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Appreciating Cuba's Clichés: Streets Full of Classic American Cars

Where: Cuba
February 21, 2011 at 9:45 AM | by | ()

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the island risks getting caught up in a hurricane of clichés. Thinking travelers aren’t generally fooled by the shiny veneer of places plugged in a Lonely Planet, but don’t discard Cuba’s clichés. They’re what make this intriguing country so exotic, so vibrant and so darned colorful. A Jaunted special secret correspondent discovers the best of each, all this week.

Cuba is an automobile enthusiast’s wet dream.

If you are one—a car enthusiast, that is, not a wet dream—then close your eyes and fantasize for a second. Imagine a catwalk of Chevys, Buicks, Chryslers and Plymouths, swinging their giant pink, mint-green or firey-red hips down a street lined with extravagant, crumbling mansions. In any central Havana square you’ll see them posing in the sunlight, radiator grilles pouting sexily for tourists’ cameras. (Off-stage they’re just as narcissistic.) All announce their arrival and departure on the scene with a thunderous drum roll from a thirsty engine and a dramatic puff of thick black smoke. The sight will blow you away, if the smoke doesn’t.

If you think this is about Cuban nostalgia and a love of old American cars, you’re wrong. For a start, these cars, known as cacharros, are not genuine classics but cobbled-together mongrels of different engines, gear boxes, body parts, seats, windows (if you’re lucky), held together by frayed rubber bands, old rags, shoelaces and rusty plumbing tubes stolen from the abandoned house next door. One taxi in which I had the misfortune of traveling had the gas tank in the trunk; another boasted three rows of seats, yet another sported a band-aid over a crack in the windscreen. Havana is less a museum of old cars than a recycling plant.

Any Cuban, given half a chance and a quart of freedom, would swap their backfiring rust-bucket of a cacharro for a shiny Toyota. But in all its bountiful wisdom, the Cuban government enforces a ban on buying and selling private cars produced after the 1959 Communist revolution. And the only people who owned cars before that were the Cuban sugar barons and the mafia. Go figure.

If you’re rich the ban doesn’t apply, thankfully for the rich. (Or at least it didn’t until March last year, when a program allowing wealthier Cubans to import BMWs and Mercs was abruptly stopped. No-one knows why.) If you’re a tourist it doesn’t apply either, thankfully for tourists. You can hire a shiny Audi A4 from one of the state-owned rental agencies if you’re brave enough to navigate the unlit, unsigned streets and wobbling bicycle taxis. Or you can even, if you want to go 0 to 60 down Nostalgia Street, rent a shiny full-working classic American convertible and go rev it up on Havana’s coastal avenue, the Malecón.

Inevitably, this Cuban cliché looks set to wilt and die soon after the Castros clear off and the restrictions on buying and selling cars are loosened. So get there now, camera in hand, and just don’t look under the hood.

Archived Comments:

Cars in Cuba

When I visited Cuba about a year ago, our guide informed us all the "nice"/new cars belonged to diplomats and their families. Interesting to know that could include tourists now, too. Here's a photo I took of one of many older cars during my trip: http://taraandkarinagoout.com/2011/01/16/shot-of-the-week-26/