If you have ever wanted to go back to the 1950’s, you can easily do it in Havana, or anywhere in Cuba (with the exception of the tourist resorts).
It’s fun to actually feel the Cuba time warp. For us, it was like going back to our childhoods. Younger travellers could experience what it was like to live in your parent’s time, or even your grandparent’s. The 1950’s were very cool.
Classic Cars in Cuba
There are not just a few old cars in Havana – they are everywhere! It would be fair to say that at least 60% of the cars in Havana are old classic cars and 75% of those are taxis. With the old buildings and the the old 1950’s cars, this is what we call the Cuba time warp.
These old cars are painted jewel-bright colours and polished to a mirror finish.
We also saw 1946 and 1947 Ford buses as well.
Cubans are Ingeniously Resourceful
Curiously, an old classic Chevrolet might have a Chevrolet body with a Ford motor, and a Chrysler transmission. Radios are an add-on from the 1970’s. T said they are called Frankenstein cars. Some of these vintage American cars had air conditioning and since 1950’s cars did not have air conditioning, that was an add-on too. Our hosts in Havana also offered a taxi service, and his 1952 Chev Woody Wagon was one of those Frankenstein cars.
The Cuban people are masters at adapting things. Because you cannot even get the old parts any more, these old cars are a constant source of maintenance. You have to admire how they make them run one way or another. Occasionally a car we were in would require considerable fiddling with the choke or even a quick push to kick in the starter.
Many of the old cars leak oil and all of them spew gasoline fumes because there are no emission standards, leaving toxic polluted air. The stench from the blue smoke of exhaust fumes in Havana Vieja is extraordinarily bad, creating a thick choking haze on the streets of Havana.
There are even older cars too and horse and buggy carts, and bicycle taxis, all driving down the streets alongside buses and trucks.
In small towns, there are only a few cars period. We guess that about one out of ten people even own a car in Cuba. Most people drive bicycles. A classic car in prime condition costs 20,0000 to 40,000 CUC/U.S. When the wage of the average Cuban is $25 a month, you can see why most Cubans drive a bicycle. In fact, many Cubans don’t even know how to drive a car.
Cubans are extremely enterprising though, and most have side jobs just to survive. This makes one less annoyed with the touts when you realize that they are all quite desperate and need to make a few extra dollars.
Inside the Vintage American Cars
The first thing you notice when you get into an old classic car in Cuba is that there is so much space inside that you can barely reach the dashboard; not like modern cars where the dashboard is practically in your face. The seats are quite soft and very deep too.
Don’t forget that you have to wind down the window by hand – no electronic push buttons here.
The doors, well, you need to have a little strength to open and close them – they’re solid and heavy, and more often than not, the driver will have to open the door from the outside because the handle inside does not work.
In one taxi, an old classic car, T tried to get out but there was no door handle, and when he mentioned this to the driver, the driver said, “No no no, I have the handle here!” The driver had only one handle for all four doors. He gave a little smirk, and we all chuckled.
Can you imagine riding in a car without seat belts?! None of these old cars from the 40’s or 50’s or 60’s have seat belts. Cars were not required to be equipped with seat belts until 1976 (in Canada). Without wearing a seatbelt, you get the feeling that you could fall out of the car at any moment, yet we could not deny a certain sense of freedom and wild abandonment. Especially in a convertible.
Our First Classic Car Ride
This was our first classic car experience (1 hour tour) on our first day in Havana ($40CUC or 40U.S.). We bargained the tout down from $100. There are touts in all the bigger cities of Cuba that chat up the tourists and get them to buy a tour, then take their clients over to the actual owner or driver, who just gets a percentage of the total charged.
Why are There So Many Old Cars in Cuba?
In the early 60’s when the U.S. stopped trading with Cuba, the people could not get any cars period, until decades later when Russia and China started building cars. That forced the Cubans to maintain and repair the old cars they already had, and they are ingenious at doing so.
No Video Games in Cuba
There are no video game machines in Cuba. Cuban kids, like their parents love music and love to dance. Kids play with sticks and cans to make a soccer-like street game. A can becomes a toy. In North America, kids just throw the pop cans on the street.
Cuban teenagers tease and hug and laugh together, boys and girls together, like good friends. It truly is the Cuban time warp.
Electronics in Cuba
Though game machines are not common, everyone has a cell phone. Most of the TVs we saw were the old 60’s box TVs, but most people don’t even have a TV. There is virtually no cable or satellite TV in Cuba.
Cuban homes are furnished with nice old 60’s furniture with a spanish influence, and a few small photos/prints create a little decor on the mostly-barren walls, but every Casa Particular (B & B) we stayed in was spotless, and immaculately clean. Still, it felt like walking into your parent’s or grandparent’s house. This is the Cuba time warp.
Many public toilets have no seats and just like in parts of Europe, a woman at the door must be paid a few Cuban coins to be given about 6 sheets of toilet paper. It is hard to begrudge a few coins to an older lady sitting at the door when you know it is likely just enough extra to make life a little more bearable. Some public toilets have no one manning them, but there is still no toilet paper inside the cubicles. Our tip: carry toilet paper and few pesos in your pocket everywhere you go in Cuba.
Crumbling buildings sit alongside nicely restored buildings in Havana. We did notice, unlike most Latin American countries, that there were few churches in Cuba. We surmised that not many people go to church because Cuba is a Communist country, which tends to discourage organized religions.
The people of Cuba have an innocence and naivety reminiscent of the 1950’s that is charming, but it is because they are isolated from what is happening in the rest of the world. They do not get news from Europe or North America since everything, including internet access to specific sites, is censored by the communist government. Cubans are therefore extremely curious about other countries.
