Cuba for Americans: Havana beckons with history, beauty
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 07 / 14 / 2011
By Terry Cornelius - Jul. 13, 2011 01:27 PM. The Arizona Republic. It was mid-January and slightly humid on the edge of the city's historical district. I had settled in for an afternoon siesta when there came an urgent tapping on my door.
"Terry, come look!"
It was my host, Antonio Fernandez Rodriguez, who, with his mother, manages the boardinghouse in which I was staying on a narrow cobblestone street behind the old Cuban Capitol.
I shuffled into the sitting room. On a small, flat-screen TV, a news anchor on a state-run channel was talking about President Barack Obama's announcement that he was loosening U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba just a bit to allow visits by student, cultural and religious groups. His order also expanded the number of U.S. cities that can host charter flights to the island.
"Now everyone can come," Fernandez said with a broad grin.
Not quite. The United States still enforces a trade embargo on Cuba that extends to tourism, and a gulf broader than the Straits of Florida separates the Cuban expatriate community from their relatives to the south.
But for those who fit into a category recognized by the U.S. Treasury Department, the rewards of travel here can be many.
This is an island of great beauty with a city that ranks among the most vibrant and diverse in the world.
Getting there I went to Havana with a literary group led by Tucson author Tom Miller, under a general license for professional research according to Treasury Department guidelines. In addition to writing about the Southwest, Latin America and all things baseball, Miller has been visiting Cuba since 1987 and written books and articles for Smithsonian, Life and Natural History magazines and the Washington Post.
Our Gulfstream Charters flight was a reminder of just how close Cuba is, touching down at Jose Marti International Airport less than 45 minutes after leaving Miami.
An even shorter trip aboard a gleaming Chinese-built tour bus ended at the Hotel Presidente in Havana's Vedado district. The Presidente was built in the area's 1920s heyday and has been beautifully restored. Antiques are placed throughout the marble-floored lobby, and a small bar and Internet cafe stay open 24 hours a day. Internet service is slow but fairly reliable, which is more than is available to the average Cuban.
The hotel is on the broad Avenida de los Presidentes, which features a wide, landscaped median and a quick lesson in Cuban history. Scattered along its length are statues of Cuban presidents going back to the first, Tomas Estrada Palma (1902-06).
Miller pointed out that the Estrada Palma statue has not fared well. All that is left is a pair of bronze shoes. Among the things Estrada Palma is remembered for is a long-term lease he signed with the U.S. for a little patch of ground off Guantanamo Bay. The idea never sat well with the authors of the 1958 Cuban revolution, and the Estrada Palma statue paid the price from the ankles up.
But in general, the Vedado is a fairly quiet neighborhood. Tree-lined streets are mostly residential, and the pace is fairly slow.
Music and Santeria
That's not to say Havana has shed its raucous past. Dance clubs dot the city, many with live music or shows advertised on handbills posted in shop windows.
One night, we ended up in a club inside the cavernous Teatro National de Cuba, listening to an Afro-Cuban group that played for 20 minutes before I realized there wasn't a single tonal instrument. It was all percussion and voice. Periodically, the dancers would part and four costumed performers representing spirits of the Santeria religion took a turn on the floor, working their way in and out of the crowd, tossing candy or scolding onlookers about some imagined flaw in their character.
At one point, Oggun, the spirit of war, pulled the stub of a lit cigar into his mouth, somersaulted across the floor with a machete and jumped back up, once more puffing away. The cost of the show? Five dollars.
Syncretic religions, which meld aspects of various beliefs, permeate the island. In the busier sections of Havana, we often saw women dressed head to toe in white, initiates of Santeria or one of its variations. A museum in Guanabacoa, east of Havana, offers explanations of the various sects that meld or co-exist with Catholicism.
For a more eclectic view of syncretic religions, Miller took us to meet an old friend, the artist Salvador Gonzales, who has turned a former alleyway called Callejon de Hamel on the far east side of Vedado into a quirky art project that aggregates objects such as bathtubs, engine parts and discarded industrial hardware into a color riot of Santeria-infused displays. A stunning mural the length of the alley is Gonzales' handiwork, and he has become famous because of it.
For the more sedate, there is the 5-mile-long Malecón seawall, which is the epicenter of low-cost social life in Havana. On sunny days, families stroll along the walkway, fishermen sit atop the low wall or stand on the rocks below, joggers run past and young couples embrace. When the sea is up, the adventurous dodge the crashing waves, which can spray 20 feet into the air and across the walkway. The Malecón has to be one of the biggest entertainment values on the island.
Another stop was the Museo Hemingway, one of the main reasons for my being in Havana. It goes back to my junior-high English teacher, Mr. Robinson, who was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway and had an autographed bullfight ticket to prove it. He regaled us with stories about the great man's life and works, and I've been hooked ever since.
Hemingway visited or lived in Cuba off and on from the 1930s to 1960, and his former home, Finca Vigia, is now a museum. The home was built in the 1880s and occupies 15 acres on a hill about 10 miles southeast of Havana. Hemingway donated the house and grounds to the Cuban people when he left, and they have preserved everything just as it was.
The original furnishings, mounted game heads from African safaris, the typewriter he stood at when he wrote, even notations in pencil on the bathroom wall from when "Papa" was trying to lose weight are meticulously maintained.
