As soon as we spy her there at the curb, cherry-red and classically beautiful, we have to have her.
She is a 1951 Chevrolet Deluxe convertible and this is Havana, the motherlode of pristine vintage American automobiles.
So, my wife and I and our 13-year old daughter approach the good-looking Cuban guy lounging coolly behind the wheel and ask if we can have a ride.
So, we hire Rafael and his classic wheels for an hour.
We know it’s completely cliché to play tourist in a pre-1960 car in Havana, but that’s the point. We want to pose, see and be seen, have the wind blow through our hair and ultimately say we did what we were expected to do in Cuba.
From the tiny Old Havana side street of Tejadillo, we head straight for the 12-kilometre malecon fronting the Caribbean Sea and unabashedly cruise. Rafael puts on his mirrored aviator sunglasses and black cowboy hat to amp up the hip factor and we smile in the sunshine as we pass monument after monument.
With me in the passenger seat and the girls in the backseat, photos are taken, other classic cars with happy tourists are waved at and we learn a little bit about the ’51 Chevy. The car is a multi-generational property, first purchased by Rafael’s grandfather, used as a family and tourist car by his father and now passed onto him to thrill more tourists.
Cuba, and particularly the streets of Havana, are a rolling car museum. After Fidel Castro took over in the 1959 revolution, the U.S. declared a trade and tourism embargo on Cuba and the flow of U.S. cars and parts and tourists to the island ceased. Out of necessity and beauty, the pre-1960 cars have lived on, often with new Russian diesel motors and improvised body work and parts.
So how am I enjoying this quintessentially Cuban scene? I’m Canadian and along with Europeans, we’ve been flooding to Cuba since it opened to non-U.S. international tourism in the early 1990s. Americans are next.
The U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations last year and the embargo could end soon.
And in February the two countries signed a commercial air traffic deal to allow passenger tourist flights from U.S. hubs to Cuba. Over the last year, Americans had to book through a third-party to take a charter flight and it wasn’t for tourists, only for those doing humanitarian work or taking part in a sporting event.
But back to that crimson Chevy.
Before we know it, we’re dropped off back on Tejadillo, shaking hands with Rafael, handing him 20 Cuban pesos (about $23) and admiring his car one last time.
We celebrate our tourist predictability by finding Bar San Carlos and ordering mojitos, Cuba’s national drink of crushed mint, rum, sugar syrup, lime and club soda. We squeezed this delightful diversion into the Colonial Havana excursion we’ve done from our resort in Varadero.
Like many Canadian tourists to Cuba, we’re holed up at an all-inclusive luxury resort, Grand Memories, in the tourist zone hanging out at the beach, basking by the pools and eating and drinking at 16 restaurants and bars.
But a trip to Cuba isn’t complete without the two-hour trip to the capital of Havana for some culture and colonial eye candy.
We’ll also pull ourselves away from the resort to do the Yumari Jeep Safari through ramshackle villages, into the rainforest and along the beach before snorkeling at Coral Beach, swimming in a cave, racing powerboats up Río Canímar and having lunch and a horseback ride at Rancho Gaviota.
Another highlight is a day on a catamaran that pulls up to Cayo Blanco to play on the white-sand beach and splash in the translucent ocean before frolicking with dolphins.