I step onto Cuban soil knowing full-well that I’ll see American classic cars in all their mid-century glory. What I am not prepared for is the lively and unique motorcycle culture that thrives in the island’s capital of Havana.
In so many ways, Cuba is a country that is frozen in the 1950s. The current, tenuous loosening of American embargos and travel bans has started to thaw that freeze, but Havana is still on a several decade lag behind most of the western world. There is no small measure of charm in that antiquation.
As my wife and I walk off of the dock of the Port of Havana, we are greeted by a post-vintage Yamaha Virago dressed as a police bike. The Virago’s street pilot, a uniformed Cuban traffic officer directs us across the busy bayside street. It turns out that the officer’s working mount will prove to be one of the newer motorcycles we’ll encounter in the historic streets of Havana.
As we make our way to the other side of the street, we walk directly to a vintage Russian 2-stroke twin with a sidecar. Fittingly, a Cuban man, who exudes as much character as the bike, sits rakishly on the saddle smoking a Cuban stogie. Welcome to Havana!
The bikes on the Havana streets are old and diverse. The countries of origin are equally varied with bikes from China, Japan, Germany, and Eastern Europe in the majority. Names like Jawa, MZ, HHH, Kapnatbi grace the tank badges. With seemingly no emission regulations, 2-strokes are everywhere.
I’m told there are some Harleys on the island, but those are owned by the more affluent Cubans and mostly brought out only on the weekends. The bikes you see on the streets are those of the working class – real daily riders. If the bikes don’t carry the original paint, they are often coated in vibrant island colors.
The more we walk through the streets that Ernest Hemingway so loved, the clearer it becomes that there is an unmistakable style to the Cuban moto culture. While the bikes are mostly decades old and often from companies that are long defunct, the examples are incredibly well maintained. Since many of the bikes are from companies that no longer supply parts, there is a network of back-alley Cuban machine shops that can craft virtually any part for the island’s antiquated cars and motorcycles.
Sidecars are ubiquitous on the island and they are clearly a melding of the utility and style to the owners. They are almost exclusively color-matched and most often sport snap-on vinyl covers on the hack. Watching the sidecar pilots navigate the bustling streets of Havana is impressive. They display an almost supernatural awareness of exactly what space will allow surgical passage through the bustling streets without metal-to-metal contact.
It even seems that when motorcycles are parked on the streets of Havana, they are situated – even staged – in a way that presents them in their full glory. They are parked in character-filled doorways and in front of quaint Cuban restaurants as if begging to be photographed. As I have said, there is a style that permeates Cuban motorcycle culture.
That style extends to the riders. Havana motorcyclists are as diverse as their motorcycles – and every bit as intriguing. The riders most often sport minimalist half-helmets, many of which are leather or vinyl-clad, and ride in their ‘island casual’ attire. Young or old, male or female, the riders in Havana seem keenly and comfortably aware that riding makes them unique. I guess that element of motorcycling is universal.
As is the case in America, motorcycling makes up a small segment of Havana’s traffic. However, also like Americans, Cubans who ride do so with independence, pride, and an unmistakable common bond.
If you are going to visit Cuba, you are going to get there by air or sea. We chose to cruise to Havana as the relaxed pace of the approach seemed perfect for the ambience of the country. Norwegian Cruise Lines now offers weekly visits to Havana and the port is perfectly situated directly across from Old Havana. NCL does a good job of making sure passengers have their ducks in a row for the days in Havana, and it is great getting back to an air conditioned stateroom after a long day in the Tropic of Cancer sun.
Things to Know:
- You will convert your American dollars to Cuban CUCs (Americans take a hit on the exchange)
- The Cuban government requires a special visa in addition to your passport
- You are told you must log your “people-to-people” activities for later verification
- Don’t hesitate to interact with the locals. We found them to be charming and welcoming