Want to see old US cars? Come to Cuba! You won’t be disappointed. Cars from the 50’s and even earlier are still on the streets, still running thanks to Cuban ingenuity. Some are old, just held together with Bondo and prayer, but others are pristine.
My first car was a two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel Aire, and to see those same cars, running around Cuba is a special treat. These old American cars from the 50s are locally called yank tanks and many are used as cabs. And you will see these great old cars, not all of them freshly painted and restored! It’s estimated there are around 60,000 of these still on the road in Cuba, about 35% of the cars in Cuba. Tourists love to ride in these old cars, especially the convertibles.
Cuba has two currencies, National Pesos or CUP which is the local currency and worth about four cents per peso, and the currency for tourists, CUC, or “kooks” that are one to one with the US dollar. As a tourist you are required to use CUCs. When you change your money at the government run change bureaus, and almost everything is “government run” so get used to it, you pay a service/change charge. If you are changing US dollars you ALSO you pay a 10% penalty. There is no penalty for changing Canadian dollars, Euros or British Pounds. And nobody accepts US dollars or US-issued credit cards.
So the guy with the slicked up old US car charges 30 to 40 kooks an hour to drive you around – that’s $30 – $40! This is in a country where the average doctor makes the equivalent of $30 a month!!
Visiting Cuba sometimes feels like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. The lady in the square, dressed up and with a big cigar in her mouth gets 1 CUC, the equivalent of $1 US, for a picture – and a good day can make twice what a doctor or teacher makes in an afternoon! Tourism is where the money is in Cuba.
The poorly prepared, frankly lousy guide on the tour bus, who fills the time with heavily accented worthless chatter but never gives you any of the information you need or expect from a guide, is supposed to be tipped 5 CUC and the driver 3 CUC. The ship can forget changing tour companies since there is only one … you got it, “government run.” Your guide may be inexperienced and without a clue, but have a relative in the government who helped them land a cushy job. Or your guide may be great and have a PhD or MD but can make far more money as a guide. With twenty or so people on the tour bus, a guide can make the equivalent of $100 US in a day in a country where working as a professor or doctor they would only make about $30 a month! And these are all paid in cash.
Ordinary Cubans can’t buy milk. Milk is reserved for children. You must get government permission to slaughter your cow because beef is only for tourists. These folks live on an island, surrounded by the ocean, but cannot eat shrimp or lobster … those are reserved for tourists. So, when your tour stops for lunch at a Paladar … the privately-owned “house” restaurants operated by enterprising entrepreneurs and permitted by the government during “The Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union when the Cuba was in economic free fall … you sit by the open door, being presented with a beautiful lobster dinner, while the locals look in knowing that they, as ordinary Cubans, will never sit down to a dinner of the lobsters harvested on their coast. Awkward, even if you only have an iota of sensitivity.
Cuba is a fantastic country, a wonderful place to visit, especially for US Americans who have been denied the opportunity to visit and interact with their Cuban neighbors mostly because of international tit-for-tat games played by successive US governments and the late Fidel Castro, mostly for reasons that have almost been forgotten. But one does get the feeling that maybe the country, as well as the old cars, are held together by Bondo.