Trailer Topics Magazine, April 1957
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We live in Key West and own a 1955 model 26-foot trailer which is our magic carpet for vacation travel. When the big new 476-foot ship City of Havana started ferrying autos between Key West and Havana in March, 1956, our feet began to itch. The Miami and Key West offices of the Cuban Tourist Commission informed us that touring by trailer was an unknown sport in Cuba. They were very dubious about our proposed trip.

Next we visited the West India Fruit and Steamship Company office at Stock Island, Key West, Florida. They gave us the following details:

Passenger Automobiles $76.00 round trip.
House Trailer, coupled to car - $5.00 per linear foot of overall length, round trip.
Adult fares - $23.50 per person, round trip.
Cuban Auto Insurance - $15.60 for first 30 days, $5.00 per each 30 day extension.

The only fly in the ointment was that they didn't know about trailer insurance. We wanted to sail April 3rd, but I wouldn't pull the trailer across the street without insurance. We wanted more time, but could only spare the first three-and-a-half weeks in April for the trip. The insurance issue wasn't squared away until April 2nd when we had almost given up. Cost on it turned out to be the same as for a car.

Our annual booster shots for typhoid and tetanus were about due and the three year limit on vaccinations had nearly run out, so these chores were completed in March even though none of them are required for Cuban touring.

In addition to the ten gallon water tank, we decided to take as many gallon jugs for drinking water as we could get in the trailer trunk. We took the sewer hose out of the trunk and left it home. This made room for 12 one gallon jugs, tool box, set of flares, gasoline lantern and a few other items back there out of the way. We hit the jackpot with the jugs. The tank had developed some rust and the galley pump was a bit balky from disuse during the past several months.

Some candles were put aboard the trailer and they proved to be a hit too. We soon used them up and bought bigger and better ones in Cuba. Our gas lights and gasoline lantern gave too much heat to suit us. Candles and flashlights were much cooler. Another item that made living more comfortable was the ice chest we always carry in the car trunk. The combination electric-ice refrigerator in the trailer doesn't hold too much ice or keep water and milk too cool when depending on ice alone. Our big car chest holds 50 lbs. of ice plus a gallon of drinking water, several cokes, cans of tomato juice and still has room to spare. Cuban coffee is rather strong for steady drinking. Instant coffee and tea plus powdered milk were all the drinks we needed with trailer meals. Cuban rum diluted with Coke is fine before or after mealtime providing no car driving is to be done soon thereafter. There is lots of real good restaurant eating to be done in Cuba including such Spanish specialities as Arroz con Pollo (chicken and yellow rice) and Paella. Fried Plantanos (like bananas) are delicious. For restaurant beverages, we stuck to soft drinks, bottled water (which costs you 5 or 10 cents for a chilled bottle) beer and coffee. Unbottled water and milk were taboo with us.

For the trailer larder some dried foods other than those already mentioned came in handy. We also had some canned meats. Of course Cuba has plenty of grocery stores and bakeries.

Standard equipment in our trailer is a copper whistling tea kettle that won't spill water when going over the bumps. When we wished to boil questionable water the required five minutes, the kettle would whistle when boiling started. The mechanical timer would be set for five minutes. As soon as the bell rang we had pure dish-water without having wasted the bottled water. Two pail-sized cream buckets with tight fitting tops are also always carried on our trips. One bucket is used for water in the kitchen in conjunction with an old-fashioned dipper. This bucket and the tea kettle can both be carried in transit almost full of water. The second bucket is for catching the run-off out of the sewer drain. A good supply of 24-lb. paper grocery sacks takes care of trouble-free garbage disposal.

Don't get the idea we shun trailer courts. We like them and use them. There is also much fun to be found in the National and State Parks and Forests where hook-ups are not available. However, none of these things are available in Cuba as yet.

