Tag Archives: Cuba tourism

Havana: some questions answered

A few tips for getting the most out of Cuba’s spectacular capital city…

 

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I’m going to Cuba. I’ve heard Havana is noisy and dirty, and the beaches of Varadero are the place to be. Should I bother visiting?

Yes, you should. The palms and piña coladas of Varadero ain’t got nothin’ on Havana. It is dirty and noisy, though. Get excited!

 

Where should I stay?

If you want to soak up the colonial charm of the old town, find somewhere in Habana Vieja. It’s lovely just to be able to wander around, and after losing a couple of hours in this maze you’ll be very grateful for a nearby refuge. However, culture vultures or those wanting to escape the madness should head for the wide, green boulevards of Vedado. This district is my favourite – cinemas and theatres abound, and you’re never far away from a world-class music venue.

Re accommodation: I heard recently that with the recent surge in tourism, Cuban hotels are all booked up forever and ever. Whether that’s true or not, don’t let it put you off. If you want the real deal, stay in a casa particularthese private homestays go from experienced family businesses to couples just renting out a spare room. They tend to be cosy, clean and serve delicious meals, including generous breakfasts. TripAdvisor and MyCasaParticular have plenty of recommendations. Book in advance in high season, but don’t stress out – somebody will put you up.

However, if you prefer the backpacker vibe, I stayed in Casa de Ania (Calle Jovellar y San Francisco) near Vedado, which I would definitely recommend. Hostels are pretty new on the scene in Cuba but this one strikes the perfect note, with several shared and private rooms and a nice common area to meet fellow travellers and drink rum not on your own.

 

How long do I need to get to know the city?

Probably a lifetime, but three to five days will do if you’re on a whirlwind tour. You’ll have time to scamper around and see all the beautiful sights, but still have a moment or two to stop and stare, sip a daiquiri in an old Hemingway joint, and watch life at its liveliest on the Malecón.

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How do I get around?

Those world-famous American cars, or máquinas, aren’t just there for show – they keep Havana moving all day and night. They’re essentially shared taxis that travel fixed routes. The key to getting one is not being shy. Stick your arm out and indicate how many people you are with your fingers, and when someone stops, just tell them where you want to go. Try and get a good map so you know which side of the road to stand on, or ask your hosts if you’re not sure! A short ride should cost about 50 cents, or 1 CUC for longer journeys. It can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s definitely the quickest way to get around.

Alternatively, use your feet. There is so much to see and take in that if you’re feeling energetic, this is the perfect way to roam. Wear sensible shoes, and take plenty of water.

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I’ve heard that communist states have a pretty miserable cultural life. What am I going to do with my time in Havana?

Even a quick visit will put paid to this myth. I’ve never been anywhere as exciting and culturally rich as Cuba’s capital, and even in the hardest years of economic crisis, the country has been a very good place to be an artist or dancer. Whether it’s cutting-edge modern art you’re into, or the catchy melodies of traditional son (think Buena Vista Social Club), you’ll never exhaust what Havana has to offer.

For those interested in Cuba’s revolutionary history, the Museo de la Revolución (Calle Refugio 1, Monserrate y Zulueta) is not to be missed – the palace is a sight in itself, and the collections are fascinating. Other great museums include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (San Rafael, Monserrate y Zulueta) – look for Wifredo Lam’s abstract sugar canes and the bright canvases of Amelia Peláez. Lots of small, contemporary galleries are dotted around Calle Mercaderes in Old Havana, and are definitely worth a look around. The Centro Wifredo Lam (Calle San Ignacio, cnr. Empedrado) is a fantastic (and free!) exhibition space and always has interesting displays on.

Havana boasts a world-class ballet at the Gran Teatro (Paseo del Prado) – pop in and see what tickets are on offer. The classical concerts every Thursday and Sunday at 6pm at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís are also terrific (book the day before). Check LaHabana.com for current listings of loads of musical and cultural events.

