THE CUBA CLASSIC RALLY

13th January – 1st February 2018

Welcome to Cuba!  The largest colonial centre in Latin America with a history of pirates and buccaneers, African slaves, the Mafia, Revolutions and Dictators!   The Spanish ruled here for four centuries but, when the island gained its independence in 1898, the US took control  with the help of Machado and Batista.  The Revolution, headed by Fidel Castro defeated Bastista on 1st January 1959 and so began the ruthless dictatorship of Fidel which lasted for 57 years.

Cuba is well known for its music, cigars and old American cars and ones first impression of Cuba is one of colour and movement.  It is  buzzing with people and every other car is a pre 1959 classic.

For the people of Cuba, time has stopped twice – once in 1959 with Fidel’s populace Revolution and secondly the fall and break up of the Soviet Union in 1990 which was a crippling blow to the Cuban economy and the island then went through Peroido Especial.  There was no fuel, very little food and industry came to a standstill.   Both these cataclysmic events have left  their mark and although things are changing slowly, there is still a long way to go.

On the first official day of the Rally, the drivers all set off early for the Port to retrieve their cars.  This was no mean feat.  It intailed unlading the cars from the containers with lots of photographs and 26 customs and port officials in attendance, each car individually inspected by customs and police, the removal of all our spares and there followed a lot of bartering to try and reclaim them which resulted in Toby losing all his spares and tools as the back up mechanic.  He flirted outrageously with the customs lady and at one stage had to write his phone number on her hand but still the majority of spares and non vehicle parts (iceboxes, pillows, shoes, clothing, first aid kits etc) were wrapped in black polythene and sealed with customs tape but with more form filling, it looked as if we were free to leave with our cars.

The number plate official had show us our number plates but then realised they had to be put on in a different customs area so we were then underway, back to Havana after 6 hours with customs and our first stop was the nearest fuel station.  On arrival we were told we could have 20 litres of fuel only!  For the V8 Ford Falcon, if this was the norm it was going to prove a problem!! 

After some consultation they realised they were at the wrong marina entrance and after a further 20 minutes drive, we arrived at another customs house, where to our surprise, the same number late man, with the same camera, reappeared, rephotographed all the cars and presented the drivers with their Cuban number plates with the dire warning that if we lost the number plate and did not return it at the end of the trip, not only would the car remain in Cuba, but the driver would also be unable to leave.   With that delightful warning ringing in their ears, the drivers set off for the hotel in a massive tropical downpour, to arrive looking forward to supper! 

Meanwhile the ladies of the group had wonderful lunch with several Mojoti’s, the first of many!!  This was followed by a Salsa class with Sergio in a charming little studio in residential Havana.  Sergio had 4 of his friends there to partner us and we spent a wonderful hour being put through our paces and learning the first easy steps.

Side to side and then forward and ones partner would direct us with subtle arm or hand movements.  At the end we persuaded the boys to show us a salsa dance and they happily did a superb dance for us which was a great end to a really fun lesson.

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In the evening we went to the Buena Vista Curry Club Restaurant and listened to some great music from an Australian band, who were in Havana for the Jazz Festival.  There was much cigar smoking and some serious Mojoti drinking, all accompanied by the fantastic live jazz until the early hours of the morning.  

The following morning the drivers had another early start and they convoyed in their cars to the police station where the Cuban ‘fixers’ had been queuing since seven in the morning for car registration and permission to drive in Cuba.  The car park was full of an array of different vehicles, very old, fairly old and quite new!  All vehicles are imported by the state and due to the lack of fuel coming in from Venezuela, there isn’t the infrastructure to allow more cars into the country.  The existing American pre 1959 cars have mostly had their engines replaced with Japanese diesels which are fairly slow and blow clouds of black diesel fumes.  While they waited for yet another piece of paper, they enjoyed looking at the Cuban cars and modifications.

Finally they were called for a signature and to be handed their permission.  They were free to go!  They had achieved something which had never been done before, to personally import a vehicle to Cuba, outside the diplomatic corps.  What a result!!

