Cuban adventure: A land old, new, and changing

October 2017 Posted in People, Travel

By Steve Ritchie

It was 9 a.m. on a Monday morning in early February. We were God knows where, bouncing around the pot-holed back roads of Cuba in the second rear seat of a 1948 Plymouth sedan packed with nine people and all our bags.

Needless to say, this was no tour group.

The older, long-haired Frenchman in front of me was drinking rum and coke, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, and treating all of us to his renditions of ‘70s rock anthems. Coming off a bout of food poisoning, I was struggling to keep my equilibrium. His singing was not helping.

Finishing up Here I Am, On the Road Again, he turned around and gave me a toothy, lopsided grin.

“It’s your lucky day, my friend,” he shouted over the considerable din of the ancient engine. “You have beautiful women on both sides,” referring to my wife, Susan, on my left and the young Danish woman on my right.

“Have some rum!” he laughed in an absurdly debauched voice, as I turned a whiter shade of pale. “And do you know the difference between a snow man and a snow woman?”

About this time, I started to ponder something else – not the answer to his riddle, but how exactly it was I ended up in this 69-year-old car with these colorful fellow passengers.

A year ago, we were in Quepos, Costa Rica, and ducked into a tiny expat bar to get out of the rain. Wacky Wanda’s offered a remarkable cast of off-beat characters, including the extreme right-wing owner/bartender, who had plastered framed pictures of conservative politicians all over the walls, as well as, oddly enough, several photos of Fidel Castro.

In between dancing the rumba and monitoring shouting matches involving hostile patrons, I struck up a conversation with Rob, an American expat who had considerable business interests locally. One of his businesses was setting up Cuban home-stays for travelers. Susan and I had long wanted to visit Cuba so I was all ears on that topic. With the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. this seemed like the perfect time to go.

Returning home we began researching the trip and discovered that on Jan. 1, 2017, Alaska Airlines would begin daily, non-stop service from Los Angeles to Havana. We booked round-trip tickets from Portland for under $500 per person. Our Casa Particular (the Cuban version of AirBNB, which also now operates in the country) in Havana would cost us $35 per night, we learned. Talk about an un-pricey trip to an exotic location!
We were thrilled.

Havana, a historic city of two million residents, is the showcase for Cuba’s  gradual transition from a hard-core Marxist state with an anemic economy to a more contemporary society with greater economic freedom and opportunities. With its thousands of ‘50s era American cars cruising around and its stunning colonial architecture, Havana has been described as a “living car museum” and as “frozen in time.”

That sense of a time warp is real, but like an aging actress of great beauty, Havana is taking on a new role to play, one that highlights its fascinating past while beginning to embrace an exciting but uncertain future.

One night during our week in Havana, we went to a popular night spot that gave us a glimpse of how things are changing for Cubans. Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a kind of fusion of an arts and cultural center and a nightclub, something you might expect to find in Berlin or London.

Housed in a former cooking oil factory in an aging, industrial part of the city, we found several live music stages, various cocktail bars and food vendors, visual art exhibitions, multi-media projects and fashion shows. There were hundreds of people enjoying the scene until the wee hours on the week night we were there.

Havana ranks in my list of great cities for walking. Near-perfect weather, very little crime, friendly people, and a constant collage of visual treats make Havana a great place for walkers. Signage is spotty, but residents are usually willing to point you in the right direction.

Habana Vieja (Old Havana), with its large, romantic plazas and tourist-friendly narrow cobblestone streets, is a must-see for any traveler. As I stood on the edge of the Plaza de Armas, where the city was founded in 1519, looking out to

Havana Bay, I could easily picture Spanish galleons sailing into the harbor. It is that kind of special place where the distant past readily comes into focus.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Havana boasts nearly 1,000 buildings of historical significance, many of which have been meticulously restored. The predominantly neoclassical and baroque architecture, with art deco touches everywhere, is a pleasing eclectic mix.

The restoration of Old Havana has taken place largely through the use of a tourism fund which gets a large share of the profits from state-run, previously-restored restaurants, hotels and boutiques in the area. Wandering the streets of Old Havana makes it easy to see why Cuba attracts three million visitors a year from all over the world.

Another great spot for walking, or an early morning run, is the Malecon which runs alongside the sea wall for five miles from Old Havana to the Vedado neighborhood. We walked most of it one afternoon, pausing to take in views of the walled fortress across the bay and watch fishermen cast their lines.

Reports of crime in Cuba are rare. Guns are illegal and jail sentences harsh. We walked in different districts of the city at all hours of the day and night, and had no problems. The only time we felt vaguely threatened was when we were looking for a restaurant and asked directions from a security guard with a thick Russian accent who was outside an exclusive looking nightclub. We did not linger.

I only met one person who was a victim of crime, a New York architect who has done extensive work in Cuba over 15 years. His pocket was picked once, but the unknown thief took the cash, then returned the wallet with his ID and credit cards untouched back into his pocket.

The absence of crime is especially fortunate because American tourists are also not able to use credit cards or access ATMs in Cuba. Banking restrictions related to the ongoing U.S. embargo mean visitors can’t withdraw money from their accounts once they are in Cuba. Carrying around a lot of cash can be annoying, but there is little risk of being robbed.

Cuba does have its shortcomings, though, and independent travel here can be more challenging than in, say, Europe. Shortages are common, and basic household supplies like soap and toilet paper were hard for us to find. We tried to buy a watch for days, but could not find any for sale. At a music venue in the rural town of Vinales on a Saturday night, the beer was gone way before the band stopped playing.

It was also in Vinales that we both got sick from food poisoning. We needed medical assistance and went to the local clinic, which was the most primitive health care facility I’ve ever experienced.

Returning to Havana earlier than expected due to the illness led us to the memorable ride in the ‘48 Plymouth. A collectivo, or collective taxi, it was a reasonably-priced way to get back to Havana in case we needed further medical care (but we didn’t).

Along the way, we met people who also had some amazing adventures in Cuba. My only regret was not being able to see more of this fascinating country and experience its unique culture and friendly people.

To those considering Cuba as a destination, I suggest going. President Trump has made it harder for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, but it appears to still be possible. You won’t be able to go as a “tourist,” but there are approved reasons to travel there, including humanitarian, religious, person-to-person, education, etc. You will likely have to have some documentation to establish the validity of your trip.

My guess is that independent travel will be harder but still possible, and that tour groups will still be an option for Cuba visitors.

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