It might get dark at some point, but Havana never sleeps. If you don’t want to either, start off by sipping mojitos in one of the million bars in Habana Vieja or Vedado. Or do as the locals do – buy a bottle of Havana Club and head to the Malecón. If you like jazz, head to La Zorra y el Cuervo (Avenida 23, N y O) – you enter through a mysterious red postbox into the underground club. Entry costs 10 CUC and includes two drinks, and listings are posted outside – if Miguel Herrera y Joven Jazz are playing, you would be mad not to go. Later on, La Gruta (next door to La Zorra) does good salsa nights on Wednesdays, and the hybrid bar/club/gallery Fábrica de Arte (Calle 26, cnr. 11) promises an otherworldly experience and, obviously, excellent music.

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I’m hungry.

Not to worry – Havana isn’t famed for its food but there are some very decent cheap eats and more upmarket paladares. La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207) does very good traditional fare. El Chanchullero (Teniente Rey, 457a bajos) is shamelessly hipster and always full of tourists, but the food is great and the mojitos strong. For cheap peso restaurants, Los Primos (Calle 23 y H, Vedado) is very good – the mango batido (milkshake) is delicious.

In general, fish is always a good shout, but steer clear of the pizza (except in Don Giovanni, #107-109 Tacón y Mercaderes). Vegetarians can usually get huevos fritos (fried eggs) with the staple beans and rice, even if it’s not on the menu.

 

What should I take?

Clean, cool clothes and sensible walking shoes, and whatever essentials you can, as finding provisions in Cuba can be fraught (tampons, always remember tampons).

A good book – try Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana or Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (not for the faint-hearted).

It’s best to take money with you, which can be exchanged for CUCs in banks, but there are lots of ATMs throughout the city as well.

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Any safety concerns?

Havana’s pretty safe, so no need to worry at all. However, like in any capital city, it pays to keep your wits about you. Hold on to your bag and watch your pockets, especially in crowded places. Sometimes things are snatched by someone on the back of a motorbike, so make sure you fasten your bag securely around you or wear a money belt. Look out for scams, too – a common one is somebody chatting you up and taking you to a bar, then the waiter bringing you a hugely inflated bill. Cubans are friendly, but keep an eye out for people being too friendly.

 

Do: drink overpriced cocktails at the top of the Habana Libre hotel for the stunning view, even if only once.

Don’t: … not dance salsa. You must dance salsa.

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Useful resources and things to read:

Lonely Planet is a reliable guide for the main sights, and a great guidebook to buy is Christopher P. Baker’s Moon Guide.

The Huffington Post have a great series of articles on Cuba at the moment, including David Latt‘s excellent travel tips. I also enjoy the in-depth pieces on Havana by Guardian Cities, especially Oliver Wainwright‘s latest insight into the changing world of tourism.

Contact me with any questions or suggestions!

¡Buen viaje!

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Viñales on horseback

The stunning countryside surrounding Viñales, in Cuba’s western province Pinar del Río, makes for a wonderful and relaxing few days. When Havana takes it out of you – and it probably will – the area provides idyllic peace and quiet. Covering about 150 sq km, the Parque Nacional was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, and for good reason. This is the world of coffee, tobacco and sugar plantations. Hard at work all year, this is where the guajiros drive the nation’s economy behind the scenes.

Prehistoric Cuba was a great limestone plateau that rose out of the sea, and this was gradually eroded by water to leave sheer, mountain-like formations called mogotes (haystacks). These awe-inspiring features give the countryside an unparalleled beauty.

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No better way to experience this than on horseback. After days of trampling around Havana’s dusty streets, it was a wonderful relief to get off my feet, even as a very inexperienced rider. The horses, bred everywhere here for transport, are well-behaved and visibly much better fed than those lugging tourists around the capital.

A guided tour across the aptly named Valle del Silencio offers a brilliant morning before the punctual afternoon downpour. Excursions trot leisurely into the valley via a rustic tobacco farm. It’s not currently the season (the seeds are planted in October and harvested in March-April) but it was interesting to see the way the leaves are dried and the cigars are made.

After a quick tour of the finca and a complementary cigar dosed in local honey, the tour continues through fields of rice and maize, banana plantations and a small coffee centre. We passed by trees laden with oranges, avocados, limes and almonds, and colourful orchids adorned the path.

