Ever since the diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba began in 2014, Americans have been pouring into the Caribbean nation that lies only 90 miles south of Key West. President and Mrs. Obama are scheduled to make their first official visit later this month.
Recreational tourism remains illegal for Americans under the trade embargo of 1960, but the U.S. Treasury Department now permits exceptions for certified cross-cultural, professional, and educational travel. Americans are responding in droves; according to the U.S. Embassy, the number of authorized visitors to Cuba jumped 50 percent last year. Soon more will be coming, by boat (Carnival is poised to start cultural cruises in May) and by plane (regularly scheduled flights from the U.S. are planned for the fall.) Contributing writer Lynn Langway recently decided it was time to return to Havana, a city that enchanted her as a child, to see how much it had changed.
The last time I saw Havana, it was January 1, 1959, and Fidel Castro’s triumphant rebels were marching in to take charge.
From the deck of our cruise ship anchored in the harbor, we watched spellbound as distant figures in fatigues marked their victory by firing their guns into the air. We were, the captain told us over the loudspeaker, unable to reach land due to the revolution that had overrun the capital that day. Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled, and Commandante Castro was now truly in command. We would leave as soon as possible.
Everyone cheered—except for an unruly cadre of gamblers who were convinced that Havana’s notorious casinos would still be open. The high rollers wouldn’t back down until the captain relented, made them sign a waiver, and sent them ashore in a small boat. About 40 minutes later, they were back, somewhat abashed, and we all steamed out of there.
It was a dramatic farewell to a seductive place that had long been my family’s favorite port of call. Dad liked the cigars, Mom loved the daiquiris, they both loved to rumba, and I craved the coconut ice cream. Last summer, when the U.S. Embassy opened, I knew I had to go back. Although my husband and I normally prefer independent travel, we realized it would be much easier to take a guided tour during this transitional period.
From an ever-expanding roster of choices, we picked a four-day “Weekend in Havana” with InsightCuba, a licensed operator that has been bringing Americans on people-to-people trips to Cuba since 2000. The trip was relatively affordable, the itinerary was packed with appealing stops at art studios, farmers markets, and the new wave of private restaurants, and we figured we could follow orders for that long.
The minute our chartered flight landed at frenetic Jose Marti International Airport we were delighted to confirm that at least one aspect of Havana had not changed: the cars. Bright, boat-like American dream mobiles from the 1950s lined the curb, buffed to perfection and working as taxis. My spouse, who writes an online car column, darted blissfully among the vintage vehicles, shouting “1949 Ford!”, “54 Buick!”, “’56 Chevy!” as he went. Later, on a guided walkabout of Old Havana, I found the cobblestoned main streets and squares as vibrant as ever—if more thronged with tourists—thanks to painstaking restoration. (Tenements along the side streets are often shabbier.) The ice cream also seemed as rich as I remembered, though I never did track down coconut.
Yet Havana is scarcely frozen in the fifties. After decades of Castro and communism, many Cubans say their society is far more egalitarian than it was when Big Sugar and the Mob were calling the shots. Government healthcare and education through college or professional school are free for all, many prices are regulated, and food and housing are subsidized for the needy. Still, even loyalists admit that civil liberties such as freedom of the press and free speech remain limited. Same-sex relationships are no longer illegal, but intolerance persists, especially in the countryside. Cuba remains a one-party state, with power officially transferred from an ailing Fidel to his younger brother, Raul, in 2008.
Because the U. S. government insists that travelers devote most of their time here to “planned educational activities,” our daily schedule included four or five required stops. But this turned out to be no hardship on our air-conditioned bus, occupied by a lively gang of 25 who ranged from their 30s to a very fit 83. Led by two engaging guides—one employed by the Cuban government, and one by the tour company—we checked off many of the most celebrated sights, including a cigar factory, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway often stayed, and one (among many) of his favorite bars.
