Coches de los Muertos, Part 1
Retirement Living for the American Car
I am certain most of you have seen photographs of Cuba, no doubt featuring brightly coloured American cars from the 1950s, roaming the streets of Havana or resting in the shade of lush tropical greenery. The mystique of these venerable vehicles captured me instantly when I first laid eyes on them, their glistening chrome burned into my memory. This past June I traveled to Cuba, excited for the chance to see these machines up close.
For someone with gasoline flowing through their veins, it is a vacation destination unlike any other. Although I stayed on a resort in Varadero, I did a lot of exploring while there — traveling to rural areas to the south, and hiring one of the aforementioned classic cars for a expedition to Havana. Please join me for a brief tour of Cuba, with a look into their unique automotive culture.
Although many Americans have yet to experience it, Cuba is a truly uncommon travel destination — both for its culture and natural beauty. And not just because of the kaleidoscope of cars — it is also due to the country’s friendly and captivating people. It is a freeing experience in a way – there is none of the fear of something underhanded possibly lurking beneath the polished surface of its tourist destinations. There is never a time when you have to worry about crime or being taken advantage of by locals as you do in some Southern locales, who often receive media attention when tourists are injured, attacked or worse. Of course, vendors will try to sell you trinkets (admittedly some quite interesting, like 1:18 scale models of classic American cars carved out of wood — with operating doors and hoods that reveal a wooden engine), but they are a warm and not an aggressive people. I believe it is partially a byproduct of the communist country in which they live – for the most part everyone makes the same salary and has a similar standard of living, which reduces some of the greed which often fuels crime in the first place. Also, the penalties for breaking the law are stiffer.
This is not to say I agree with the communist lifestyle – although most everyone makes the same salary, it is a low one. The government provides you with a house as well – but the quality of that house varies, so there is an undercurrent of inequality that is visible when you visit more rural areas. The standard of living for the majority of the public is very sobering – driving through farmland you often feel as though the veil has been lifted and you are seeing the country as its citizens do. Also, large mansions can occasionally be seen in some cities and towns, which have you wondering how much corruption exists to allow for such an extreme contrast in the lifestyles of some of the population.
Oh right – but you’re here for the cars, aren’t you? I’ll start at the beginning.
My first stop in Cuba was the Varadero airport, and it was there that I received my first glimpse of the cars of Cuba. Late model Chinese buses surrounded the entrance, ferrying the tourists to their various destinations. Sprinkled amongst them were taxis. Late model yellow Hyundai Accents, decorated in the livery of stereotypical New York City cabs, whose drivers offered their pitch of whisking you to your resort without being seated next to your former airplane neighbours. A handful of Fiat 124 derived Lada taxis, in various colours and states of repair, sat amongst them. Their drivers told the same spiel, while promising us that, despite appearances, they did indeed have working air conditioning. In the distance some old American cars lurked, painted obnoxious colours: the “Yank Tanks”. Under trees heavily laden with red flowers, they watched from the shade like resting lions, waiting for the hustle and bustle to die down before encircling the airport entrance, looking for the odd fare wanting a tour of Varadero or to book a trip to Havana.
Continue this story on page 2.