I always use an electric shaver. This calls for Kar-Shave which plugs into the car cigar lighter, converting the 12-volt battery current to 110-volt. We noticed that very few folks had window screens in Cuba. Nevertheless a couple of insect bombs came in handy. A swatter will fix the flies, but a couple of mosquitoes can ruin sleep. We showed so many visitors through the trailer that we couldn't keep the screen door closed to save our necks. To our notion a Marine type toilet is a "must" in a travel trailer. A house type toilet would only have been excess baggage on this trip. We have "slip on" window awnings. I can put them all on in five minutes and take them off in half the time. For a combination of fresh air and privacy they are tops in our book. And this combination was important where the weather was warm and so many inquisitive folks had never seen a trailer before. All over the country the Cubans treated us with the utmost courtesy and kindness. They invited us through their homes and factories. If we were interested in their way of life, imagine how curious they were to see how we lived in our strange house on wheels. I have no idea how many people were in our trailer in these three weeks, but we had up to 50 visitors a night in it. As for the number we couldn't show through, there were many hundreds who had to be satisfied with looking in our windows. When we didn't want to waste much time for a noon lunch stop, we would pull off the road out in the country where there weren't many people. Lunching in the trailer in a small town meant that we couldn't get away for quite a while without risk of being rude. Three weeks of living like celebrities convinced us we would want no part of being movie stars or national politicians. As for living in a fish bowl year in and year out, Grace Kelly and the rest are welcome to it.

Now that the City of Havana is in service, Cubans will soon become accustomed to seeing trailers on their roads and will pay little attention to them. We found this out by returning to some over-nite gas station stops after several days absence. When we would drive up and ask permission to park again, we were invariably treated like long-lost kinfolk. But very few folks in the neighborhood were interested in the trailer compared to the first time we stopped. They were more interested than ever in us though. Where had we been, how did we like various cities, had everyone been nice to us? We enthusiastically told them Cuba is beautiful, and the people everywhere were wonderful to us.

If people couldn't direct us where we wanted to go due to the language barrier, they would often get in the car and show us. When it came to getting us through a town with the trailer in tow, this entailed our guest returning by bus. No one would even accept bus fare for such favors, except guides or youngsters. Sometimes a gas station manager would send one of his men and at the outskirts of town we would have to urge our guide to accept 50 or 75 cents. Bus fare alone would be an item to these fellows as wages are low and working hours long in Cuba.

We had little trouble following the 700 mile long Central Highway through cities, but finding highways leading to cities off the Central Highway wasn't always simple with the trailer on. Sometimes it was confusing when things were normal. If a bridge was out, thereby causing a long unmarked detour through a city, help was a must, unless we would unhitch the trailer and scout the route without it. As more North Americans drive through Cuba, the Tourist Commission will undoubtedly improve the sign situation. They have already done considerable work along this line. Getting lost in the cities isn't serious for a motorist. With a trailer in tow it can be. Cities hundreds of years old have very narrow streets, plenty of narrow, blind corners that a car alone can barely squeeze around. Most Cuban cities are full of such places; many such streets are dead endings. Blundering into these spots with a trailer would cause one to have nightmares for the next month. With the aid of advice, maps and common sense, we avoided such pitfalls. We had maps of Havana and Cuba which are available from the Cuban Tourist Commission at either of the following addresses: San Carlos Building, Key West, Florida, or 336 East Flagler, Miami, Florida. We had looked our Havana map over while aboard the City of Havana and had decided to turn left on Via Blanca and see if we could put up at a gas station. We knew that about a mile and a half out of Via Blanca from the ferry dock the Central Highway going East turned right off Via Blanca. We were confident we could find a gas station where trailer space could be rented on one of these main roads.

However, when we drove off the ship we were met by Mr. Gomez of the Cuban Tourist Commission, Mr. Naranjo of the Ferry Company and Mr. Moore, manager of a 54 unit apartment motel at Santa Maria Del Mar. These men are very interested in developing trailering in Cuba and wished to assist us in any way possible. It was suggested we follow Mr. Moore out to Santa Maria Del Mar and spend the night there. This place turned out to be a beautiful beach resort about 15 miles out Via Blanca from downtown Havana. Mr. Moore is interested in the possibility of building a trailer court next to the office of Mr. Gomez where we were given additional information and some letters to various cities we would visit. We agreed to report back to these men at the completion of the trip.

As for the city of Havana, it has over a million people and still growing fast. All sections are fascinating to see, both the old and new. To really get acquainted with the new city at least two days are needed on guided tours or, better yet, with a licensed Tourist Commission guide using his own car, so the customers have nothing to worry about. We have visited Havana several times and tried various methods of sight-seeing. We have found no one as good as Luis F. Cabrera, Official Guide No. 36. His home address is Consulado 76, Bajos, Havana, Cuba, parking stand at Prado and Amimas, by Delta C. & S. Air Line Office. If you write him before leaving he will meet you at the dock. Cabrera could assist in getting your trailer parked and the money you spend with him seeing the countless attractions of this great city in his Cadillac will be one of the best vacation investments you ever made.

