by Don McCann
Because we were a group of three couples (six people) we needed two cars for our touring. I’d found someone online with nice photos and very good ratings from TripAdvisor (yes, even Cuban companies have TripAdvisor ratings!). Our guides & cars were exactly where they had said that they’d be and we were greeted to two stunning vehicles: a 1955 Oldsmobile 98 and a 1957 Mercury Monterey. Both cars were convertibles, so our next three hours were spent in open air as we tooled around in grand style, in Havana, in these classic time machines (could this really be happening?!). These cars are well cared for and it shows. In fact, we were told that the ’57 Mercury is named “Lola”, because of the song “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets“!
One driver, Fabio, was 35 and of Spanish heritage. The other driver guide was Michelle; he was black, a bit younger and had been a Mechanical Engineer.Just like our guide from the first day, their English was perfect and they were fabulous ‘hosts’. Michelle told us that he was excited that we (the Americans) were there and I replied that we were excited to be there, as well.
We returned to the Christ statue for a more personalized and detailed tour of the site, as well as stunning, morning views of the city across the channel. Then we returned to the city, driving past impressive architectural sites such as the Barcardi building, the Capitol, the Gran Teatro de la Habana (home of the famed Cuban National Ballet Company), the domed Museum of the Revolution, China Town (yes, Havana has a China Town, but most Chinese are long gone); the list could go on, but you get the idea. We’d seen some of these sights the previous day, but from the open-air convertible it all seemed much more impressive. We then continued to the outskirts of the city past the university, on to a beautiful wooded forest area, and even by a neighborhood where famed mobsters used to live, such as Meyer Lansky!
The Cuban tourism allowances for U.S. citizens is actually based on a “people to people” program and that was our most impressive experience – it was the people. While many housing conditions seem quite lacking, the people we met seem to be mostly happy. Yes, there are challenges to their lifestyle for sure, but they still seem to retain a certain spirit and even Cuban pride, both in their heritage and their current life. Both of our driver guides told us that they had never traveled off the island. However, while both expressed a keen interest in traveling, they both said they would prefer to LIVE in Cuba; if they were permitted to travel, they would absolutely return.
During our vintage car tour, our driver was stopped twice by the local street police. From what we could tell, there are government distinctions between ‘taxi’ drivers and ‘tour guides’ (and I’m sure the related taxes or fees they each pay to the government). Our car did not have a ‘taxi’ sticker on the windshield, like many we saw, and we think the first guard saw him talking to us (as a tour guide would do) and thus the stop to check his ‘papers’. They had what seemed to be a cordial chat, but it took several minutes and a call was made by our driver to someone. About 30 minutes later, when we were stopped again, the same scenario took place, but this time our driver took his taxi sticker out of his glove compartment and placed it on the windshield. Was he being non-compliant as a protest; to avoid fees; who knows? He did not want to concern us with the details. After our tour ended and we had lunch, three in our group wanted to continue touring on foot and the others wanted to go back to the ship. A taxi was quickly secured across the street (a late 50’s Chevy). Later our friend, who’d sat in the front seat, told us that he started asking questions about the car and the driver replied “I can’t talk to you”. Whether you consider the Cubans ‘repressed’, or maybe simply monitored, it’s obvious that they are being watched by authorities.
In summary, everyone in our group agreed that we’d love to come back. We’d like to return at a time of year when it’s not so hot and we’d love to explore at a slower pace, maybe more on foot. Perhaps it was the excitement of finally being in the previously forbidden Havana, but now it seems to be a bit of a blur. Maybe if we return, it will all come into focus just a bit more!