The wife and I had talked about going out to Cuba for years. The occasional travel programme and newspaper article had fuelled our interest, and we were finally convinced when we had word of mouth accounts from colleagues and acquaintances that had actually made the trip.
Cuba is not a cheap holiday destination, it takes 10 hours flying time to get there and prices for tourists are raised in order to bring in much needed money to the Cuban economy. After deciding not to go for a resort holiday (usually based in Varaderro on the north coast) we opted for a Ramblers Holidays package. This would take us from one end of the island to the other, with an internal flight to get us back to our starting point (in a Russian Built Yak 142). There would be a series of towns and sights to visit and some non-challenging rambles in the countryside or National Parks along the way. Sounded ideal, and so it turned out to be.
We landed at Havana and set off on a 3 hour coach drive to Vinales National Park. In the busy traffic on the outskirts of Havana it was immediately obvious that there were loads of interesting vehicles. There were hundreds of old 1950/60s American cars, but I wasn’t prepared for the number of Communist Bloc vehicles, thousands of them. There were Moskovitches of varying ages, some big old Volgas, a Skoda or two, but most popular of all was the Lada. There were no two-stroke four-wheelers of any sort that I could see. Thrown in amongst the cars were the trucks and light commercials, many of which I did not recognise, but included Roman diesel trucks (from Romania perhaps?) and a few IFA East German models. As to bikes, well again, a great variety particularly of two-strokes with Ural/ Dnepr flat twins making up the 4 strokes. There were a lot of sidecar outfits around, equally popular with either 250cc two-strokes or the larger Russian boxer twins. Looking at a street scene was a real time warp with a horse and cart or two, the old American cars and the large number of old traditionally styled motorcycles, and more so if there were a few sidecars around.
Over the next two weeks we travelled extensively across the island form west to east. We were able to see the real Cuba, walking through the countryside, having lunch on a farm, visiting a doctor’s surgery, and meeting and talking with villagers. The country is emerging from a very tough time dubbed by Castro as “The Special Period “. Cuba was always on the brink economically as the result of the US trade embargo and the pressure that the US could bring to bear on other trading nations. What really finished Cuba off was the sudden collapse of the USSR. Almost like throwing a switch, Cuba was cut off from its main export markets and its supply of aid, fuel and technology. The Special Period saw food rationing (still in place), planned power cuts and water supply cuts and very few road vehicles as fuel ran out. Even more serious was the collapse in mechanised farming as tractors; tyres, parts and fuel ran out. Agriculture had to go into reverse, using draft animals to replace tractors and using equipment last seen in Europe in the Middles Ages.
That was then. Today Cuba has been able to forge new links with trading partners who care little for the US, predictably the French, so new Peugeots and Renault cars are on the streets, along with Daewoo and Hyundai as well. Cuba now relies on tourism as its main money earner; most tourists are from Canada with the UK at No. 2.
I did go out of my way to photograph as many motorcycles as I could in order to give a slide show to the local Section of the VMCC and to write a MZ biased article for the MZ Rider mag. (written and submitted). My lack of Spanish hindered me from making any more than a passing contact with the bikes and their owners. I was delighted to see quite a few examples of the older ES models, both 150 and 250 versions. Most had been heavily modified over the last 30 or so years. Some had been lavishly chromed, swinging arms, side panels, side stands, brake plates etc. etc. All had been repainted, and there seemed to be a variety of after-market MZ name decals.
By far and away the city that had most motorcycles of any description was Cuba’s second city, Santiago de Cuba, and here the MZ reigned supreme, literally hundreds of them. The most numerous model was the ETZ 250, and there were a lot of smart bikes around with some really eye catching and tasteful paintwork. Many bikes (Supa 5s, ETZs) had been tweaked or modified in some way. I can remember a Supa 5 with cast alloy wheels, an ETZ engine and a very smart alloy rear swinging arm all finished off in an eye catching mix of purple metallic and lime green! In Havana I saw one of the later ETZ 125 models fitted with what looked like a Russian engine, possibly a Voshkod. Basically anything goes.
Road behaviour appeared to be good, if rather chaotic, by that I mean that there was no blowing of horns, loud sporty exhausts and no cutting up of other road users. Everyone seemed to follow the basic rules of lane discipline and traffic light rules at a pace that was speedy but safe. We did see one accident between a Water Authority van and a truck, a rear end shunt in a town street. More common was to see broken down vehicles by the side of the road, some with spectacular problems like sheared axles or split diff casings! Fuel was again in plentiful supply, and it was quite something to see a garage forecourt busy with perhaps a 1950s car, four or five solo two-strokes and maybe two or three outfits. Oh, and the brand name of the fuel? Oro Negro - Black Gold.
If you can, save up and go to Cuba. It is a unique place, a time warp. The people are very friendly, the geography is fascinating and the architecture is already recognised as being of global interest. UNESCO is pumping in millions to repair, restore and repaint the colonial style street frontages in several cities around the island, and not a moment too soon. On average three buildings a day collapse in Cuba. It is still a Communist/Dictatorship regime, but appears to be a distinctly Caribbean interpretation of the doctrine rather than the austere and threatening Soviet model. The political murals and elevation of Che to deity status just all add to the colourful mix of the holiday.
(The above tale is courtesy of my friend Jim, and was first published in the Thistledown newsletter in 2009)