Trading (car rides) with the enemy

A Dodge, or at least a Dodge-ish, in mid-rebuild in Havana.
   For the American car buff, it's a conundrum. One day, yes, relations between the U.S. and Cuba will improve to the point where any U.S. citizen can legally travel to the island just 150 kilometres beyond Key West. 
   But that reconciliation, the car buff knows, can only come as part of broader political and economic changes that almost certainly will have modernized the Cuban vehicle fleet by the time he can visit.
   Those old Cadillacs and DeSotos and Packards he's heard so much about? Too late, amigo. Crushed most of them last year.
   Note, by the way, that Cuba does not bar American visitors. It's the U.S., under the Trading with the Enemy Act, that forbids its citizens from making any monetary transaction in Cuba, thus effectively preventing them from setting foot on the island.
   There are ways around the ban, however.
   Some Americans simply use Canada or Mexico as a stepping-stone to Cuba. They know Cuban customs officers rarely stamp passports (and won't if requested not to), so they won't need to do any 'splaining when they cross back into the States.
Priddy: Savvy host.
   Others with family or business connections in Cuba – and despite the embargo, the U.S. and Cuba do plenty of business together – are permitted to travel to the island directly. Journalists, researchers and the clergy also get a pass.
   For the car buff, however, the ticket to old-auto heaven is the "people-to-people educational exchanges" that licensed U.S. groups and businesses are allowed to offer. The subject matter of these tours needn't be particularly academic; the idea is to build cultural ties between Americans and Cubans. (How this doesn't constitute "trading with the enemy" is a conundrum in itself, but nobody will accuse the U.S. of being uncomplicated.)
   History and art are popular themes for these exchanges, and now tour organizer Earthbound Expeditions is offering what may be the first with classic cars as a key focus.
   Scheduled for Oct. 11 to 19, the tour includes stops in Miami, Havana and Trinidad. Participants will ride in vintage vehicles, meet members of Cuban car clubs and, of course, spend time in prime car-spotting spots like Havana's eight-kilometre Malecón. They'll also drop by Ernest Hemingway's Finca Vigia home, eat in paladars and visit museums and a national park.
   And an added attraction: renowned automotive "spy" photographer Brenda Priddy will serve as host of the group. Priddy is personable and travel-savvy, she loves old cars, and you need only look at her work in the pages of the world's top auto publications to know how capable a photographer she is.
   Who better to lead a group of camera-toting car nuts on a dream holiday?
   At $3,950 a participant (based on double occupancy), the excursion isn't cheap. That covers accommodation, most meals, bus travel within Cuba and a charter flight from Miami.
Americans who make their own way to Cuba know they could get a week in a posh, all-inclusive resort, including a return flight from, say Toronto, for half that sum. And still see old cars.
   But for those who want to play by the rules, here's a chance to see and ride in old cars and meet their owners, all while travelling in the company of fellow enthusiasts and knowledgeable guides.
   A last chance? Probably not. But one day, it will be too late.

Tour members will see Soviet-era survivors like this Polski Fiat 126p as well as American iron.


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