Vintage wheels drive tourism in Cuba

A tractor chugs along the slow lane of the six-lane motorway that connects Havana with Vinales, 180 kilometres away.


The coach carrying tourists passes its third tractor, then a cyclist and horse-drawn cart on the six-lane highway running from Havana towards Vinales some 180 kilometres to the west. The driver brakes to give way to four cows crossing the wide strip of asphalt.
“What a highway!” grins John Johnson, one of a party of tourists from California and Utah. His tone carries a sense of nostalgia rather than scorn. Fidel Castro’s Cuba offers many surprises to the US tourists beginning to return to the erstwhile playground after decades during which the United States placed a total embargo on the communist state.
Previously US citizens had to travel via Mexico, Canada or Jamaica to visit the Caribbean’s largest island. At the end of 2014, US President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions, allowing tour groups to visit. Many have availed themselves of the opportunity, and later this year commercial flights between the two countries will resume after more than 50 years.
Tourism has been a growth sector in Cuba for years, but since the beginning of 2015, things have begun to take off, with Cuba devotees from Europe leading the way. Many are flocking to see the island’s sights and curiosities with the idea that otherwise it will soon be “too late,” too expensive and too full of Americans.
The boom is already leading to a shortage of rooms at the best hotels, and even the two-and three-star hotels are raising their prices. Luxury is not as cheap as it used to be, and some blame Americans for bidding up the prices.
“The US visitors enjoy everything that is expensive,” says Bernd Herrmann of Senses of Cuba in Havana. The German travel specialist’s business is mainly high-end trips to the island for global customers. “There are visitors from the United States who each spend 7,000 dollars and more on one Cuba trip,” he says.
Herrmann and others in the sector say that reservations for rooms at the best hotels in Havana and Trinidad on the southern coast are becoming more difficult to obtain. Hiring a car in high season is virtually impossible, and the classical tours to Holguin and Santiago de Cuba in the east are becoming more expensive.
Star attractions in Havana are the Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Buicks and Dodges dating back to 1950s. An extremely well preserved 1957 Buick convertible is parked at the bustling Parque Central. The bonnet is up for a New York couple to inspect. They can scarcely get enough of the magnificent car, haggling a bit over the price of a ride before getting in.
“The Americanos love to be driven around in the old models, preferably convertibles. At home they can’t any more. And they give us good tips,” says Ramses Alvarez, one of the drivers. What else do visitors from the United States look for? They like to walk in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, who for a time in the 1930s lived in the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the historic old city.
Holidaymakers can still see his room, complete with typewriter and other everyday items that he used. Hemingway’s favourite bars, La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, remain popular watering holes, and the house that he lived in until his departure in 1960, Finca Vigía, is preserved much as it was.
The “Americanos” also show interest in the Cuban Revolution and one of its heroes, Che Guevara. “Of course, it’s part of the history of both our countries,” says Alejandro Ferras Pellicer in Sitial Moncada, a small museum in the Marques Gonzales in Havana.
The 93-year-old is an old comrade of Castro and was with him at the failed assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago on July 26, 1953. That date is still marked as the symbolic start of the Cuban Revolution. “Whether they’re socialist or not, this history is obligatory for everyone,” the ageing revolutionary says.
People with little interest in politics but who travel frequently to Cuba are pleased at the easing of restrictions. These days a day trip to Vinales or Varadero can be booked in a couple of minutes, without having to show a passport.
A first name suffices. Michael from Darmstadt in Germany, John from San Francisco, Maria from Calgary in Canada were a few of those on the list the other day travelling to Vinales, a popular tourist destination.
They are drawn by its subtropical jungle, the private restaurants known as paladares and the “casas particulares” offering private accommodation in small houses with gardens, often with a rocking chair at the entrance.
There are now more than 600 casas particulares, since the authorities have begun to take a more cooperative approach, allowing the small-scale entrepreneurs to benefit from the lack of hotels.
In 2015, some 3.5 million tourists visited Cuba, and now no one really knows what will happen when the embargo finally comes to an end. What is certain is that the island’s present accommodation and infrastructure would not cope with the additional 2 to 3 million visitors that some are predicting.

Tourists eye up US-made convertibles from the 1950s for an expensive joyride round Havana.

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