HAVANA, CUBA — Every last bit of Havana — Cuba’s roiling, spicy, sensual, celebrated capital — is laid out before me.
The windows at the top of the 358-foot José Martí 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; Habana Vieja’s 19th-century Spanish architecture; the vividly colored, smoke-belching Caddies and Buicks from Eisenhower’s era; and even the waterfront Malecón, 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 Cancún 2.0.
Getting an education
Cuba is deceptively big. The largest of the Greater Antilles, it is 766 miles end to end, roughly the flying distance from Beaumont to El Paso. With just five days, including departure and arrival, I confined my plans to Havana, a city of 2.2 million.
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 Revolución (Museum of the Revolution). Room after room full of newspaper accounts, photographs and artifacts (including Fidel Castro’s pants and a gadget for pulling fingernails) chronicle the island’s geology, history and culture.
The 1959 revolution that ousted President Fulgencio Batista (and Yankee imperialism, according to a few of the displays) is a major focus, including the comical Corner of the Cretins (unflattering caricatures of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan); a creepy life-size diorama of Che climbing out of the jungle; and the Granma, the small yacht Castro used to return to Cuba from exile.
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 key chains, 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 Revolución and the José Martí 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.
The Vedado is a tree-lined district that includes part of the Malecón 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, Aussies, Canadians and South Americans.
As tourism grows, so does the army of touts on every corner offering Cuban cigars, bookings at guest houses, 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, a skinny 20-ish man, was drumming up business for a nearby bar, and because he spoke English (and because I needed a bathroom), 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 (the rum-and-Coke cocktail renamed cuba libre by Cuban-Americans ) on my tab.
We agreed to meet the next day so he could show me Havana’s highlights, including a few not on the tourist trail.
Habana 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.
Playas of the people
It probably wouldn’t occur to most people to attempt Spin the Bottle while waist deep in the ocean, but the group of young Cubans on Playa El Mégano seemed to have it mastered. (The secret: Use a rum bottle and drink two-thirds of it first so it floats.)
El Mégano 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 for rich tourists, the beaches attract as many Cubans as foreigners.
The same is not true, however, farther east in Varadero, Cuba’s answer to Cancún, a stretch of pencil-thin peninsula with flawless beaches and more than 60 hotels, most of them all-inclusive resorts. About a third of all tourists stay in Varadero.
On the public-access Playa El Mégano, large families arrived with cooking pots full of lunch (rice, beans, fish, rice, soup, beans and, for good measure, beans and rice). 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, I considered while watching the waves, takes away its soul. When the travel ban falls, how many of the American tourists will end up here, I wondered, and how many will opt for Varadero’s all-inclusives?
In many ways, Havana today 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 fast.