Cuba: On The Cusp Of Change

As the US embargo is lifted on this Caribbean country, Avis Inspires explores a country so synonymous with a fleet of classic American cars.

Stock advice for the past decade when it comes to travelling to Cuba is ‘go before it changes’ – the expected change referring, of course, to what will happen when the US embargo, imposed on the Caribbean island since 1960, is finally lifted. And that time, it appears, is nigh. On the 21st of March 2016, Barack Obama will become the first US President to set foot on Cuban soil for more than 50 years, and US airlines and companies are queuing up to try to get a piece of the rum-soaked pie.

Combine a huge increase in US visitors this year with the upsurge in private enterprise on the island since employment reforms in 2011 – which have brought a new wave of restaurants and tour companies – and it’s fair to say that the wheels of change are now firmly in motion in this land of sun and socialism.

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So, what exactly is changing? And will the romanticised image of Cuba, based partly on its time-warp status, fade as the country puts two salsa-dancing feet into the modern world? Many Cubans – sick of queues, rationing and limited opportunities – are embracing the idea of economic change, with many taking advantage of the new possibilities to start up private businesses.

The restaurant sector, in particular, is booming, with dozens of new openings in Havana over the past year; and more high-profile openings in 2016 may finally revolutionise Cuba’s poor gastronomic reputation. But though such changes are happening, the country is unlikely to lose its distinctive charm in a hurry. For better or worse, the Castros are still in power, after all.

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One potent and very visual symptom of the US embargo that won’t disappear overnight is the country’s fleet of classic American cars – which have, somewhat ironically, become synonymous with Cuba. The holiday snaps of gas guzzlers on Havana’s crumbling streets might now be a cliché, but they are not a misrepresentation; 1950s Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Buicks, Pontiacs and Lincolns – often referred to as almendrones, literally ‘huge almonds’ – make up around a third of all cars here, with many Havana road-scapes looking like street scenes from a Hitchcock film.

Visitors in the market for their own classic car might be disappointed to hear that many, if not most, of these cars are only shells of their former selves: the engines, steering, brakes and electrics will normally have been replaced over the years, often with parts from the Ladas and Moskvich cars that you’ll also see in big numbers (the Soviet Union kept the island afloat throughout the 70s and 80s). Some simply have gaps where their dials or window cranks once were. But they are still a tantalising element of Cuba’s appeal.

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So, how do you get to ride in one of these colourful, chrome-festooned automobiles? And what are the possibilities for touring the country by car? Most visitors start their trip to Cuba in La Habana, where your options for enjoying a ride in a Chevrolet are plentiful, as the vast majority of classic cars in the capital are used either as ‘communal taxis’ (taxis colectivos) or for visitor tours. Communal taxis are a Cuban phenomenon that has become a part and parcel of life here, thanks to a lack of fuel and an overloaded public transport system. Many run along specific routes in the capital and are frequently packed to the gills with peso-paying locals (especially during a downpour – more common here than you might imagine).

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If you want a more relaxed ride in an American car that has at least some of its original parts intact, however, then you’re best off using one of the tour companies whose cars can be found lined up in Old Havana’s Parque Central and outside the Capitolio building. These are normally slick convertibles with garish paint jobs. An hour-long tour will cost around 30 CUC (convertible pesos, which are pegged to the US dollar) and take in key city sights, such as the Bacardi building, the Museum of the Revolution, the recently reopened Gran Teatro, the Hotel Nacional in Vedado, and the Malecón – the seafront esplanade that has become the preeminent symbol of Havana. If you want to arrange a tour ahead of time then visit the websites of some of the new private tour companies, such as NostalgiCar and Havana Supertours.

Touring the country by car is another matter. Driving a classic car yourself is out; the state-run hire car companies only deal in modern vehicles. You can quite easily find a local with a gas guzzler willing to chaperone you around the island – but the journey will likely be hot, noisy and slow and you might end up wishing that you’d opted for a Lada rather than a beat-up Buick. (Though the slowness could be considered a good thing given that seatbelts are rare.)

No matter what type of car you prefer, though, you should have no difficulty finding a driver – just head to Havana’s Viazul bus station in Nuevo Vedado. With the recent increase in tourist numbers, the country’s efficient state-run tourist bus services are often fully booked, leaving the overspill – or those who simply want more flexibility – to take advantage of Cuba’s burgeoning new service industry. And because a private taxi driver here makes a lot more money than a public sector worker – who typically earns $20-40 per month –  you might well find yourself with a highly educated former doctor, teacher or civil servant as your chaperone.

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So, where to go? Though Cuba is a fairly compact country (a little smaller than England), you won’t of course have time to see everything on a standard two-week holiday. The classic western trinity of Viñales, Varadero and Trinidad is popular for a reason, offering an appealing combination of, respectively, lush greenery, white-sand Caribbean beaches and well-preserved colonial architecture. Viñales is located in the province of Pinar del Río, an area known for its miles of tobacco plantations and its distinctive flat-topped hills called mogotes, which lend a prehistoric look to the landscape.

If you only have time to visit one area outside of Havana, make it this one. A drive to Viñales from the capital will take around three hours, depending on the type of car, and, as with all Cuban roads, you’ll experience pot-holes a plenty but surprisingly little traffic – despite the many hopeful hitchhikers. Trucks loaded with sugar cane are a common sight in this area, as are horse-pulled carts. Once in Viñales, take advantage of the many casa particulares (homestays) on offer. As in all of Cuba, these are the best way to get under the skin of the place, and offer another opportunity to chat to locals at a watershed moment in their country’s history.

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