If travel restrictions to Cuba end, what will Americans find in Havana?

Spud Hilton
San Francisco Chronicle

Havana, Cuba — Every last bit of Havana — Cuba’s roiling, spicy, sensual, celebrated capital — is laid out before me.

Well, sort of.

The windows at the top of the 358-foot-tall Jose Marti Memorial Museum tower are a View-Master wheel (or Flickr site) of “Cuba Highlights”: the seven-story brooding face of Che Guevara; the mobster hotels of the 1950s; Havana Vieja’s 19th-century Spanish architecture; the vividly colored, smoke-belching Caddies and Buicks from President Dwight Eisenhower’s era; and even the waterfront Malecon, where Cubanos do social networking the original way — with actual faces and books.

What I can’t seem to locate, no matter which direction I search, is the Axis of Evil.

It should be here somewhere. Despite having almost every kind of attraction travelers want — from postcard beaches to ancient cathedrals to rain-forest adventure — Cuba has been forbidden fruit to U.S. citizens for half a century because it is so, well, evil.

So my plan is to spend five days in and around Havana, sifting the past and the present for answers about the future, especially in the wake of recent moves toward lifting U.S. travel restrictions. Are mainstream U.S. tourists ready for Cuba? Will a few million more visitors corrupt the vibrant, authentic culture in one of the last places on Earth without a McDonald’s or a Starbucks? Will Fidel Castro’s coffin be cylindrical to allow for easier spinning?

The rest of my plan is to experience a sneak preview, the travel version of theatrical coming attractions, on the chance that the micro-Cold War will finally thaw — but also to get a glimpse of the real thing, just in case it all turns into Cancun 2.0.

Cuba is deceptively big. The largest of the Greater Antilles, it is 766 miles end to end. With just five days, including departure and arrival, I confined my plans to Havana – which is also big, but there’s nothing deceptive about that. While the neighborhoods are generally walkable, the city of 2.2 million residents sprawls for miles.

Having had no objective education in Cuban history, I opted for a crash course at the ornate three-story presidential palace, a sprawling marble manse that now serves as the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution). Room after room full of newspaper accounts, photographs and artifacts (including Castro’s pants and a gadget for pulling fingernails) chronicle the island’s geology, history and culture, from the first indigenous folks (pretty much extinct, courtesy of Columbus) through current times.

The 1959 revolution that ousted President Fulgencio Batista (and Yankee imperialism, according to a few of the displays) is a major focus here, including the comical Corner of the Cretins (unflattering caricatures of presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan); a creepy life-size diorama of Che Guevara climbing out of the jungle; and the Granma, the small yacht Castro used to return to Cuba from exile (and which started to sink and had to be grounded).

The boat lies “in state” in a barn-size glass coffin behind the museum. China has Mao, Russia has Lenin, but Cuba still has no one for crowds to stream past. For now, a boat is it.

On the way out, I hit the gift shop full of T-shirts, bandannas, fans, boxes – all bearing Guevara’s bearded mug – and bought five keychains, unsure if they would make it past U.S. Customs in Miami. (They did.)

Touting

Havana’s highlights

After leaving the museum and spending the afternoon at the Plaza de la Revolucion and the Jose Marti museum, I caught a ride to the Vedado district via Coco Taxi, a three-wheel scooter that is the unholy love child of a pitcher’s bullpen cart and a can of frozen orange juice concentrate. Possibly fearing I might get lonely, the driver picked up his cousin to ride along in the tiny ball-shaped vehicle for 20 blocks or so.

The Vedado is a tree-lined district west of Centro Havana that includes part of the Malecon and most of the former mobster properties. It was along La Rampa (23rd Street), a bustling boulevard thick with restaurants and nightclubs, that I met The Guy.

Cuba has been open to foreign tourism since 1980 and (after Soviet bloc tourism dried up) has been relying on a few million Europeans, Australians, Canadians and South Americans.

As tourism grows, so does the army of jiniteros, touts on every corner offering Cuban cigars, bookings at guesthouses, guide services, introductions to chicas and, in some cases, “boyfriend services” for single women. (Because the convertible peso that tourists use is 24 times the value of the national peso, anyone making tips is earning more than doctors and lawyers.)

The Guy (his real name is not important), a skinny 20-ish man with ties seemingly everywhere, was drumming up business for a nearby bar, and because he spoke English (and because I needed a restroom), I offered to buy him a drink.

“A lot of people think Cuba is a tough regime like North Korea. It’s nothing like that,” The Guy told me over his second Cuba Libre on my tab. I asked him about the prospect of President Obama lifting the ban on travel to Cuba. “Every time there is a new administration, they come with the promise of change. We are still waiting,” he said, draining the rum and Coke. “We don’t believe in promises. We believe in facts.”

We agreed to meet the next day so he could show me Havana’s highlights, including a few not on the tourist trail.

Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is a long-lost sibling to the French Quarter in New Orleans, only with bigger cathedrals, idyllic European plazas and half a dozen bars that thrive on the fact that Ernest Hemingway drank there. The Guy took me through each of the Spanish plazas, up the rapidly gentrifying Calle Obispo shopping row, and to Hemingway hangout Bodeguita del Medio, where the bartender keeps 40 highball glasses filled with ice and mint to meet tourist demand for the author’s mojito.

Online travel agency - particularcuba.com

Online travel agency - particularcuba.com

Checking out

the beaches

It probably wouldn’t occur to most people to attempt the game spin the bottle while waist deep in the ocean, but the group of young Cubans on Playa El Migano seemed to have it mastered. (The secret: Use a rum bottle and drink two-thirds of it first so it floats.)

El Migano is the west end of a 31-mile stretch of white sand beaches known as Playas del Este (Eastern Beaches), just 25 minutes from downtown Havana. Not reserved just for rich tourists, the Playas attract as many Cubans as foreigners.

The same is not true, however, farther east in Varadero, Cuba’s answer to Cancun, a stretch of pencil-thin peninsula with flawless beaches and more than 60 hotels, most of them all-inclusive resorts. About one-third of all tourists stay in Varadero.

On the public-access Playa El Migano, large families arrived with cooking pots full of lunch (rice, beans, fish, and soup). The children old enough to walk heaved themselves into the mouthwash-colored water repeatedly, as if practicing for a Cirque du Soleil show, likely the best cure for Havana’s sticky heat and smoke.

At a nearby beach cafe that was barely more than a palm-thatch roof, posts and a tiny bar, the legs of my chair sank into the powdery sand. By the time I settled in, a sweating Cerveza Cristal was on the table, and shrimp and Caribbean sweet potatoes were on the way.

Trying to refine and package the Caribbean takes away its soul. When the travel ban ends, how many of the American tourists will end up here, I wondered, and how many will opt for Varadero’s all-inclusives? Fifty years seems like a long time to wait just to spend time on a beach that could be Grand Cayman or Jamaica.

Ice cream

worth the wait

There is a sensuality that comes when you mix heat and nighttime that has always been a part of the Caribbean and Cuba. To see Havana only in sunlight is akin to seeing half the Mona Lisa or the Grand Canyon from one lookout.

The observation came to me while standing in a restaurant-turned-nightclub packed beyond fire codes (if there were any) with teens and 20-ish Cubanos writhing and grinding to the thumping Reggaeton, a modern take on Latin Caribbean beat.

It didn’t fit my original image of communist Cuba – then again, I was looking at a second and third generation removed from the Revolution, or even the Soviet era. The icons of excess – including the Havana Libre hotel towering over the club that had been the celebrated Havana Hilton – have little significance among the young.

Farther down La Rampa, and deeper in tradition, is the Heladaria Coppelia, where on Sunday nights Disneylike lines flow from each of the four entrances of the motel-size ice cream palace, each line with at least 100 people waiting for cones and dishes of Caribbean-infused desserts.

I couldn’t picture U.S. travelers in the lines – most would see them as an inconvenience instead of a social experience, a cheap diversion for a population with little wealth and fewer frills. Also, maybe, it’s really good ice cream.

Trapped

by an embargo

There was a 10-minute gap between the moment I realized my money was gone (maybe dropped on the crowded bus, maybe borrowed) and the moment it hit me that I couldn’t leave the country. I had set aside cash to cover incidentals at the hotel, the taxi to the airport and the $25 fee for leaving the country, and was now about $20 short. My pocket full of credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks (useless in Cuba because of the U.S. embargo) were inert slices of plastic mocking me.

It turns out that the only way to get money in Cuba involves transferring funds through Western Union to an agency in Washington, D.C., which then allows the U.S. Interests Office in Vedado (the closest thing to a U.S. embassy in Cuba) to give it to you.

(It helps to have a wonderful wife who’s willing to bail you out.)

In many ways, Havana may be too authentic for mainstream American tourism – a little too gritty and rough around the edges for some, not cheap enough for others and with not enough spoken English, good restaurants or toilet paper for everyone else. Evil? No. Is it ready? Yes. Are we ready? Maybe, but only when they take American Express.

The Cuban people, it should be noted, do not match the rhetoric in the museum or on the news. I was welcomed at every turn, and urged to return – soon.

Those who cherish the authenticity need not panic: Cuba is a force that didn’t evolve overnight – both good and bad – and it’s unlikely its flavor, its culture or its history will disappear any faster. It is, after all, the Caribbean, and nothing moves very fast.

Hilton visited Cuba legally as a journalist, but traveled anonymously.

www.particularcuba.com – Online travel agency in Cuba

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Particular Cuba organizes travel to Cuba. Hotel booking, car rental, package tours, excursions, flights to Cuba.

One Response to If travel restrictions to Cuba end, what will Americans find in Havana?

  1. Pingback: Veneto nationalism » Wikileaks

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