The trip wasn’t really improved by all the stops, which were little more than tourist gimmicks selling overpriced produce. An optional walking tour through the caves (although they were impressive) was probably not worth the additional cost – I have a pretty bump on my forehead from the unforgiving rock face as a big group of us squeezed through narrow crevices with no torch, ni nada. Careless tourists or careless guides, either way this was an unnecessary add-on to an otherwise spectacular morning.

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The town of Viñales consists of a few streets packed with restaurants, tour agencies and a million brightly painted casas particulares – almost every resident family rents out a spare room. What was once no doubt a sleepy agricultural village is now a tourist hotspot, but this hasn’t entirely rid it of its charm. The less-frequented Café Mogote, a block north of the main plaza, is worth checking out for its delicious cocktails and beautiful views of the valley (it also has a teeny tiny kitten!!).

complementary kitten

complementary kitten

Live jazz plays in the centre from early evening, and the salsa kicks off not long after dark.

Exploring Santería in Havana

Facts and figures don’t seem to apply to Cuba. All that is paraded in both the national and international press needs to be taken with a massive pinch of salt – news and comment can be grossly misleading, as if there is ever a correct way to be led when it comes to ‘understanding’ a country. With Che Guevara’s diary nestled under one arm, most travellers seem to rock up brimming with confidence, churning out their knowledge about the Revolution and the lives of numerous Castros, only to head off a few weeks later dazed and confused. Cuban culture is as shadowy as the most labyrinthine streets of La Habana Vieja, today more than ever.

One of its most fascinating aspects is the cult of Santería, although any foreigner would have to dig hard even to scratch its surface. Nominally, 85% of the population are Roman Catholic, but in reality a large proportion are followers of this mysterious syncretic religion. When millions of slaves were brutally imported from Africa during the colonial era, many from modern-day Nigeria, they brought with them their Yoruba beliefs and rituals, which they were forced to mask with a veneer of Catholicism. Santería is the hybrid product of this oppression. Hence the name, which means ‘Way of the Saints’, as every deity (orisha) has its overt Catholic avatar.

Although it may not be the first thing visitors to Cuba notice, the religion is crucial to much of the nation’s treasured heritage: art, music, everyday life. Every Cuban, believer or non-believer, will be well-acquainted with the faith. Deities and symbols of Santería figure across the arts, from Wifredo Lam’s surrealist, sugar-filled paintings to Alejo Carpentier’s famous novels of lo real maravilloso (magical realism). And Havana trembles with the drums of rumba, born of the sacred rituals where orishas would be invoked by ceremonies of los tambores.

Yet the culture isn’t confined to the arts. Santería dolls swing above the dashboard of almost every old American car, protecting it against the lethal Havana traffic. Many homes hold small shrines to personal orishas. Most obviously, newly initiated priests (santeros, or babalawos) are seen dressed distinctively all in white.

The Museo de los Orishas, run by Cuba’s Yoruba association, is a large, spacious haven of peace overlooking the chaos of the Capitolio. At 5CUC, guide included, the museum is de rigueur for anyone wishing to learn more about Santería and the many orishas worshipped.

Upstairs, a vast hallway is divided by totems painted like trees. It is both a spiritual and educative space where you can wander at ease between the dozens of wooden sculptures. The whole pantheon is massive, with up to 400 orishas, but only a dozen or so figures of everyday worship are represented here. Oludomare, the one supreme God and creator of the universe, has no image – only two large, bright white sheets of satin cascade down from up high, as if to crown an invisible ruler.

The orishas he communicates through stand proud, offerings left at their feet, lit up majestically against a painted backdrop of their home – woodland, waterfall or ocean. We start with Elegúa, orisha of roads and crossroads, and protector of travellers. (His Catholic avatar is San Antonio de Padua.) Then there is the matronly Naná Buruki, grandmother of the forest, who sits beneath a tree with a child in her arms.

