As our plane touches the runway, my stomach churns. The sensation in my belly has nothing to do with airsickness and everything to do with where we are landing. Visions of colorful houses, vintage cars from the ’50s and sexy Latin music dance in my head—but so does apprehension. Havana was once the Paris of the Caribbean, the playground of world leaders, royalty and Hollywood’s elite. Not to mention, the Mob. But just like Fidel Castro, her glory days are a thing of the past. Despite the recent spurt of positive buzz about our nearest neighbor, I worry about what I will find so many years after her heyday.
Like many Americans, I’m intrigued by this complex amigo just 90 miles from our shore. Maybe I’m nostalgic for a taste of life pre-ISIS and airport body scans or a place on the planet without a McDonald’s, Starbucks or cell phone service. Or maybe I just want a bite of the forbidden apple. Despite the loosening of travel restrictions, typical tourism— á la baking on a beach—is still prohibido for Americans. U.S. visitors must fall into one of 12 approved categories of travel to visit legally.
The fact that I’m a travel writer, here with 15 editors, doesn’t matter. In fact, we’re told not to say we are “journalists” because that classification requires a more complicated license. Instead, we are part of a people-to-people program that encourages contact with Cubans. While I loathe group travel with an itinerary I can’t control, this is still the only legal way for me to get here.
“Revolución Socialista de los humildes, por los humildes” (translation: “A social revolution from the humble, for the humble”) shouts a billboard in bold red letters near the terminal. The only billboards we see during our five-day visit contain propaganda messages. No advertising. (What would Castro make of “Mad Men,” I wonder.)
Two large flatscreen TVs, massive bales of shrink-wrapped clothes and one toaster oven circle on the luggage conveyor. Since goods are scarce, when Cuban Americans visit relatives, they don’t arrive empty-handed. Even if these goods were readily available, most Cubans couldn’t afford them. The average worker earns around $20 a month.
After piling into a shiny blue Chinese-built bus, Aniel, our guide, talks about Havana’s history. I barely listen. Instead I am shocked and awed by block after block of magnificent but crumbling homes that are as abundant as America’s split-levels. Pre-departure, I had read cheery reports of Havana’s blossoming real estate revolution—how multimillion-dollar homes with broad terraces, marble floors and waterfront views were being marketed to the worldwide wealthy. Those rosy reports didn’t prepare me for the scale of restoration yet to be done.
Faded façades of once spectacular Spanish Colonial, Baroque, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco homes are missing chunks of masonry. Fistfuls of power lines are strung across doorways. Dilapidated mansions that have been carved up into several cramped apartments are packed with families wearing faces that reflect years of hardship. Here and there a beautifully renovated house appears next to others less loved, waiting for facelifts. Dingy high-rises (dating, we’re told, from the Soviet era) look even worse.
In the midst of overwhelming poverty and neglect, perfectly groomed school children in crisp white shirts smile and wave as we drive by. In Cuba, education is a priority. High school is mandatory; attending universities are free. For kids who aren’t accepted into college, vocational schools provide options.
Giant waves crash along the Malecon, the five-mile seawall famed for its oceanside promenade as we pull up to our hotel, the 20-story Melia Cohiba. Reminders of my privileged (spoiled?) American life are everywhere. The mattress is rock-hard; soap lacks fragrance and refuses to foam; the bedroom windows leak. Internet service (when available) is slow and expensive. When I ask for a glass of Cabernet or Merlot in a bar full of ashtrays (smoking is still de moda), I’m told the choice is red or white. That’s it.
Each day, our schedule is jam-packed—an interview with a student at the University of Havana, a visit to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home (a highlight, we are told, is the swimming pool where Ava Gardner swam naked) and a stop at Plaza de la Revolucíon, the 11-acre square where Cubans listened to Castro champion the joys of communism. Before I can blink, we’re eyeing the Hotel Riviera once owned by mobster Meyer Lansky, or the domed Capitolio (a replica of the U.S. Capitol), or forts built in the 1600s. We ride in vintage American convertibles, eat Cuban sandwiches at Sloppy Joe’s, shop for cigars and rum and stroll through the famed Hotel Nacional. Each day is a blur of activity.
