After writing nine posts about Cuba earlier this year, we thought we were done with our stories from Freedom Island. But to be honest, it would be unfair not to describe the most touristy thing we did while there. Learning about the U.S.-organized invasion at the Bay of Pigs or exploring former sugar mills near Trinidad was surely educational, but that stuff is for nerds, and not everyone wants to do that. Yet nearly every person who comes to Cuba takes a ride through Old Havana in an antique American car. And we couldn’t help ourselves either!
Why Cuba, and Havana specifically, is full of vintage American cars is an interesting story. Following the Cuban Revolution’s triumph in 1959, the U.S. imposed an embargo, effectively freezing the inventory of American cars available on the island. The ensuing friendship with the Soviet Union provided Cuba with a stable stream of ugly Russian cars until the fall of the USSR, but American cars, as well as cars from other countries with whom the U.S. did business, became off-limits. The embargo caused Cubans to preserve the existing supply of American cars and maintain them with great care for over 60 years. The result is this frozen-in-time image of the crumbling streets of Havana with old Pontiacs, Chryslers, and Dodges crawling through them.
Riding a classic American car during one’s stay has become a sort of rite of passage for visitors. You have not really been to Havana if you have not cruised the streets in one of these cars. And you do not need to do much to arrange a trip. Local touts persistently hassle tourists, trying to sell them a ride. Each time we came to the center of Havana, we were approached by someone offering us a tour in a car of our choice. Sometimes, it was enough just to take a picture of a parked car to see a tout running towards you screaming about what a wonderful time you would have riding in it.
Before I describe our glorious drive through the streets of Havana in a beautiful 1956 Chevy convertible, it is worth making a couple of other observations.
If you want to ride a vintage American car in Cuba but do not want to pay much, it is easy to do. In addition to fancy, bright-colored convertibles, Havana and other towns in Cuba are full of old American cars serving as taxis. They might not be as nice and you might need to share them with other passengers, but they do the trick. For our day trip from Viñales to Cayo Jutla, we shared a ride with other tourists going to a beach in an old, beat-up Pontiac that slowly moved through the Cuban countryside.
But if your goal is to ride a classic convertible, be ready to pay around $30/hour (or more or less, depending on your bargaining skills). By Cuban standards, the price is inflated but it is comparable to what you pay for a touristy experience in Latin America. It’s common to pay $30/hour for a colorful trajinera boat ride in Xochimilco, Mexico City, or $35 for a zip lining in El Salvador. Also, no need to feel bad about potentially overpaying as these rides provide an opportunity to earn a little bit of money for the cash-strapped people of Cuba.
One thing that we discovered about hiring a vintage American car in Cuba is that most of these cars are owned by agencies. When we asked our driver about the ownership of the car we rode in, we expected to hear a heartwarming story about the car being in the hands of the same family with the driver’s grandfather and father taking good care of the vehicle since the 1950s before passing it down to him. But the driver just honestly blurted out: “This is a company car.”
Another truth that we learned is that observing someone riding in a convertible in Havana is actually far more enjoyable than riding in the car itself. Unless you have a drone that follows you and captures your drive from the outside, when you are inside the car, you do not see the beautiful bright-colored exterior of the car (people on the streets do!). Rather, you are inside of the car which usually shows some major wear and tear that accumulated over 60+ years, looking out.
With all this being said, we still enjoyed our trip. We timed it to be closer to the sunset time, so we could take great pictures (and let’s admit that the entire reason for hiring the car was to take pictures). But first, we needed to select a car. We decided to go for the most outrageous color… the car needed to be pink or red! One of the touts approached us offering to ride in a green Buick and then another one offered a blue Dodge. No! We waved them off. Then, we finally saw it – a shiny raspberry-colored Chevrolet, a convertible. A vintage beauty made in 1956, just three years before my dad was born.
We briefly chatted with the driver, who quoted us $25 for a one-hour trip. Deal! We shook hands and climbed inside. As we were leaving the central square, we passed the impressive buildings of Gran Teatro and Capitolio. The car then dived into the narrow streets, navigating through once-bustling Chinatown, passing the world-famous Partagas cigar factory, and cruising near the old cemetery established by the Spanish during colonial rule. We were relaxed in the backseat, taking in the sights and enjoying a warm breeze gently blowing in our faces.
Our first stop was at the Revolution Square, from which Fidel once spoke for six hours to an elated crowd of Cubans. Aside from its historical significance, the square is nothing really to write home about. It is surrounded by drab, ugly Communist buildings hosting government agencies. Two of them depict images of the local revolutionary darlings, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The colossal monument to Jose Marti is the central piece of this otherwise ugly plaza. The main reason to stop here was just to take pictures. The driver did not overburden us with the architectural details of the plaza or historical facts but simply stepped aside allowing us to pose for an inordinate number of pictures inside and outside of the car.
After the photo session was over, we continued our tour and the scenery changed a little bit. Instead of the crumbling architecture of Old Havana, we started to see nice houses with tall fences. The driver told us we were in Miramar, where wealthy families (they do exist in Cuba!) and families of diplomats from the countries with whom Cuba has established relationships reside. It’s worth noting that we didn’t see a single person in Miramar, not on the street, not in the front yards, or even in the windows of the houses.
Leaving Miramar, the driver made a sharp turn, and we suddenly left the hustle and bustle of the city behind us and entered a serene, riverside tropical park - Parque Almendares. We were now in a real jungle. The driver parked, and we walked around the park, completely captivated by the river, tall tropical trees, and the overall greenery and peacefulness of the place. The park was a popular stop for visitors as was evidenced by other cars parked nearby and a makeshift bar selling piña coladas. Although we initially did not plan to order any drinks, our driver highly recommended piña coladas. They were pricy by the local standards ($6) but totally worth the price. After taking our payment, the bartender handed us a pineapple filled with piña colada mix. She pointed out that it had no alcohol, and then … she just handed us an entire bottle of rum. Add as much rum as you want! Julia carefully poured a little bit of rum, trying not to make it too strong and we walked to our table. When we were halfway through the drink, the bartender stopped by our table and brought the bottle of rum to us. Add more rum! We complied, and the piña colada became boozier. Then we added more. Soon the piña colada mix got so diluted that we were simply drinking straight rum out of the pineapple. If we did not have to go, we could have probably drunk the entire bottle! As we learned on one first day in Havana, rum is very cheap in Cuba and costs next to nothing.
The last leg of our journey involved going back to the city. We hit the timing perfectly. As the sun was setting into the sea, we drove on the Malecon, watching the waves violently and beautifully crashing against the seawall. Our trip was winding up, and we were chilling in the backseat, enjoying the golden light of the late afternoon and snapping endless selfies. The sea breeze was, once again, pleasantly blowing through our hair, this time also helping us to sober up.
Although we often scoff at and try to avoid purely touristy experiences in our travels, riding a classic American car in Havana was not a bad way to spend an hour in the city.