All the drivers returned to the hotel except Toby who was determined to rescue his tools and spares as it is difficult to be the rally mechanic with no tools!  The following 8 hours were quite an eye opener to how this amazing country works!  All was going well at 4pm when the official realised that two pallets at the port had now turned into 7 boxes in Havana and therefore is could not be released!  The logic behind this was almost comical as he was dealing with the 3 top customs officials but being children of the revolution, every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ was crossed as they struggled with self initiative.  Finally, by 8pm, he had rescued most of the parts and spares and paid substantial duty.

Meanwhile there was a bus trip around Havana for a few of the girls and a wonderful wander around old Havana.  The streets were crowded with three wheel taxi bikes, cars, carts selling fruit and tomatoes and we found shops selling all things Che;  number plates, mugs, flags and paintings.  There were the occasional pair of musicians singing, bars and restaurants and so much going on around us.  We found rows of old classic cars and horse and carriages waiting for the tourists.  At 3pm we all gathered at the hotel in our cars and set off on the Mafia tour with our guide Alejandro.  He told us all about the Mafia links to Cuba, the hotels they had bought and built and the gambling, drugs and prostitution on which their success and wealth was based.  We visited the Fort, followed by the Hotel Sevilla and then finally to the National Hotel for a Mojito.

Dinner that night was at one of the best restaurants in town called La Guarida which we found in what appeared to be a deserted building until we climbed up a few floors to find a thriving restaurant and their followed a superb mean of snapper, or lobster or pork or chicken all washed down with several obligatory Mojito’s!!  This famous building was both restaurant and apartments, showing a wonderful faded glory of the past and was used in the film ‘Fresas y Chocolate’ which featured the first gay kiss in Latin American cinema.

We were keen to get on the road the following day and the cars were seen off at Melia Hotel on the sea front.  Once full of petrol we hit the road, following a wonderful route through the countryside on our way to Maria La Gorda on the most western tip of Cuba.

During the 326 Km, we passed numerous horse and carts, cowboy hatted men on horses, bicyles, old classic cars and as the land became more agricultural, old tractors and farming vehicles.  We stopped at a Tobacco farm for lunch and visited a tobacco field followed by the drying barn which was empty as they were just about to start harvesting the tobacco leaves.  Cigars were sampled and smoked and bought for the return to the UK.  We watched  Manuel deftly rolling a cigar – what a fascinating insight into the age old tradition of cigar production which is so richly ingrained in Cuba’s history.  

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Toby is his Citroen Acadian van, found some of the very rough tarmac pitted roads fairly challenging and with 30 km to go, there was a big bang and the car leapt upwards and we ground to a halt.  Very kindly, Jim and Veronica in their Stanleyman racing liveried 1965 pillarless Ford Falcon stopped behind us and waited while Toby removed the totally destroyed rear braking system which on the lefthand side was never going to work again.  A quick bleed of the brakes and the last 30 km was driven in the dark, something not to be recommended as one has to avoid the erratic pot holes somewhat dimly lit by the rather inadequate Citroen lights.

The Maria La Gorda Hotel is owned by the military and is primarily a diving centre.  It is located 70 km from the south western tip of Cuba and consists of large concrete blocks of 4 rooms looking out over the sea.   A large communal buffet restaurant serving robust local fair provided supper and breakfast with a trio of noisy but good local crooners!

The next day we had a day to explore or just relax.  Paul and Sandra, in their 450 SL Mercedes, and Alastair and Rachel in their 912 Porsche set of for San Antonio at the most south western tip of Cuba.  Jim, Veronica and Finella followed in the Falcon and drove the 70km through the remote forest area to the lighthouse with a fenced in military area.  The men there were fascinated by the Falcon and its engine and crowded round taking pictures.  We found lunch in San Antonia at the one and only bar and had Camerones (shrimps), rice and sliced tomatoes.  Delicious! 

We walked across the road to the beach at Las Tumbas and found golden sand for as far as the eyes could see, both ways.  Ones feet sank in to the sand up to ones ankle and the water was cold, so no swimming today!  

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There was no sunset that night because of cloud but the no-see-ems were in fine biting form so we retired to supper and an early bed.