Since this is a people-to-people trip, we meet a dizzying array of artists developing programs for troubled kids and visit a school for children—some no more than 10 years old—practicing to be circus performers in a hot, abandoned cinema. (I hold my breath as a young boy twirls high above a concrete floor sans safety net.) We interview a magazine editor, a former baseball player and listen to singers who have the talent to succeed on Broadway if given half a chance. A passionate barber training boys to be barbers takes us through an elaborate barbershop museum filled with artwork pertaining to hair. We are told it is the only museum like it in the world.
An architect leads the way through Old Havana, where narrow streets open to large, European-style squares. La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole for mojitos, is packed with turistas. (Papa frequented another place for daiquiris.) Sadly, we cannot imbibe. More interviews await.
Material goods may be in short supply, but there is no shortage of optimism among a budding crop of entrepreneurs, especially on the restaurant scene. Privately owned paladars, often in apartments or houses, strike a balance between mom- and-pop restaurants and super chic.
Tangy mojitos begin every meal of pork or lamb, salmon or shrimp. (I gorge on lobster for three consecutive nights!) At Café Laurent, an elegant penthouse where meals have a Spanish twist, we gaze across rooftops to the sea. Thanks to a power outage, the elevator isn’t working that day, so we walk up three flights. No one cares. The secret to enjoying Cuba is remaining flexible. Even the farm-to-table movement has been embraced. The chef at Il Divino, a stunning Mediterranean-style villa, uses only vegetables and herbs he grows in his garden.
Capitalism thrives at the Tropicana, Cuba’s oldest, most famous cabaret. One ticket for this Las Vegas-ish show (think Desi Arnaz) and mediocre meal is $100. Sexy, long-legged showgirls in colorful costumes gyrate to hot Latin music while balancing massive chandelier headdresses. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to sip rum, smoke cigars and forget the worries of the world. That’s precisely what we do.
I may have arrived overwhelmed by the poverty, but I leave with the same contagious confidence expressed by everyone we met. While they are under no illusions about the work yet to be done, there is a sense that good things are now possible. Change is happening daily thanks to the government relaxing rules about development and home and business ownership.
Plans are in place for a marina with dockage for 400 yachts, a shopping center and high-end golf course. Port development to accommodate cruise ships is in the works, and ferry service from Florida is scheduled for the fall. For the first time in five decades, the government has given the church permission to build a cathedral, and Pope Francis is visiting in September.
For some Cubans, change is coming too fast. For others, not fast enough. But all Cubans I spoke with agree on one thing, maintaining their unique culture is a priority. Cuba doesn’t have a drug problem, there are no guns, the literacy rate is nearly 100 percent and medical care is free. (They have a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S.) Easy to understand why no one wants that to change one bit.
As we board the plane for home, I take one last look at that billboard with the bold social statement and think about what our guide told us as we shopped for crafts. “Don’t tell anyone you are American—they will charge you more. Tell them you are Canadian. Cubans think all Americans are rich.”
Si, Aniel, they are right. We are.
HOW TO GO
Americans need a visa, Cuban medical insurance and the trip must adhere to one of 12 categories of approved travel. The Treasury Department’s website has plenty of info, but the easiest way to sort through the paperwork is to use a reputable travel company specializing in people-to-people trips to Cuba. cubatravelservices.com
WHERE TO SLEEP
Voted one of the region’s top hotels by Condé Nast Traveler, Hotel Saratoga garnered traction when Jay Z and Beyoncé stayed here a few years ago. Rooftop pool and bar boasts dramatic views of the Capitolio. Cocktails at sunset are a must. hotel-saratoga.com
WHERE TO EAT
If you can eat at only one restaurant in Havana, make it Atelier. Set in an old mansion decorated with original art, table settings include antique china and glassware. The menu is a blend of modern Cuban cuisine with a French twist. (The taro-root fritters are a must.) Reservations are hard to come by but most hotel concierges will find a way to get you in.
WHERE TO PLAY
Hands down, The Tropicana. For an extravagant celebration of Cuban music, beautiful women and free-flowing rum, head to the most famous nightclub in Cuba and possibly the world. Dozens of scantily clad showgirls and voluptuous dancers blend together on a stage that is transformed into a two-hour orgy of color and sound. Las Vegas, eat your heart out. cabaret-tropicana.com
Really enjoyed this authors experience while in Cuba. Loved the photos. Feel I have excellent snapshot of what to expect. Curious to know if Americans can legally purchase cigars.