Cuba, where Ladas and classic Chevys live side by side.
My first automotive experience in Cuba was pretty damn disappointing. I had arranged to be picked up from Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and driven to my casa particular (a government-regulated AirBnB) in the city. The trip takes about 25 minutes and I expected to make it in a classic American car. What else is there to drive in Cuba, right? Fun fact: Cuba has Hyundai econo-boxes as well! Instead of riding in my grandma's vintage classic I was throwing my luggage into the back of my ex-girlfriend's beater.
So my first view of Havana came from inside a cramped Korean four-door with an interior that looked like it doubled as a wolverine enclosure. That experience was eye-opening, and there were many more to come as I made my way across a country where the clocks stopped sometime in the early 1960s. I spent 17 days in Cuba, and below are five things I learned about the world's most unique car culture. 1. Ladas are the automotive symbol of Cuba: They easily outnumber the cooler American classics in both big and little cities. These no-frills Soviet-made boxes on wheels dominate Cuban roads and function as everything from taxis to cop cars.
2. All nice/new cars are for tourists: The cleanest classics take travelers on city tours. The nicest new cars are always rentals. 3.Customization doesn’t happen under the hood: I quickly learned to stop asking taxi drivers about what was under the hood as they didn’t really care. The cars ran and that was enough. However, people take great pride in their car's exterior and interior. In-dash DVD players for music videos weren't uncommon, nor were flashy ice cream paint jobs. 4. Classic American cars are classic in looks only: The exteriors and interiors are (maybe) legit but what’s under the hood definitely isn't original. The embargo and low wages (see below) saw to that.
5. Cars are the only way to make real cash: Cuba has two currencies. CUC, primarily used by tourists and larger stores, is pegged to the USD (1 CUC = $1). CUP is what Cuban salaries are paid in, and it takes 24 CUP to equal 1 CUC. Salaries average about 20 CUC/month. The easiest way to get real money is by driving tourists around. Fares and tips quickly add up despite the cost of maintenance and government taxes on earnings. I took a four-hour trip to the mountains and paid 50 CUC (two month’s salary!). My driver was a young college graduate who wanted to save money for when he eventually made the switch to working full-time as a teacher.