When we left Havana we started East on the Central Highway. This is "Main Sreet" from one end of Cuba to the other. The first leg of our journey through all the six provinces was to Matanzas, Capital City of the Province of Matanzas. We were busy observing the countryside, towns and especially rules of the road. The speed limit all over Cuba in open country unless otherwise posted is 80 kilometers an hour which figures exactly to 50 miles an hour. Since country children must walk to school, schools are close together. School zone speed limit is 12 m.p.h. which seems too slow, but we took it easy. Limits are usually posted when passing army posts. Sometimes army sentries stopped us, but only momentarily. Highway shoulders are too narrow for off road parking. Consequently buses, trucks, taxis and cars stop on the highway to transact their business. Horse drawn vehicles were numerous. Truck traffic is heavy and it seemed like we were hardly ever out of sight of a bus. The narrow road shoulders are meant only for pedestrians and horse back riders. To run one wheel off the pavement would be damaging in many places due to drop offs, rocks and other hazards. Obviously night trailer travel should be avoided. Roadside kilometer markers were frequent giving distances to the next town and the next large city. Later, when pulling off the road for lunch or rest, we learned drivers were helpful and would stop if needed. The sleek mobilehome, something new to the Central Highway, caused much hand waving, horn tooting, and cries of "Mira, mira" from children and adults. Obviously everyone liked the looks of our rig on their road. On this 63 miles of the highway we found 30 to 40 miles per hour was fast enough as the road was not too smooth. All over Cuba when towing the trailer we had to watch ahead for dips and pavement breaks. They pop up.

Tremendous sugar mills could be seen often. We were later to learn the whole Island is dotted with them like grain elevators in Kansas. Sugar cane fields are everywhere. Cane is brought to the mills by ox cart, trucks, and railroad. We were astonished to learn the whole nation is dependent on this crop. The cane is harvested by hand with the aid of a long knife called a machete.

In less than three hours we topped a hill and below us lay the bustling North shore sea-port of Matanzas, a city of about 85,000. Now to find a place to park. The highway narrowed in the city center, then widened as we got past the downtown. About three miles past the city center we came to an Esso Servicentro, a large, busy gasoline station. My wife walked across the street and in her very limited and halting Spanish asked if we could park. The answer was, "Si, como no" meaning "of course" and we were considerably relieved. There is a fine little store and restaurant next door. As people came to see the trailer, some soon showed up who could speak English. This helped a lot. We didn't know it at the time, but we were lucky our first stop was in a high class residential neighborhood. We later learned to try to avoid setting up housekeeping at a station located in a densely populated poor section. In these locations we were sometimes nearly overwhelmed by visitors, especially children.

After sightseeing both day and evening we hitched up next morning and left the Central Highway. However, I am going to briefly log the Central Highway on east from here.

Matanzas to Coliseo - 23-1/2 miles. 45 miles per hour with trailer. Coliseo is a junction for road North to Cardenas (13 miles) and Varadero (22 miles).

Coliseo to Jovellanos - 11 miles of 40 m.p.h. road. Gas station East end of Jovellanos suitable for parking.

Jovellanos to Perico - 13 miles of 40 m.p.h. road. Gas stations on both sides of town for parking.

Perico to Colon - 8 miles of 50 m.p.h. road. Nice town. Good parking stations either end.

Colon to Mordazo - 34 miles of 30 m.p.h. road.

Mordazo to Esperanza - 29 miles of 30 m.p.h. road. Shell gas station at junction of highway to Cienfuegos.

Esperanza to Santa Clara - 10 miles of 35 m.p.h. road. Best parking stations West end of town near Airport and Ford Salesroom. Junction for North Circuit Highway is East of business section across from Palace of Justice which is a large yellow building. Santa Clara is the Capitol of Las Villas Province.

Santa Clara to Placetas - 22 miles of 45 m.p.h. road. Good parking stations on either end of town.

Placetas to Sancti Spiritus - 31 miles of 45 m.p.h. road. Boys at Esso Servicentro on east end of town will be glad to have you stay with them. You can get electricity here for your $1.00 per day parking fee. This is the junction for Trinidad Road. Your trailer will be safe here if you want to make a one day side trip to Trinidad with your car. Sancti Spiritus is a very nice small city.