A tower off the main house holds another writing room with a spectacular view of the city, hence Finca Vigia, or (roughly) Lookout Estate. Visitors aren't allowed inside the home, but one can easily peer through the open doors and windows for good views of the airy interior.
We walked the grounds, gazed into the huge, empty swimming pool (Miller said the actress Ava Gardner once swam there in the buff) and scoped out Hemingway's beloved fishing boat, Pilar, which was towed here for display under a large roof.
Hemingway's Cadillac convertible recently was acquired and sits under a tarp, awaiting restoration.
Our group spent a week in Havana, but my friend, photographer P.K. Weis, and I thought seven days wasn't nearly enough. We had arranged to stay five extra days. We said our goodbyes, grabbed a taxi and headed for Old Havana and the casa particular, or guesthouse, of Tony Fernandez, where we watched President Obama's announcement.
We explored our frenetic new neighborhood, filled with shops, music, cops on the beat, and people going about their daily lives. We crossed Parque Central, with its statue of Jose Marti, the great writer for Latin American independence, and passed the knot of baseball fans who gather almost every day to argue about the latest game, compare stats or make their case for the greatest player of all time. Cubans call it la esquina caliente, the hot corner. It's the island's answer to sports-talk radio.
From Parque Central, the streets radiate like spokes to Havana Harbor. My favorite route took us down Calle Obispo, which is closed to automobile traffic, and past El Floridita, the lounge where Hemingway passed the time drinking daiquiris with his pals. There's a bronze statue of Papa at the end of the bar where grinning tourists can drape an arm over his shoulder for a photo. (I took my turn.)
A few blocks farther we passed the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway stayed before he wound up at Finca Vigia. His room (number 511) is preserved as a tiny museum. For a few pesos, visitors can check out some of his belongings and listen to a brief talk about his stay there. The hotel also has a rooftop restaurant with good food and spectacular views. A few blocks more and the street opens onto Plaza de Armas, Havana's oldest square, with its Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest Spanish forts in the Americas.
The middle of the plaza is ringed with heavily shopped used-book stalls run by vendors who seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Latin American titles and authors. Most of the books are in Spanish, but with little prompting they'll produce a few wonderfully musty English-language titles on Hemingway or the history of the mob in Havana.
In the plazas
Four blocks south is Plaza San Francisco de Asis, which was a thriving wharf and market when Spanish galleons were shuttling between Spain and the New World. It has a cobblestone square and the marble Fountain of Lions.
Plaza San Francisco also boasts a great place to eat and a lesson on the Cuban economy. Dining can be expensive in Havana.
Fine restaurants catering to tourists charge $30 or more for entrees. Plaza San Francisco has Cafe del Oriente, which offers an excellent menu with fancy prices to match. Walk around the corner, though, and you'll find Jardin del Oriente, the cafe's lush garden patio where you can eat the catch of the day or tasty marinated beef with rice and vegetables for $3. Not surprisingly, the clientele is decidedly more Cuban than in the pricey establishments.
This is by design, because Cuba relies heavily on tourist dollars. Not that long ago, Cubans were prohibited from entering tourist establishments in order to make room for foreign visitors and their hard currency. That seems to be less the case now, but given the average Cuban salary of $20 a month (plus whatever cash they can earn on the side), Cubans aren't exactly flocking to pay foreign prices.
Paladares, or small, home-based restaurants, are another option. The food is often good, but menus can be limited and advertising is by word of mouth.
A couple of blocks southwest of Plaza de Armas is the beautifully restored Plaza Vieja. Busloads of French, German, Canadian, Danish and Chinese tourists swarm the plaza, getting their pictures taken with the brightly dressed Carmen Miranda look-alikes who wait near the entrances. (One to 5 pesos for a photo, depending on your bargaining prowess.)
Vieja is ringed with shops, a microbrewery/restaurant, an espresso bar, photo museum, planetarium, art gallery and church.
Angela Landa Elementary School also is on the plaza, and one morning we watched kids race around cones and play soccer during recess.
Off the main avenue
On a stroll down a side street, I glanced into a doorway and saw three dachshunds dressed in shirts, hats, glasses and wristwatches, and looking very bored. Their owner was friendly and, in spite of my tortured Spanish, I learned that the dogs were mother, father and son and that one reason dachshunds are popular in Cuba is that they don't eat much. This was especially important after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when aid from that country to Cuba ground to a halt and many people barely had enough to eat, let alone feed their pets.
Just as P.K. prepared to take a picture, the owner made a subtle gesture and the three dogs snapped to attention. A photo cost a peso, one of the best I spent.
A few days later, on Calle Obispo, a small mutt dressed in a straw hat and little blue baseball shirt made his way through the crowd with no evidence that his owner was nearby. P.K. dodged other pedestrians as he tried to get a photo. A stranger whistled at the dog to stop. P.K. got his shot, the dog continued on his way and the stranger nodded a friendly "You're welcome" before disappearing into the throng. It was one of the many small kindnesses we were shown.
Cops are seemingly everywhere, and I never felt unsafe, although, as always, common sense is required.We could have stayed another month. The Partagas cigar factory three blocks from our room was closed for vacation. The lush plantation land around Pinar del Rio beckoned, and we had to leave Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city, unexplored.
I may have to save all those explorations for a time when "everyone can come." In the meantime, thanks, Mr. Robinson, wherever you are.