Most people have not travelled outside of Cuba, and in fact, have not even travelled outside their town or city. Since the average wage is $25 per month, one can understand why they cannot afford to travel.
Only one family we stayed with was the exception since they had a son attending the University of Toronto. This older couple lived in a large mansion of a house, where the entire house was made into Casa Particulars (private bed and bath accommodations) with use of the kitchen, dining room, living room, garden and porch, while the old couple lived very simply in the garage with a bedroom above it. The kitchen and 2 lawn chairs were squeezed in along side the tools and car. This is how they made extra money and managed to send their son to University in Canada.
There are, of course, no U.S citizens allowed to travel in Cuba, except as part of a registered government tour group and with a Visa. We also noticed that there were very few immigrants in Cuba, though there were a few foreign-owned businesses.
Cuba has very poor internet access, as we explained in the last post, Read This Before You Go To Cuba, and the government regulates what the people can see on the internet. In fact, when I tried to book Villa Las Brujas from home before we left for Cuba through Booking.com, Booking.com emailed me saying that the Cuba government denied booking access to their site and that I must book directly on the Villa Las Brujas site. See how it works?
The people are mostly using their cell phones to connect to friends and relatives, not to access the internet.
The Food in Cuba
The food in Cuba is very basic and simple, almost like what you would expect in the 50’s, with the exception of quite a few Italian restaurants. Why are there so many Italian restaurants in Cuba? Apparently, Christopher Columbus was Italian, and when he discovered Cuba in 1492, the first Italians arrived with the Spanish conquistadores. If you get tired of Cuban food, the Italian restaurants are generally excellent.
Cuban food is mostly chicken and pork, with a little beef, and is always served with rice and beans. Lobster and shrimp meals are available too and cost a bit more, but their lobster, though much cheaper than in N.A., is not nearly as delicious as North American lobster.
Cubans use very little seasoning on their foods. A bit of salt is used, but no pepper or herbs, and few sauces.
Seafood is not sold in the stores, but in butcher shops, the raw meat is out in the open, flies and dust included free. Chickens wander the streets of all towns and cities.
There are very few local entrepreneurs since everything must go to the Communist government first and is then subsequently distributed to the people.
Milk is in short supply, especially fresh milk. We did not see any dairy cows as we travelled across the country. Brahma cows occasionally dotted the fields, but still not a lot of cattle either. We eventually found out that the people are not allowed to buy fresh milk; they must use powdered milk.
We actually found out about the milk in an awkward way. Everyday in Old Havana we would be chatted up by a young woman asking where we were from and how wonderful Canadians were and then she would fall into a diatribe about being a poor mother with many little ninos and no milk for the ninos, and of course, asking for money. At first we always gave a little, but after being asked ten times a day, every day, you get a little jaded, and we started saying no, particularly after we were running out of money ourselves and our bank cards would not work! We were at the point where we imagined begging ourselves.
One day T returned home from a walk, and with a sheepish grin said he had a confession to make. He was near the Mercado (grocery store) when a woman asked him if he would buy her some milk for her ninos. When he declined, she begged and begged him, and with puppy-dog eyes explained that only tourists can buy fresh milk, locals are not permitted. So he went in to the mercado, pointed at a carton of milk, and was shocked when the cashier asked for 8CUC ($8U.S.). Fresh milk is very expensive, and even more expensive if you only make $25 a month like the local Cubans. I was proud of T for helping the woman, despite the fact that we could soon be in the same position.
Farms in Cuba
The good rich soil, in parts of Cuba like Vinales, where the green grass suitable for grazing dairy cattle is plentiful seems to be used for tobacco farming. Perhaps there is a better return on investment for tobacco than for dairy cattle, though we wondered if Canada could not help Cuba by sending over some dairy cattle.
There were few vegetable farms in ready view either. Perhaps the land is not very arable, as it does seem desert-like in many places. Yet it is rare to be served potatoes at a meal and they are the easiest vegetable to grow in the poor soil. It was simply surprising that there are not more farms in Cuba, though it was fun to see that even the tractors were old Massey-Fergusons from the 50’s.
Some fruits are readily available in Cuba: pineapple, banana and lots of guava and watermelon. Unfortunately neither of us like guava fruit, and it was always served at breakfast. Oranges and apples are not common and are expensive.
Neither did we see any grain fields, but the bread they did have was sold in the mornings by a local man peddling his bicycle down the streets shouting, “Fresh Bread” in Spanish. People come out of their homes and for a few pesos, tuck a long french loaf under their arm, no packaging required.
Animals in Cuba
There are virtually NO animals in Cuba. We found this quite strange, and there are not even rats and mice despite quite a bit of open garbage. There are no wild animals period. A few flies, a few mosquitoes, a few geckos, and a few sand fleas might annoy you occasionally, but they are rare. Even birds are not in abundance.
Industry in Cuba
As expected, sugar cane along with pharmaceuticals, gas and steel are the top industries in Cuba, but tourism is coming up strong, with cigars and rum still popular as a take-home souvenir for tourists. Most of Cuba’s economy has state-run enterprises and a state-employed labor force, but very slowly Cuba is relaxing its laws against foreign investors. In late 2017, Cuba announced some great opportunities for foreign investors: The Cuban Economy.
The Cuba Time Warp
Cuba is frozen in the 1950’s. Reminding us of the old cult movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with songs like, Let’s Do The Time Warp Again, stepping into Havana is to feel time zooming back from today to the 1950s, like an old movie reel. It is a cultural adjustment to say the least, but also great fun, so don’t hesitate to go to Cuba and do the “Cuba time warp”. As you listen to the words of the song, do you recognize the irony in them as it relates to Cuba?