When you step off the plane in Cuba, don’t forget to set your watch back to adjust for the time difference. About 55 years should do it. Cuba is a nation with the brakes on, where progress has halted its march and had a little half-century rest.
Perhaps the main cause of this time warp is the infamous US trade embargo that has cut Cuba off from the rest of the world since the early 60s, when Kennedy and Castro had a bit of a falling out.
So, the all-important question: how has all this affected driving in Cuba?
With almost no new vehicles gracing their shores in over 50 years, the Cubans have had to get creative, both with their driving habits and their car maintenance. There’s a little more to driving in Cuba than getting your head around navigating on the wrong side of the road.
First of all, theres the cars themselves. Like everything else in the country, theyre trapped in time. On Cuban roads you’ll find a parade of cars straight out of Grease: ’55 Fords, Cadillacs, ’57 Chevys, and everything in between (including some ugly old Soviet Union contraptions, but the less said about those, the better). Gorgeous looks aside, the clunky old American cars handle as you would expect, like trying to steer a rhino on rollerblades.
How safe are the old cars?
Over the decades, wear and tear has meant that suspension no longer seems to be a thing in Cuba. Given that the lack of suspension means even the slightest knock will rattle your whole chassis, you might expect that the Cuban roads would be designed to reduce this as much as possible. Well, no. Cuban motorways are a minefield and that’s barely a metaphor.
Initially, you may find the highways in Cuba are eerily quiet, with hours passing before another car rumbles past you. This is because there are under 180,000 cars in the whole country compared to Britain’s 35 million. What the motorways are busy with, however, is pot holes, stray dogs, rogue cows, rickshaws, cyclists, street stalls, and just about anything else you can imagine. Take your eyes off the road for a couple of seconds to fiddle with the radio, and you are likely to glance back up to find your Chevrolet is now careening elegantly into a herd of bewildered goats. It’s probably advisable to check you still have all four tyres after every journey, too.
So, as you may have already considered, if you’re going to drive in Cuba you definitely need a seatbelt. Which is unfortunate, as there aren’t any. Seatbelts weren’t compulsory when the embargo began, meaning that the life-saving belts we take for granted never really reached Cuba. Not that the Cubans seem too fazed, sweeping lazily between lanes, oncoming traffic be damned. A little useful Spanish if you’re planning to take a ride in a Cuban taxi: “Más despacio, por favor” means “Slow down, please”.
How are they still functioning?!
Despite the peculiarities of Cuban driving, its impossible not to be impressed. Cuba is a nation of mechanics unparalleled anywhere else in the world. It is thanks to a practical can-do attitude and resourcefulness that the average Cuban can keep a 1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner functioning as a taxi after 60 years, travelling hundreds of miles along treacherous motorway every single day. Under the bonnet youll find an engine to make Frankenstein jealous, with a mess of old parts from the US, Soviet Union, and China. It shouldnt work, but it does. Somehow.
With the USA currently in talks with Cuba to begin trading once more, the iconic cars of Cuba look likely to begin disappearing from their chaotic roads in the near future, snapped up by collectors around the world and replaced by more modern vehicles. If you want to experience the thrill of driving in Cuba, there’s never been a better time to go. In the meantime, check out our website to see the latest generation of Fords, whose great grandfathers are still chugging around Havana to this day.