception so no Facebook, or phone calls, it felt weird to basically be cut off from the world, although after the 2 weeks it felt good.
Our walk the following day took us through the Historic town and along the Malecon towards a port area. This area certainly is where the Government is spending money to restore the dilapidated buildings so that tourists arriving by ship get off and see nice buildings, and clean walkways, and then return to the ship thinking this is quite nice. It is not until you head two streets back that you get to see the real streets with magnificent although rundown buildings.
But what about the cars you may ask? Well, you see all sorts of American cars from the 60’s driving around, many of these are well painted and shiny ready to take a tourist for a drive, along with a variety of 80s soviet cars. Russia supported Cuba heavily in the 80s until they basically pulled out leaving them in all sorts of trouble, and now there are quite a number of Chinese MGs and the like getting around. For the Russian vehicles, the little Fiat 126 (FSM Nikki) was widely spotted.
To my great delight during our walk through the town, we stumbled across a car museum; it wasn’t long before apart from the Museum Volunteer, Trevor and I ended up being the only visitors. To his delight I was able to show him some images of cars on my phone from Australia and hear about the plight of trying to keep the cars in Cuba maintained. The main issue is getting parts, without internet as we know it, and also bans on imports, etc the Cubans have been very creative in keeping the fleet of cars on the road. It’s not until you go for a ride in one that you find that the steering wheel of the 60’s Chevy may be from an 80’s Lada, or the seats all miss matched; even engines will be bits of this and that just to make the vehicle propel, so despite the first appearance of a shiny car you may be in for a surprise. In saying this, hands down to them for the effort they put in to keep the cars on the road, the other factor of course is funds; a highly paid occupation includes those of a doctor, at around $25 USD per week, yes that is not a typo!
A few days later upon joining our tour we were walking with another couple in Havana when suddenly there appeared to be a car chase that literally stopped on the roadside next to us. The drivers got out and had some sort of run around the cars talking loudly to one another. To our surprise this was the filming of a Top Gear episode that we ended up being right in the middle of, with crews coming over to us one to check we were ok due to the chase, the next bit was asking if it was ok for us to be part of the shot. And what do you think was the reply? Well, what an opportunity for a car lover, Top Gear in what is a weird and wacky country with mashed-up vehicles. We got to meet Tanner Foust, the pin-up of Top Gear USA, let’s just say I felt the trip was perfectly complete.