A Gearhead’s Guide to Cuba

There’s a lot to experience once you stop gawking at the old Chevy Bel-Airs.

bySean Evans|
Culture photo


Last week saw the culmination of a bidding dogfight between the U.S. airlines trying to secure routes to Havana, meaning the previously-forbidden Caribbean isle is about to get hit with a broadside of broad Americans. If the mythical, long-embargoed nation interests you, it's smart to jump on the first wave of legal travel. Soon, Cuba might be so overrun (overwaddled?) with American tourists that the air will buzz with more English than Spanish. Go before Fast 8 secures their film permits, unless you’re looking to bump into Vin Diesel in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional. Travel this month if you want to kick it with Mick Jagger.

For the automotive enthusiast, Cuba is a fever dream. The famous American antiques will keep your head on a swivel, as will the hooptied Russian Ladas, the island's workhorses. But filling a memory card with snaps of charmingly-derelict Cuban transport is easy—the richer finds happen when you take the time to get under the hood of the vehicles and really interrogate the owners. Here's what every avid grease-monkey should know before traipsing around Cuba.

Do not rent a car.

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Quash the dream of leaving the rental counter with keys to a stately Chevy TriFive. Chinese and Korean subcompact imports are standard issue; pushing a Kia Picanto will be as boring as it sounds. Moreover, renting is costly, with rates that exceed $100/day during peak season. Another issue? The heinous road conditions, a given in an impoverished country with few resources devoted to infrastructure maintenance. It’s common for a crumbling expanse of asphalt to swallow a wheel whole or snap an axle and without cell service, securing roadside assistance is a daunting. Lastly, navigation can be difficult, due to poor street markings and unlit roads at night. In a major metropolis like Havana, Santiago or Cienfuegos, taxis and public transport transport you better and save you money. Put it towards Cerveza Cristal.

[If you’re hellbent on renting a car, do not get in an accident.]

Undeterred? Best of luck. A minor fender bender can lead to arrest and incarceration, pending a trial. Even if you're found not at fault, you'll be barred from leaving the country until the issue has been resolved in the government's eyes. Given that the Cuban wheels of justice barely turn, cases can take up to a year. Should your accident produce an injury or death, the onus falls on you to prove your innocence.

Find a trustworthy cabbie and ask to visit his garage.

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All taxi drivers will be chatty, peppering you with questions about the States. They’re forthcoming if you turn the tables; if you feel comfortable, ask about seeing his garage. In Cuba, everyone needs to be a mechanic to coax his aging rides along. Spare parts are sparse; much of what’s needed is made by hand. Fenders are fabricated from excess aluminum from a neighbor’s house. Seats are re-upholstered from old jackets. Exhausts are fashioned from plumbing pipes pilfered under cover of darkness from construction sites. Shampoo doubles for brake fluid. If you're welcomed in to witness the wizardry and hear tales of seemingly impossible fixes, gift a bottle of peso rum as a 'thank you.'

Ask before you snap.

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Some citizens with sublime rides know their wheels are coveted and charge for photos. After happening upon a cherry 1928 Ford Model A in the depths of Havana’s National Forest, the act of raising my camera drew a fit of angry yelling and the thrusting of a price menu under my nose: a buck for a single picture, $5 for 10 photos. Not everyone will demand scratch for photos, but it’s better to inquire before you incurring accidental debt.

Attend a late night drag race.

Your cabbie will know where these pop off. In Havana, that's usually somewhere on the seaside highway, the Malecon, near the affluent Miramar neighborhood. Cuba banned racing back in 1962, calling it elitist and dangerous, though modern reforms have seen it again sanctioned in places like abandoned airstrips. Still, the real thrills are still on the streets. There, home engineering takes center stage. You can find a ‘56 Chevy with a motor salvaged from the floor of the Caribbean after a smuggling boat sank. Or, a coupe built to resemble a Porsche that's actually a Mitsubishi with a Chevy V8. There’s a class for souped Ladas, too.

Don’t be surprised to see modern sports cars.

The average national needs at least $80,000 to import a $15,000 car. An untenable proposition, given the average monthly salary hovers between $15 and $25. However, diplomats and “friends” of the government enjoy far higher earnings and are exempt from excessive regulations; you’ll see the occasional Porsche 911 or an Audi R8 roaring by.

License plate color denotes class status.

White or light brown plates, with an “A” as the second letter, are for officials and “other important persons,” while yellow is reserved for regular citizens. The secret police tasked with tailing foreigners will be outfitted with state-only blue plates, which you may see creeping behind you.

Visit the auto museums.

The Depósito del Automóvil, in central Havana, houses 40-odd used, unrestored-yet-clean cars, trucks and choppers comprising the past century of Cuba’s wheeled machines. Admission is a buck and the star car here is a ‘59 Olds which once belonged to revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos. Also in Habana Vieja: a train car from the early 1900s, restored to the nines. This is the El Coche Mambi Museum, a presidential carriage used by heads of state. Walk through and check out the grand and luxurious kitchen, dining room and state rooms.

Across town, the Museo de la Revolution awaits, harboring a U-2 spy plane shot down during the Missile Crisis and a smattering of Cuban military vehicles and tanks. Beside the Museo is a glass enclosed yacht, the Granma. This very vessel was used in 1956 to ferry Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Cienfuegos and eight fighters from their exile in Mexico back to Cuba to overthrow Batista. That landing was rough, as Batista’s troops slaughtered most of Castro’s revolutionaries. Venture to Santiago de Cuba to peruse nearly 50 vehicles contained within Cuba’s National Transportation Museum, near Baconao Park. American models abound, though a notable recent addition is the 1996 Volvo used as a limo for Jack Nicholson and Naomi Campbell when they visited. (Seriously.)

Domestic flights are for the brave or those with a death wish.

If you need to get from Havana to Trinidad or Santiago de Cuba and are considering a domestic flight, reconsider. That is, unless you’ve got an affinity for riding in rickety Russian, WWII-era aircraft. Many are repurposed military planes; some mingle livestock and shipping cargo with the human passengers. The number of fatal crashes on record is high; recently, an Antonov-AN-2 killed 16 people when it went down. Even “newer” jets aren’t that well maintained. For this reason, tour operators suggest taking a bus or train between cities.

Partake in a droptop tour.

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Book a two-hour excursion in a vintage convertible Chevy, DeSoto or Ford at one of the reputable hotels: Nacional, Melia Cohiba, Iberostar Parque Central. Expect to pay about $40/hour for one with an English-speaking guide—well worth it. Most Havana-based routes swing through four districts - Centro Habana, Vedado, Nuevo Vedado and Miramar - and stop at Revolution Square, the Industriales’ baseball stadium, Havana’s national forest, and end at a rum factory (yes, samples are included). Try slipping the driver another $20 for a chance to take the wheel, then listen to his instructions very carefully. He’ll know the pitfalls of any road and can help you steer clear of obstacles and accidents.

Find a local cars and coffee gathering.

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Yep, CnC happens all over Cuba, too. Usually on weekend mornings. It's a veritable cornucopia of machines and their owners, all talking shop and swapping parts and helping each other fix bugs. Any cab driver will know where the next event is taking place. In Havana, it's often near one of the bigger parks.