The Cuba of your mind’s eye is alive and well…sort of. Any visitor to this Caribbean island expecting to see gumball-colored Chevys and Pontiacs from the 50s, tin can Russian Ladas, and the fading pastel patina of art deco buildings will not be disappointed. A trip to Cuba is a virtual time-tunnel to a yesteryear that’s at once surreally familiar and enjoyably disorienting.
Like being cast in a Cuban version of Steven Spielberg’s American Graffiti, you walk down main drags and backstreet neighborhoods of Havana, Viñales, or Trinidad as American classics cruise by. Some have the sheen of a hot-off-the-factory-floor model while others look like they’re one shoddy spark plug away from the junkyard. It must be tough to keep these cars not just functional but well preserved.
For more than 55 years (since 1960, following of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution victory and the disintegration of relations with the United States), Cubans have suffered a commercial, economic, and financial embargo imposed by the U.S. And it’s created an equally beautiful and melancholic time warp that has shaped the esthetics (and work ethics) of this Communist country in lots of ways.
With no direct or legal access to goods from the U.S., Cuba could no longer import cars or the car parts needed to fix the ones they still had. So these days, under the hoods of Motor-City-vintage-automobiles-cum-Cuban-standard-vehicles, you’ll find parts cannibalized from Peugots, Hyundais, and anything else that Cubans can get their hands on. Cubans are nothing if not industrious, and they seem to find ways to make their cars (and country) run…or at least limp along.
While on a road trip from Havana to Trinidad, the battery in our Coca-Cola red-and-white Mercury gave up the ghost and refused to go one more kilometer. It took half an hour, but our driver was able to fix it with scavenged parts. Not two minutes later, his friend who was caravanning with us discovered that the battery on his Ford was kaput. How they managed to find a spare from someone in a small town on a national holiday is still a mystery to me.
Both the American and Russian vehicles are often used as taxis in Cuba. Awestruck travelers hop in the fancy American beauties and pay a premium. Savvy travelers go Russian-style. A 15-minute ride from the residential Miramar neighborhood to the touristic Havana Vieja (Old Havana) in a ’55 Dodge taxi can cost 15 CUC (Convertible Cuban Pesos) or about $15. That’s half the average monthly salary for a typical Cuban. The same ride in a Russian Lada taxi would be about 8 CUC.
And if you’re clever enough to flag down a “civilian” driver willing to pick up a stray passenger, you can get that price down to just a few CUC. Like a Cuban private home run as a B&B is called a casa particular, a private car run as a temporary taxi is called a taxi particular. Just stick your hand out, point to the ground, and one will eventually come by.
Another flashback side effect of the embargo—and of mal-governance on the part of the Cubans—is the state of their architecture, particularly in Havana. While not quite frozen in time, turn of the 20th-century structures and Art Deco buildings defiantly remain standing, all while they decay and wither from the climate, neglect, and lack of money. Edifices that would be considered historic monuments in the U.S. are left to decay, to decompose. Neither the residents, nor the owners, nor the government have the money to fix or preserve them. Even if they did, who knows if they actually would? And while paint has worked wonders on some of them, it’s not enough to heal the structural trauma on the inside.
Still, there is something romantic, nostalgic, and charming about those old Easter egg-colored buildings. There’s a simplicity and elegance that manages to transcend the decades of dilapidation and disrepair. Like former beauty queens whose best days have long since past, the remnant dignity, poise, and grace of these venerable constructions still shine through.
Check out the gallery to see more antique cars and yesteryear buildings in beautiful and captivating Cuba. Click to enlarge and learn more.