The first thing I noticed when we arrived in Cuba was not the heat. We visited in January, their winter, and our first few days were slightly chilly and fairly overcast. Thus, when I exited the airport it was not a tropical heat that smacked me in the face, as it usually is when visiting a tropical destination, but exhaust fumes. What struck me was the car culture in Havana, Cuba.
A car was arranged to pick us up from the airport. It was not a classic American car, like I would have hoped for. In fact, I am not sure what kind of car it was – something old, perhaps from the 1980s, perhaps European, or Russian. It seemed to be held together by the proverbial duct tape, or perhaps solely by the wishes and hopes of its eccentric driver, Joan.
At first I was unsure whether the gasoline and exhaust smell was coming from our car or the others, but I realized it did not matter. The smell enveloped me. The dark plumes of grey smoke billowed from the tail pipe of anything that moved.
We were warned about the pollution in the city by a recent traveler, but thought, we traveled to China in the heat of the summer, how bad could it be in Cuba?
Lack of regulations coupled with a heavy dose of cars that are 50 or more years old, and you have a kind of pollution that is not easy to swallow. But, I tried to ignore the smell of the exhaust to just appreciate the uniqueness of the car culture in Havana.
The classic American cars were a riot, though – some looked ancient, and surprisingly road ready. Others were restored to pristine condition, in various hues of yellow, hot pink, or electric blue. Some served as taxis for the locals, some dressed to the nines for wealthy tourists looking to cruise in a convertible through the streets of Havana. Still yet, some were owned and operated as private vehicles – used on dates or family outings, or as every day transport.
The classic cars were accompanied on the road by an array of other moving vehicles of the non-American type – Russian made Ladas, motor cycles with side cars, tiny little Communist era cars, including Polski Fitas, classic jeeps. The cars mix with late model European and Asian made cars, including new Audi convertibles, tourist buses, and local city buses. And, the ever present Coco Taxis on every street – bright yellow motorcycle taxis in the shape of a round coconut.
The car culture in Havana was mesmerizing. At first, I spent most of my time just standing on the side of the road taking pictures, on the Malecon, or on the balcony of our Casa Particular, a private residence where rooms were rented under the strict eyes of the government. Then, I became used to seeing the classic cars. They were part of the landscape in Cuba – both the colors, and their accompanying exhaust. It was one of the most unique things about travel to Cuba.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.