Yemayá interests me most. Formidable against the crashing waves of the sea that she rules, she can be beneficent or cruel. Protector of maternity and children, parents have left dolls and children’s toys in the basket below her feet in return for the welfare of their families. Her Catholic counterpart is the Virgin of Regla. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Regla every September on her feast day, paying tribute to Yemayá via the image of the black Madonna at the altar of the church – Roman Catholic in name only.

Femininity has often been associated in art and religion with water and the sea, while masculine symbols and deities tend to remain on solid land. Yemayá’s role exemplifies this. Other female deities of Santería also represent bodies of water; Ochón rules the fresh waters and fertility, her sculpture resembling a mermaid in a fishtail dress. There is also Olokún, who owns the depths of the ocean. However, when I ask about this, my guide is eager to point out that gender in the Santería pantheon is fluid and unstable – many orishas shift from man to woman at midnight. Olokún is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fish. Others have no sex at all.

Santería was inaccurately named from the start, saints being but disguises for the Yoruba orishas. This seems to epitomise the mystery of this religion for outsiders. But before delving into the provincial churches and communities – where the real practice takes place, far from any Christian altar – this museum is a great place to start.

The Hershey Electric Railway

The method of transport everybody tells you not to bother with in Cuba is the train. Slow, hugely unreliable and subject to schedules changing at the last minute, the national rail service Union de Ferricarriles de Cuba is not recommended for those with limited time or patience.

But in the case of the old Hershey Electric Railway, the journey is a beauty not to be missed. It takes four uncomfortable hours (experienced locals bring cushions) to complete the 90km journey from Havana to Matanzas, but the experience is worth every minute.

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The train was built in 1922 by the US chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, to connect his remote sugar mill to the two cities. The factory was nationalised during the Revolution and renamed to commemorate the rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos, but the train continued chugging along, still known informally by its former name.

We caught the 12.21 from Casablanca (a short ferry ride from Habana Vieja) and sat down to a no-frills carriage filled with Cuban families, for whom our adventure was the run-of-the-mill slog home from the capital. The train stopped and started numerous times to allow for latecomers before we eventually set off, rumbling along the tracks in no hurry and pausing at a very tiny rail-side village for passengers to hop on and off.

Sometimes the ride was leisurely and peaceful, but more often we gripped out seats nervously as the carriage swung precariously from side to side. The roar of the engine precluded all attempts at conversation, and all we could do was gaze out at the surroundings.

Certainly nothing to complain about. The journey begins in the suburbs of Havana, literally passing through people’s backs yards and starkly displaying the ‘real’ Cuba – a life of hard agricultural work, but at a slower pace than in the exhilarating capital. Cattle and goats graze in the fields, and banana and sugar cane plantations abound. Occasionally a tractor makes its rounds, but more often a horse and cart.

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Lush green countryside is scattered with sky-high tropical palms, and the rolling hills seem like they go on forever, despite the knowledge that a few miles north is the Atlantic, and – not much further – Florida, worlds away from this rural part of the Caribbean. Come 3pm (true to form in hurricane season), the sky darkens and the palm branches blow threateningly in the wind.

The train at last grinds to a halt a few hundred yards before the platform, and we all jump off onto the rubble-strewn tracks to walk to the station. The sky opened as we arrived in Matanzas, and stayed that way for most of our time there. But it was the journey that was the real gem.

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First impressions

On my first day in Havana, I woke up late (jaded from jet lag and Cuban rum, always much less sweet the next morning) to see US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering his speech at the newly operational embassy. So I sprinted – or walked, as hastily as any foreigner could in the scorching midday heat – down to the Malecón. I was just in time to hear the end of the US anthem and see the flag flying high at the top of the mast-pole. An expected step after the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington last month, but nonetheless a patent symbol of peace and immense possibility for the future of Cuban citizens for whom hostilities with their northern neighbour has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the building, cheering and clapping, Cubans and Americans alike.

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So a wonderful time to be in Cuba, to say the least. The thaw in relations with the US and the knowledge that the crippling embargo is one step closer to being lifted adds hope and excitement to a city that already astonishes with its resilience and constant movement. Havana is big – much bigger than I had imagined – but nothing is diluted. Buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the archetypal American cars blaze down the Malecón in a continuous stream of every colour imaginable. To the left, hundreds of narrow entrances to the maze of streets that make up the city centre. To the right, quiet; silhouettes of couples sitting and boys fishing at the seafront. It’s a city of juxtapositions that still seem perfectly in tune.

