Cuba: Culture in Cars

From the Archive: While stay at home orders are in place throughout the country I am taking time to look back on amazing experiences I've had. As many of them were before creating this site, I am also taking this opportunity to share some of these experiences. 
This is an old school paper I wrote on cars during a trip to Cuba in 2017.

My first day on the island as I walk down the Prado in Havana, I can’t shake the feeling of being on an elaborate film set.  People occupy the sidewalk, chatting with friends or flying by on skateboards. Buildings, a clash of Spanish and Soviet architecture line streets filled with iconic cars from a time long gone. I was waiting to hear someone yell ‘cut!’, to see all the extras disperse, to turn a corner and see all the buildings are fake, built for the set.  But that never happened. The more I explored the city, the more magnificent it became, and the more of those beautiful cars I saw.

Cuba is known to most as the country lost in time, and understandably so. So much of the country has been around from the 50’s and earlier. What may be the most noticeable example of this are the cars. One of the hallmarks of Cuba are the cars. Importing new cars or spare parts is too expensive and time consuming for everyone but the elites, so the Cuban people make do with the vehicles on the island. As such, the roads are lined with cars from the 1950’s that have been kept alive with Cuban ingenuity. These vintage cars are a testament to their resourcefulness and adaptability as a country.

Anyone who knows the first thing about Cuba will have an image of a Ford from the 50’s or earlier, but vintage American cars aren’t the only ones on the road. There are many Ladas and Volga’s left around from the Soviet era. Some modern cars have been imported recently which can also be found on the roads.

“The Titanic”

Motor Trend interviewed a feisty old Cuban named Demetrio who showed off his car dubbed ‘the Titanic’ because ‘it is always sinking’. People on the island need to make do with the parts found on the island. The original engine on the Titanic has been replaced with one from a welding machine. Often, the parts needed just don’t exist, so people often find themselves needing to make parts by hand out of scrap material. “That is a fucking old car, has 60 years, no? Where can you find a door for that piece of shit?”  Demetrio complements the men who work on his car, “It is art, believe me this is not work, it is art”. The guys from Motor Trend also talked with a taxi driver who put a newer diesel engine in his old Pontiac.

Looking under the hood of the Chevy in this picture, we can see some conventional upgrades and new parts that any car would need after some years on the road paired with some of the more unconventional solutions.  Seen in the top left corner there is a new battery, part of routine maintenance.  In the bottom left, a bright green hose stands out from the rest of the parts.   It is part of a replacement horn for the car connecting an air horn similar to those found on trains.  Horns are a heavy part of the driving culture in Cuba, so most drivers will make sure to have one functioning or another way to communicate with others on the road.  Seeing this really brought to life a quote I picked up on while reading about Cuba, where a “chugging Ford or Studebaker, with a mismatched door or hood ornament—is a taxi.” (Cooke 8)

Many drivers find themselves having to go through a ritual every time they start their car, and for some it is a team effort. Some cars need a good push to get started, others need to open the engine to give it a crank. Once the car is running, they can get going on their way, but may not be out of the jungle yet, because a lot could happen before getting to the destination.  I saw multiple people pushing cars to the side of the street to preform maintenance, and one truck that died sitting at a red light. The driver popped out of the cabin with a tool bag in hand that he must keep close by for this exact situation. He started working on the engine in the middle of the street ignoring all the motorists who now must sneak around the roadblock.

One part that most all cars will have in working order, no matter how they accomplish it, is the horn. In many places like the US, horns are used very conservatively, but that is not the case on the island. Cubans use their horn for communication on the road in many ways. Often, they are used as a warning to people crossing the street or as approaching an intersection, since once those cars finally get moving, the drivers don’t want to be on the breaks.  This was observed every time I went to cross the street and can be seen referenced in literature on Cuba. “The cars here, they’ll hit you” Sandra tells in Cooke book (39). People also honk and wave to pedestrians, and taxis use the horn when picking up passengers.

With cars being a limited commodity, it makes sense that people would turn to public transport as an alternative, however buses have the same issues as cars.  When I say “bus”, surely the of those used in public transport systems like New York comes to mind, but proper buses were scarce on the island, so Cubans got creative. In the 90’s, a network of homemade buses called camellos started to hit the streets (Acosta). These makeshift buses are flatbed eighteen-wheeler that have seats put on along with walls and a roof. Recently, the number of camellos on the road has been declining as they are replaced with modern buses.  After days trying to find one of these on the road with no success, I asked our tour guide if they are around at all anymore.  It turns out they are, but the few that are still in operation only serve more rural routes outside of the city letting the newer, proper city buses run the streets of Havana.

Buses are not the only form of alternative transportation islanders used to avoid needing a car. Another method that became more popular was the use of animals.  In the year 2000, “more than 16,000 animal-powered buses, carts, carriages and wagons” were registered for a License for Transport operation (Valdés). To provide yet another way for Cubans to travel around the island, a State of Emergency team in 1991 bought more than two million bikes from China to sell at a fraction of the cost.  The country also established bike routes, added bike lanes to roads, and had factories producing bikes.

The trade embargo had a very noticeable effect on all aspects of Cuban transportation.  Peoples day to day lives adapted to accommodate maintaining current cars or lower the dependency on motor vehicles.  The ingenuity that can be found all over the island can certainly be seen on the road as well.  Under the hood of any given car could be parts imported at a high cost, custom made parts from other cars, a jerry-rigged solution of whatever was on hand at the time, or all the above.  Long distance and mass transit saw changes as well with the introduction of camellos.  Cubans may have had to change how they move around, but they prove yet again that the people of Cuba are unstoppable.

Acosta, Dalai. “Camellos and Public Transportation in Cuba.” Havana Journal. N.p., 29 Apr. 2007. Web. 01 Mar. 2017. <>.

Cooke, Julia. The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. Berkeley, CA: Seal, A Member of the Perseus Group, 2014. Print.

MotorTrend. “Classic American Cars in Cuba!” YouTube. YouTube, 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2017. <>.

Valdés Rı́os, Enoch, Marcus, James P. Warren, and Enrique Henrı́quez Menoyo. “The Effect of Economic Restrictions on Transport Practices in Cuba.” Transport Policy 11.1 (2004): 67-76. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.


Writing about aviation and points. Specifically interested in Australia and New England regional airports.

Articles: 39

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