But we also ventured off the tourist circuit. At Callejon de Hamel, an “artistic alley,” we met community activists who have transformed a slum neighborhood into a center of street art inspired by Santeria, the enduring blend of West African and Roman Catholic traditions.
Our late afternoons and evenings were free, and we explored on foot and by cab. We strolled the Malecon, the seawall that serves as Havana’s front porch, to the landmark Hotel Nacional, where mobster Meyer Lansky ran the casino. Wandering some of the drab back streets to the Museum of the Revolucion, in the bullet-pocked former Presidential Palace, we found a rare display of anti-Americanism, a mural caricaturing Presidents Reagan, George H.W. and George W. Bush that had been discreetly tucked into a back corridor.
Restrictions on private property have been relaxed here since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner. But the subsequent explosion of entrepreneurship has created new economic inequities. Under the current dual currency system, those who sell goods and services to foreigners can earn valuable convertible currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, which is not readily available to the vast majority of Cubans on government payrolls. (Americans can take home $100 worth of rum and cigars as part of their $400 allowance.)
Artists and musicians are among the most prosperous citizens, since they’re free to tour and earn abroad. Some are reinvesting in their neighborhoods, transforming crumbling Beaux Arts mansions and art deco homes into sleek studios. We were dazzled by two we visited in outlying sections of the city. In a strikingly updated ’60s house surrounded by tropical gardens, Beatriz Santacana displayed her vivid paintings and ceramics; a colorful tile cost about $12. The acclaimed artist Sandra Ramos, whose mixed-media works appear in major American museums, showcases her edgy depictions of Cuban life in a sophisticated but welcoming studio-gallery; small prints start at $1,500.
As always, Havana pulses with music. We were serenaded by countless renditions of the anthemic folk song “Guantanamera”, by salsa pounding from boomboxes Friday night along the Malecon, and by cool progressive jazz riffed by young graduates of the state-run music school. But most transporting for us, devoted fans of the famed Buena Vista Social Club, was the traditional Cuban song performed by veteran musicians in a cavernous nightclub; fueled by a few mojitos, we joined a merry multinational conga line around the joint.
The thriving crop of paladares—restaurants opened in private homes since the late ‘90s—provides a happy alternative to the overcooked fare dished up at some state-run places. The hip hangout El Cocinero serves inventive tapas in a renovated peanut oil factory; we savored the spicy crab and sweet potato soufflés and the succulent seafood brochette, loaded with crawfish, in the rooftop lounge where pop star Katy Perry reportedly dined.
At StarBien, housed in an Art Deco mansion, the food was as stylish as the art; our perfectly-grilled and cumin-seasoned swordfish was accented by ribbons of golden plantains and chunks of scarlet tomato. Be forewarned: many paladares are small, and so popular that weekend reservations are essential.
We stayed at the five-star Melia Cohiba, built in 1995 beside the Malecon as the first new hotel with foreign investors, which is now aging gracefully. Other older lodgings may lack basics such as toilet seats or toilet paper. Demand has surged so quickly that the tourism industry is struggling to keep up. Credit card terminals and cell phones rarely function, and many buildings are without wheelchair ramps or elevators. Hotels often fill to capacity, and although Airbnb is racing to close the gaps, Cubans are also seeking foreign backing to build a new generation of hotels.
Balancing capitalism and communism can be tricky, though, as demonstrated by the overdevelopment that now threatens some of the most beautiful places in Communist-led Vietnam. Whether Cuba can maintain its special charms despite the pressures of expansion remains to be seen. As the country continues to cope with growing pains, the best advice for Americans may be to get there soon, before we ruin it. Or, as Peter Greenberg says: BKFC, Before Kentucky Fried Chicken moves in.
To read more destination articles by Lynn Langway, check out:
- Finding Your Own Southeast Asia
- Five Birding Hotspots & 7 Tips for Fledgling Birders
- Exploring Ireland’s Wild West: Galway, Connemara and Inis Mór
Text and Images by Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com