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Cuba's Classic (and Not-So-Classic) Cars

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Havana traffic is a mix of classic American cars (from before the Revolution), Russian Ladas (those infamous tin cans on four wheels, from the Soviet period -- the 1960s to the 1980s), bicycle rickshaws, and cocotaxis (motorized tricycles with coconut-shaped carriages for tourists). We took them all.

First impressions and shattered preconceptions are part of the joy of travel in Cuba. As expected, the streets of Cuba -- while not congested -- were like a Detroit car show, circa 1955. With flamboyant fins, lots of chrome, and gumball-machine colors, these cars provide basic personal transportation and touristy taxi service. The classic American cars date from before the American embargo was established in 1960. After half a century of heavy use and not quite dodging potholes, and with no access to replacement parts, they've generally been entirely refitted under the hood and artfully MacGyvered. That 1956 Dodge is likely a "hybrid"...with a 1985 Lada engine.

In Havana, it seems any guy with a classic American car has polished its chrome and painted its fins to take the foreign tourist for a glamorous ride through a decaying city on the cusp of great change.

Basic taxis are often Soviet-era Ladas -- a legacy of Cuba's decades of partnership with the USSR. While tourists love the classic American cars, I found Lada taxis more practical -- about half the price, and with less aggressive drivers.

For a memorable lift, tourists can hail a bicycle taxi or a "cocotaxi" -- which fits three in a pinch and rattles between the traffic in a motorcycle-propelled carriage that feels like a coconut shell.

With a little wind, the surf's up along Havana's harborfront -- and the main drag (Malecón) is closed for traffic. Owners of those classic cars understand how bad the salt spray is for their complexion.

While Cuba's classic 1950s-era American cars are fun to see any time of day, by night the glint of 60-year-old chrome gives the scene a time-passed elegance. Havana comes to life in the cool of the evening. Friends gather on curbs and on bannisters to party -- pouring from $3 bottles of fine rum and enjoying music. Salsa is the beat of the city. Lovers catch an intimate moment, as public displays of affection are a reminder that living quarters can be cramped, with many generations under one roof.