A seasoned Cuba visitor continues to marvel at Cuba‘s growing pains
By Carter Hammett
I swear: that car was held together with scotch tape and rubber bands.
We’re squashed into the back seat of some old jalopy swerving like a pack of drunken sailors while trying to avoid potholes from Hell on route to San Francisco de Paula. Our tour guide Felix, so far has been a charming wreck of a host, bombarding us with stories of what writer Ernest Hemingway meant to Cuba. A part time resident for the better part of two decades, Papa, as he was fondly known, wrote some of his classics, including The Old Man and The Sea and A Moveable Feast while living just outside Havana.
Hemingway’s Havana home for 21 years, Finca Vigía is preserved as a museum. The novelist’s house, writing tower, pool and beloved boat Pilar can be seen in the fragrant gardens. It’s too bad you can’t actually enter the home, but I’m grateful we can see virtually all the rooms of the ground floor residence. We’re told “Papa” would be ostensibly writing in his tower adjacent to the house, but in fact was watching guests like actress Rita Hayworth frolicking naked in the pool through a strategically-placed telescope ensconced in his writing quarters. That’s just one of the tales you’ll hear about the writer’s dubious hosting skills.
2019 marks the 500th anniversary of Cuba’s capital and the city has pulled out all the stops within its means in the hopes of attracting 5 million visitors during this important milestone year. With an expansion of luxury hotels at competitive prices, an infusion of public art on apparently every corner and a commitment to restore its crumbling infrastructure to its former days of glory, Cuba is experiencing a tourist boom. Tourism has seen a sharp increase throughout the past decade and shows no signs of slowing down. Resorts will vary in quality and price but for a change of pace we decide to take in the vibrancy of Havana.
This is my third trip to Cuba and each journey has been decidedly different. A decade ago, a few CUCs discreetly slipped into a server’s hand would connect you to a paladar, which were illegally-run restaurants operating out of people’s homes. You could bring a few coloring books for the kids and indulge in some of the world’s sweetest rock lobster under the watchful painted eye of a Castro portrait, while chickens scurried through the living room.
But slowly the city is waking up and apparently discovering new possibilities and tapping into tourism as a means of resuscitating a city whose glory days ended 50 years ago. Here, history is being used as the framework for stepping into the future. Witness the rebirth of the famous pedestrian boulevard Paseo del Prado, an eight-block promenade lined with trees and sculptures, and recently, the host of Chanel fashion shows. It’s a marvellous snapshot of Cuban life humming with families at rest and artists at work.
There’s a new generation making an impact and pushing the envelope as Havana struggles to move into the present while acknowledging its colonized past. Part of this is embodied in the swinging and labyrinthine dance bar/resto/art gallery and former factory Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC). Featuring up- and-coming artists like Ronald Vill and Onay Rosquet, the place is a sprawling repository of challenging, funky art that maybe offers an inkling of what’s to come as the old guard starts finally realizing that it’s been, well, the old guard for a long time now. The march of change is inevitable and it seems the powers that be are finally starting to realize that.
FAC is also a short walk from our hotel, which is situated along the “world’s longest park bench” El Malecon. Here, you’ll see a microcosm of Havana life compressed into the seven kilometre stroll, which winds up in Vedado. Here, fishers put balloons on the end of their fishing rods to prevent their catch from diving too deep; couples canoodle on the seemingly endless sea wall, strolling musicians entertain with upside down hats before them. All this and some of the most breathtaking sunsets you’ll ever see.
But keep in mind, this is Cuba after all. That means things break. That means that things are done differently here. You just have to take it in stride, sometimes take a deep breath and dontcha even think about packing expectations in your carry-on. So what if the key card doesn’t work, or the toilet breaks or they forgot towels again? Once reported to the proper people the situation gets fixed and expediently. So what if a server—in our hotel no less—informs us that he is unable to serve us a pina colada, “due to a trade embargo by the US against Cuba.” We wander across the hall to another bar disappointed, and ask for the same drink only to have it readily appear at our table. (It’s delicious.) So what if the tour coordinator is out of the office and you have absolutely no idea when she’ll be back (neither does anyone else, apparently) rest assured, she’ll get back to you. When our Hemingway tour’s booked, she’s apparently neglected to mention a few details about certain um, “cultural expectations” that we’ll experience later.
Our last stop on our Hemingway tour is The Guajarito a second floor in a rambling former hotel that doubles as a nightclub. Apparently though we failed to get the memo. Not only does our tour guide invite himself to join us—no problem there, the tour’s been mostly great so far—he expects us to pay for him as well! Well, that got awkward fast. Quickly though I’m reminded that the ability to travel comes from a privileged place. Many Cubans often work two-or-three jobs just to get by. While I ain’t crazy about the methodology I pony up for lunch, after much embarrassment as I’ve only brought enough CUCs to pay for myself and my travelling companion. Lunch is good—we’ve been greatly surprised by how the good food has been this trip. Cuba’s not exactly famous for its cuisine, but scores nearly perfect marks throughout. Felix explains our rather awkward situation to the pleasant and patient server and before long, salads and bread mysteriously appear at our table in addition to our mains. So even though I’ve only been able to afford two, somehow three people manage to leave the resto, bellies full and at least one wallet empty.
We’re dropped off at our hotel on the Malecon and wave as the car burps and farts its way down a side street. It’s just another reminder that no matter how surreal things appear at times, Havana, with its storied history on winding streets and tales in hidden passageways, is truly alive in this very moment, as it is the next and the next and the next moment after that one.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Iberostar Riviera, S/N Malecon Y Paseo, Havana
One thing to remember in Cuba: things break. So what if your key card doesn’t work, or the toilet breaks down or the safe won’t close properly? The staff are on top of things immediately, the beds are comfy and the poolside is terrific. Breakfast is served in a fair-to-middling basement resto with mediocre food and entertaining staff. Leave your expectations at the door and just let yourself be open to whatever happens to unfold. Rest assured, things will sort themselves out. Hot tip: spare yourself the harassment of being bombarded by cabs. Let the front door people handle that for you. Trust me, you’ve been warned.
WHERE TO EAT
El Coclnero, Calle 26, La Habana, Cuba
Happening roof top patio/bar with inventive if somewhat pricy, menu.
Esquina, Calle Cuba #203 /
Great little Italian place with friendly service, casual atmosphere, and satisfying mains…be sure to try their pesto pasta!
WHERE TO GO
Fabrica De Arte Cubano (FAC)
La Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an art gallery/roof top patio/dance bar/resto. The Fábrica’s gallery and stage were established inside of a former cooking oil factory, and has since gained notoriety as one of Havana’s premier nightclubs and art galas Get there early! We went on a Sunday afternoon before the place started buzzing and got to enjoy progressive art shows from up and coming Cuban artists as well as marvel at the awesome dance bar adorned with old music magazine covers from the 1970s. Joni Mitchell in Cuba? Si!