You first notice the cars.

Several 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs. A 1958 Pontiac Bonneville convertible. Many Fords from the 1940s and ‘50s. Classic chariots from this baby boomer’s childhood.

Stepping off the cruise ship into Old Havana, Cuba, I entered a nation tied in many ways to its past but beginning to drive forward into the 21st century. Much of this revival results from Cuba’s improving relations with its neighbor 90 miles to the north.

In 1958 some 300,000 Americans visited Cuba. The Cuban revolution in 1959 led by Fidel Castro pretty much ended such travel. In 1960 a severe trade embargo was put into place by the U.S. In turn, the new Cuban socialist government looked to the Soviet Union for help. When Soviet aid ended in 1991, Cuba’s economic crisis worsened.

With behind the scenes help from Pope Francis and Canada, President Barack Obama worked to restore ties with the island nation. In March 2016 Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928. That same year U.S. cruise lines and airlines began to bring visitors to Cuba.

U.S. travel to Cuba became legal, but not without restrictions. A visit today must take place under one of 12 approved categories, in my case, an educational exchange under group people-to-people travel. A signed affidavit is required along with an official Tourist Card that costs $50-$100 per person.

Still, in 2018 nearly 900,000 people, many of them Americans, cruised to Cuba. My visit earlier this month, after a stop in Key West, was only for a full day and an overnight, but nonetheless gave me a look at a totally different way of life. Our day in port happened to be National Workers’ Day, a national holiday in the communist country. Headed toward the western end of the island nation, our bus was detoured as Cubans took to the streets for a May Day parade and speeches in the Plaza de la Revolucion.

We traveled more than two hours away to the Vinales Valley, a scenic mountain area designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. What we see on the drive explained why our guides said “things are very different in Cuba.”

Yes, there are the classic cars, used largely to taxi foreign visitors. The rust-free auto bodies are painted colorfully. But because the embargo has prevented Cuban mechanics from obtaining U.S. replacement parts, what’s under the hoods may be surprising. Often the classics have been retrofitted with Soviet parts or even modern-day Korean, Japanese or European powertrains.

Other means of transportation share the national highway. The most popular car in Cuba is the Lada, a small econo-box auto sent many years ago by the Soviet Union at subsidized prices. Only a few vehicles in Cuba are less than 25 years old, those being an occasional Mercedes Benz or Hyundai that are most likely government-owned or belong to a foreign businessman or diplomat.

Hitching a ride

For native Cubans the means of transportation are modest. We see this on our ride westward. Carts, each pulled by a single horse, carry one or two passengers. Small motorbikes pass numerous pedestrians. Ride-sharing or hitchhiking is common as sometimes up to a dozen Cubans will gather in the shade of an overpass, waiting for an open-air ride in the back of a passing 2-ton truck.

Small open-air rural dwellings along the way are equally simple. Tin or tile roofs collect rain water for household use as wells are rare. Laundry hangs on clotheslines above sleeping dogs.

Arriving at Vinales, our first stop is the Mural of Prehistory, in some ways Cuba’s answer to Mount Rushmore, minus political figureheads. Commissioned by Fidel Castro, the 160-meter-long, 120-meter-high mural was painted on the side of a vertical limestone cliff by 18 artists over a four-year period. The mural depicts the evolution of life in Cuba.

The next stop was my favorite part of my Cuban experience. The Benito Nodarse family warmly welcomed our small group to their fifth-generation tobacco farm. Having photographed Trempealeau County tobacco-growing farms some 40 years ago for The Country Today newspaper, this visit especially interested me.

Most all means of production in Cuba are still controlled by the Communist government. Private ownership of land is permitted, but only if used for agriculture. In the case of the Nodarses, 90 percent of their tobacco production must be sold to the government with the remainder kept for personal use or private sales.

Methods of the past

Even though their 25 acres comprise one of the largest and most successful of Cuban private farms, their agricultural methods often are from centuries past — primitive even by Amish standards. Oxen pull a stone-weighted drag made from logs through the red clay soil — no tractors are seen. A variety of fruit trees, sugar cane and coffee plants and domesticated animals of all sorts help the family to be self-sufficient. The most recent tobacco harvest dries in sheds built with palm tree leaf walls.

In the tobacco shed, Benito’s son, Sergio, demonstrated the art of hand rolling a cigar, which he then offered and lit for a visitor. Both Sergio and his father look pretty much how you would expect Hollywood to cast a Cuban granjero (farmer).

Visitors were invited inside the farmhouse where they were served small cups of the coffee grown on the farm or a splash of “white coffee” (Cuban rum). With no “hard sell” the tourists were offered a chance to buy cigars made on the farm.

Black markets

A growing private sector exists outside Cuba’s state-run economy. It’s been estimated that the country’s rationing system used for food distribution and other products meets only about half a family’s needs. An active black market exists, and Cuban citizens can freely purchase additional goods from supermarkets (when available) if they have convertible pesos spent by tourists. Tourism and foreign business investment in 2019 give Cuba hope for a brighter future.

Still, recent threats by the Trump administration to sever some of the Obama-era ties have Cubans worried. In mid-April the president’s national security adviser warned that the U.S. “will implement further regulatory changes to restrict non-family travel to Cuba.” Over our roast pork lunch some members of our group wondered if we might be one of the last groups to visit the island.

Politics aside, my brief “people-to-people” visit introduced me to a warm and welcoming people ready to become friends and neighbors.