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Inside the labyrinth, the energy of children playing football in every street is offset by their parents reclining on chairs on the pavement, as languid as the cigar smoke you breathe in everywhere. It’s like a novel of magical realism where time fast-forwards then stands still before you turn the page. It might be cliché, except that it’s too confusing.

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However, as a traveller, you can’t just leave your wits behind and enter the euphoria. Cuba has a strained relationship with tourism. It’s perfectly safe, but many try every scam to lighten your wallet. In a country where wages are shockingly low, it is perhaps inevitable that the tourist tax is sky-high and you can expect to be charged for everything as much as locals can get away with. Tourists take different transport and even use a different currency (pesos convertibles rather than the national peso). When you are reminded at every turn that you are an outsider, the divide seems pretty unbridgeable.

These were my first, and most likely very shallow and inaccurate impressions. I think that for the first few days, you can really only enjoy yourself, reserve judgement and get thoroughly lost in the amazing, perplexing streets of the city.

A reflection on ‘women travellers’ …

Cuba, perhaps surprisingly, has been hailed for many years for its record in women’s rights. In 2013, it came 15th in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, above both the US and the UK. 50% of university students are women, 60% of doctors, and 48% of high government. Equal pay is guaranteed by law: the Cuban Family Code demands that men share household duties with women, and every female gets free birth control assistance. Needless to say that complete gender equality is an ongoing process rather than a reality, but it is one that the country is taking very seriously.

What I have found interesting while preparing for my visit to Cuba is the way different guides and resources treat the problems that female travellers are much more likely to face than their male counterparts. Most guidebooks include a section on ‘Women Travellers’ somewhere near the back, often given the honoured position at the end of an A-Z (no corresponding section on Men Travellers, unsurprisingly).

I don’t mean to suggest that this section shouldn’t be included – quite the opposite. My time in Cuba will inevitably be filtered through my experience as a solo female traveller. I think it is hugely important to research what to expect and be wary of, and how to overcome the challenges you might face. The advice travel guides give is practical and encouraging, especially in the case of Cuba – a ‘dream location’ for women, according to Lonely Planet. The consensus is that machismo still exists in daily life, manifesting itself most obviously in the perhaps annoying but ultimately harmless piropos (come-ons, whistling, etc.) that women are bound to receive. But in general, we can feel safe, comfortable and respected.

So it is not the mention of these issues that is problematic, but rather the way they are squashed into a little paragraph – a small addendum to refer to, if need be, on the off chance that you might be a woman. ‘Women Travellers’, along with ‘Gay and Lesbian Travellers’, and often ‘Senior Travellers’, are all lumped together in a way that suggests vulnerability and departure from the norm. The main body of the guide represents this norm, catering for the default user – the white, heterosexual male.

Some guides are conscious of this danger – the excellent Moon Guide on Cuba, by Christopher P. Baker includes a clear and detailed analysis of women’s rights in Cuba, and places practical information for female travellers just after the paragraph for men. Some might argue that this belittles the problems that women have to deal with, aiding and abetting that delusional argument that we all live in a happy, equal, post-feminist world where things can be tough for men too, you know. I see it differently. I believe this suggests that it is just as legitimate for us to belong to the world of travel as it is for men. We are no longer a special case.

This is important when it is still seen by many as a challenge for women to travel independently, and specifically for women to write about travel. Historically, men have been associated with public space, able to move freely around a globe that is theirs to document and possess, while women have been confined to the static realm of the home. I recently read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoirs of his youthful journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople – an amazing read that definitely deserves its place as a classic of travel writing. But I was struck by how subversive the work would have been if it had been written by a woman, and how different her experience would have been. Leigh Fermor was definitely buoyed on by his tireless zeal for different cultures, his aptitude for languages, and his care for all the people he met – but he was also deeply dependent on his gender. He could turn up alone at the homes of strangers and introduce himself to anyone he met without thinking twice. He might camp out under the stars or walk for miles in the dark alone, and on meeting any other travellers or locals, he would simply say hello and perhaps offer them a swig of his hip flask, and enjoy the pleasure of their company in return.