Sancti Spiritus to Ciego de Avila - 46 miles of 40 m.p.h. road. Suitable parking stations both ends of town.

Ciego de Avila to Florida - 43 miles of 35 m.p.h. road. Mr. Rafael de Cardenas, graduate of L.S.U. Baton Rouge, owns Shell station on South side of Highway and West end of City. You can get electricity here and a grassy level spot for $1.00 per day. Camaguey is a big, busy city, Capitol of Camaguey Province and headquarters of the cow country. Fine cattle and horse ranches in this Province.

Camaguey to Guaimaro - 50 miles. Road from Camaguey all the rest of the way to Santiago de Cuba good. Sinclair station on East end of Guaimaro. Looks suitable for parking.

Guaimaro to Holguin - 75 miles. One mile West of town a large Texaco station looks like a good stop over.

Holguin to Bayamo - 46 miles. Junction with road to Manzanillo. Esso station half a mile East of city limits and one block west of army post. For $1.00 per day this is a very nice stop over and trailer can safely be left there if a side trip is made to Manzanilla by car.

Bayamo to Santiago de Cuba - 78 miles. Road mountanous but good. Very scenic. The largest mountains of the nation are in Oriente Province. Mountain grades on Central Highway are easy. In the village of El Cobre, 21 kilometers West of Santiago de Cuba, is a famous church. People from all over Cuba make pilgrimages to it.

Now let's get back to Matanzas. When we left this city we went to Varadero on the Via Blanca Highway. An easy one hour drive on a first class road. Varadero is the outstanding beach resort of Cuba, heavily patronized by both Americans and Cubans. Anyone who likes the best Florida beach cities should love Varadero. From Varadero we drove the 18 kilometers to Cardenas. As we entered the city there was a big Esso station on the left side of the road. We found this a fine overnight stop. Cardenas has a tremendous plant for the manufacture of rum and other beverages which is open to visitors. The city also has a great many fancy horse drawn hacks or taxis. From Cardenas it is only a short drive over to the Central Highway but since we would return west on the Central, we elected to take the Northern Circuit to Santa Clara, which is on the Central Highway. This drive took us through country and towns where things are not as sophisticated as on the main road. At times we were only a couple of miles from the sea and we would go down to little fishing villages. This Northern Road from Cardenas to Santa Clara is good for 30 miles an hour with the trailer for comfortable sightseeing.

From Santa Clara we went west 16 kilometers to Esperanza where a road turns south to Cienfuegos.

When we were in the Tourist Commission Office in Havana, the officials there said we would be the first North American Tourists to make an extended trailer trip through Cuba. They were anxious for us to report back to them at the end of our trip to let them know how we liked it, how we got along, etc. They armed us with letters to their offices in a number of cities. Three kilometers before we reached Cienfuegos at a sharp left turn, we came to a big combination Esso Station and International Harvester Sales and Service. They gave us permission to park. We had gotten along so well in other cities that we failed to go to the offices with our letters. Next morning we visited the Cienfuegos office and dlivered the letter addressed to them. Things began to pop right now. We were taken to the magnificent city hall and introduced to the Police Chief and Secretary to the Mayor. A memo was issued to all members of the police department to look out for our welfare as long as we stayed. A police car rode us to a spot in one of the nicest parts of the city to show us where we could park the trailer as long as we wished. A nice young man from the Commission who spoke Enlgish spent all day with us in our car showing us the city, through clubs, points of interest in the surrounding country, and of course the ice factory.

We learned that Cienfuegos is one of Cuba's newer cities and they do things different. The first tents were staked out in 1819 but it didn't become an incorporated city until 1881. It is on the Carribean Sea with a large protected harbor. Cienfuegos has long been known as the Pearl of the South. Their annual carnival was in progress. It is as famous as the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, and is held Saturday and Sunday nights for several consecutive weeks. It is similar to the Mardi Gras rather than carnivals as we know them.

Cienfuegos has about 75,000 population. It is clean, modern, progressive, and beautiful. Streets are straight and well paved. Nearby mountains lie to the east. Traffic regulations are unique. Whereas horn blowing is necessary at blind corners in other Cuban cities, here it will result in the motorist's arrest. Such quiet driving was really restful as soon as we learned the simple rules. As a blind intersection is approached, an arrow painted on the side of the building informs one which way traffic flows. This is also true in other cities. The big difference in Cienfuegos is that all traffic arrows are painted either red or green. As we approached a red arrow, we stopped, the red arrow streets being through traffic arteries. When we approached a green arrow street we could proceed across the intersection without stopping. Cienfuegos is my favorite city of Cuba.

