Think of Cuba and Havana or Trinidad in particular and you will probably think of classic American cars.
The types of gas guzzlers that you saw in the movies transporting Peggy Sue to the drive-in or turning evil and crushing its victims (Stephen King’s Christine).
Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths, Mercurys and Lincolns too.
Many of the vividly coloured motors were abandoned by Americans in the late ’50s as they fled revolutionary Cuba, never to return.
Grateful Cubans inherited the monster autos and three or four generations later, these mobile works of art are still lovingly tended to, often as the main source of income for the owners and their families either as regular taxis or for tours lasting up to three hours.
Make do and mend could be a Cuban mission statement, and most of the cars have been kept going with parts from washing machines, mopeds and refrigerators, as an economy cut off from the USA has had to improvise to get by.
Paint jobs are usually splashes of gloss, as close to the original colour as possible.
€40 will buy you and your friends an hour in an open top Caddy or the like. The speedo probably won’t work and you will not be helping the environment one jot, but like a gondola in Venice it has to be done at least once.
We chose a lilac and white ’57 Ford Fairlane, our throaty berth and stetsoned pilot cruising the 8km of atmospheric Malecon, a route more akin to the Pacific Highway than the overrated Ocean Drive.
In a complete contrast, our other car of default rather than design during our visit was a beaten up Lada taxi, a throwback to the Soviet era of the ’70s.
Seatbelts, closed windows, shutting doors, paneling and a non-cracked windscreen were clearly optional extras that most Ladas lacked.
I will never forget turning up at Havana’s premier hotel in a beaten up wreck, holding onto the door for dear life as we turned corners! A lungful of fumes was also impossible to avoid.
Catering for tourists you also find bicitaxis, horse drawn carriages, little yellow bubble cars and for kids, even carts pulled by goats!
For locals the choices are far more straightforward. Cram onto a fully ventilated (due to no windows) bus, some little more than a covered trailer pulled by lorry cab or even by tractor. American school buses are also very common.
Hitchhiking and waiting for hours for the privilege is also a standard Cuban pastime. This is actively encouraged by the government to maximise the use of valuable diesel, with hitchers paying a few cents for a ride.
State owned tour buses (such as ours) are duty bound to allow official random checks at the roadside and if somebody there needs a lift with space free, the driver is obliged to allow them on board for a gratis ride.
Our driver picked up a musician on one occasion to take them to a restaurant near Baracoa, but seemed to turn a blind eye to any future thumbs.
As for our bus, our itinerary included several five hour+ road trips. A daunting prospect on UK motorways or the autobahn, but a real pleasure when turned into a mobile viewing gallery snooping on a kaleidoscope of life that we sped past, when not being held up by horse & cart, oxen pulling a load or flocks of pasture bound goats or even to allow our driver to buy half a banana tree en route!Cubans also have adapted bicycles to act as transport, often for carrying goods around. I also saw a fair few standard cycles in questionable states of repair – the saddles looked particularly uncomfortable!
Horse power was also a common sight – no such thing as a free lunch in Cuba!
Finally, there were a few motorcycles with sidecar in evidence to remind us all of Wallace & Gromit or for the older Brits reading this, perhaps ‘On The Buses’.
All in all Cuban transport is a colourful spectacle in so many ways!