Because he was a man, this is billed as friendly and forthcoming, rather than unwise or provocative. The differences in the way men and women are treated as travellers and as writers run deep. It makes me sad that women still learn, however subconsciously, to hold back. Sadder still that this is probably to be recommended in many parts of the world, for reasons of personal safety and security.

Yet there is no such excuse with regard to travel in countries like Cuba, which apparently has a great deal to recommend female travellers. Those who teach women they are unwise or unable to travel in such places alone are only blinded by prejudice. But I am hopeful that this is changing, and travel writing and resources need to change too to offer a supportive (but not prescriptive) guide. We shouldn’t be seen as a group that need special protection, distinct from the confident and experienced male canon. It’s not weird anymore for women to chart their own path around the world, so it might be worth rewriting the guides to reflect this, rather than sticking on a cursory note at the end.

Cuba: a living car museum?

Every year, tourists flock to Cuba to see the thousands of ‘Yank Tanks’ still on the roads today

Walk the streets of Havana and you are bound to see dozens of the classic American cars that gloss the cover of almost every tourist guide. “Come to Cuba,” they urge, “trundle along the Malecón, sip mojitos in the back of a 1954 Chevrolet, gaze out at a tropical island frozen in space and time…” Nicknamed yank tanks or máquinas, there are thought to be 60,000 of these vehicles still in operation in Cuba; over a third of the total number of cars on the road. Little wonder that sightseers from all over the world are enchanted by this 50s ‘time-warp’… and yet the true significance of this culture is often blotted out.

A 1951 Chevy on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

A 1951 Chevrolet on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US trade embargo against Cuba was formally extended to include all imports, reinforced by statute after statute over the years. This policy has made it almost impossible for Cubans to obtain replacement parts for run-down vehicles, and it is thanks to the ingenuity of mechanics that the cars have been kept going for so long. Some are held together with wire, tape, any household product available, many refitted with Soviet diesel engines; a much cheaper and more efficient option. The cars that really are done for are seldom cast into the dustbin; instead ‘parted out’, keeping others on the road while creating extra income for their owners. The resourcefulness of the system is staggering.

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

These botched-up automobiles seem to represent the twin pillars of innovation and hardship that have marked the post-revolutionary period in Cuba. The impressive make-do-and-mend culture they demonstrate is not self-consciously kitsch or exhibitionist, as is often suggested, but rather enforced by harsh economic policy and crippling international sanctions.

But change is in the air. After decades of hostility, the past year has seen a decisive thaw in relations between Cuba and the US. Last Wednesday, President Obama announced the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations, stating that secretary of state John Kerry would travel to the country later this summer to reopen the US embassy. Although the embargo remains in force, held fast – for now – by the iron fist of Congress, this new entente is an indisputably welcome milestone for both nations.

What will this mean for the battered vehicles that paint Cuba’s coastline so brightly? Some commentators have predicted a swarm of US dealers scooping them up for private collections, although many are sceptical about how much interest they will really gather abroad. In January, Cuban president Raúl Castro relaxed the country’s trade restrictions on imports, but the very high prices of foreign cars mean these are still out of reach for the vast majority. The most likely, immediate outcome is simply that it will become much easier for mechanics to get their hands on the right parts for a lot less money – and however visible the impact, this is hardly something for nostalgic tourists to bemoan.

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film Soy Cuba

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film ‘Soy Cuba’

The cars of Cuba stand for a great deal more than brightly coloured muses to be papped by spellbound travellers. It is dangerous to romanticise any country so much to claim that entering its borders seems like stepping back into the fifties, especially considering the memory of pre-revolutionary Havana. The so-called ‘Yank Tanks’ are a far cry from the vehicles they once were, imported from the US decades ago. They do not represent a time lag, but mobility and progression. Let’s bear this mind now that Cuba and the US may be – possibly for the first time – communicating on equal terms.