A road is under construction along the coast from Cienfuegos to Trinidad which will be one of the best 50-mile drives in Cuba. The present route is about 150 miles. We were advised not to take the 50-mile new road with the trailer, but since only eight miles were reportedly "bearcats" I decided on the short cut. That eight miles was four hours of grief. One long mess of jolts, bumps, rocks, and blinding red dust in and on everything. We ripped holes in the bottom of the trailer and bent the hitch. We had to make brutal fast runs over rough temporary wooden bridges and around sharp corners to try to make nearly impossible grades. On one of these steep hills after a terrific run for it, we stopped about 15 feet from te top with back wheels still spinning. The road was very narrow here with vertical drop offs on both sides. There was nothing to do but back down and try again. Turning around was out of the question. The trailer simply had to be kept straight on the road. If the back end of it swung to the drop off of either side we were licked since we couldn't go up-hill an inch.The road was not only narrow but winding as well. My neck got stiff from leaning far out of the car door trying to keep track of the back of the trailer. The sweat turned my dust into mud, which ran down into my shoes. Some fun! I backed until it was evident there was no point in going further back. Then I gritted my teeth so as not to bite my tongue on the bumps and set sail with the throttle to the floor. My wife had long since abandoned ship and was on top of the hill waving, jumping up and down and screaming like a maniac. This time I went over the top at about one mile per hour. Another five feet up and it would have been just too bad. This short cut taught me that the shortest distance between two points is NOT always a straight line.

The irony was that there was heavy road equipment parked nearby but it was Sunday so no tractor tow was available. A mile further on we came to the road camp and discovered all hands going crazy over some cock fights. No doubt their whole week's pay checks were being wagered and their actions were at least as wild as my wife's had been on the hill-top.

When we finally got to Trinidad we couldn't find a gas station with enough room for the trailer. A Sinclair station was under construction which looked like a possibility when it is completed. We asked assistance from the Commander of the local army post and were given a spot alongside the road nearby. We got cleaned up a bit and drove around. Whenever we came to the trailer a lot of kids stayed around watching us through the windows. After a rough day we were in no mood for this, so finally we hitched up and went to Casilda about four miles south which is on the Carribean and is the historic sea-port for Trinidad. Here we sought the assistance of the Commander of the local navy base and he fixed us up with a spot. However, the Casilda kids proved as tenacious as the Trinidad boys. Trinidad City is a national monument and is being kept as nearly as possible the way it was three and four hundred years ago. Except for the highway through town the streets are cobblestone. Driving on them was plenty rough at a walking pace. This allowed boys to walk alongside with their hands on the door handles and we couldn't do anything about it. Trinidad was the only place on the trip where the boys were a continuous nuisance. At one time Trinidad was one of Cuba's wealthiest cities but now it appears to have hit the other extreme. There seems to be a lot of people and few jobs. For this reason we could only feel sorry for the boys. With an English speaking guide, Trinidad and surrounding points of interest can be seen in a day. Next time we want to see Trinidad we will leave the trailer in Sancti Spiritus and make a one day side trip there with the car. The same can be done from Cienfuegos when the new road is completed.

In Sancti Spiritus we stayed at an Esso Servicentro on the East end of town on the Central Highway. This is a nice little city and a pleasant stop.

Camaguey was one of our favorite cities. It has more than 125 churches. It is rich and bustling with activity, being the center of an extensive area of excellent cattle and horse ranches. Anyone should be sure to unhitch before leaving the highway to drive across the bridge into the city. Camaguey streets and corners are much too narrow for trailers. We stopped at the big Shell station on the West end of town. The owner, Mr. Rafael de Cardenas, treated us royally.

Our next stop-over was at Bayamo in Oriente Province. We didn't see a station that suited our taste until we had gotten a half mile east of the city limits. Then we came to an Esso Station and the pavement was so wide here we could make a U turn with plenty to spare. The boys said we could park alongside the curb and we were careful to stay far enough away not to interfere with their gas or lunch stand customers. There was even a storm sewer by the trailer which was more convenient than the station restroom when emptying the waste bucket. For a dollar a day the boys kept an eye on the trailer and took good care of us.

(Be sure to read next month's interesting conclusion to this story.)