“Why Cuba?” more than one friend asked when we told them about the trip we were planning.
Why, indeed. Americans of my generation (I’m now 70) grew up on black-and-white TV images of a fierce Fidel, an angry Nikita Khrushchev threatening to beat us to death with his shoe and the Kennedys facing the Cuban missile crisis which promised to kick-start World War III.
Cuba seemed dangerous and exotic; the kind of place only Indiana Jones could survive.
But Castro’s Revolution is 60 years old now, and Havana will celebrate its 500th anniversary this year. Cuba today is a land of beauty and contradiction, a place where history and politics collide on every street corner, a place where crumbling reminders of Spanish colonialism stand cheek-to-jowl with luxurious tourist hotels, a place where soul-crushing poverty endures in the shadow of glittering Armani shops, a place where a rigid Socialist government rules over citizens who are making tentative forays into private enterprise.
Citizens like Cesar Suarez.
Cesar is 24 and operates Cuba 360, a tour guide service he launched in December after learning the ropes as an employee of another company. A former IT student, Cesar has found a profitable niche in tourism, an industry the post-Castro government has encouraged by allowing entrepreneurship and waiving taxes. Cesar advertises on the internet, does business with clients from all over the world and operates strictly in cash — preferably dollars.
He speaks near-perfect English and has a commanding grasp of Cuban history and politics. He offers what the visitor with a lingering childhood fear of “commies” needs: a safe, friendly hand to hold. It’s like traveling with your favorite uncle.
If you’ve been entertaining the notion of a trip, you’d better hurry. The Trump administration, reacting to Cuba’s relationship with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, plans to make it more difficult to visit the “workers’ paradise” 90 miles south of Florida. The new restrictions could be announced as soon as next month. The Cubans are already feeling the pinch. The government recently announced it is rationing basic goods like corn, rice and beans — and it blamed the United States for its woes.
So, why Cuba? Lots of reasons. Here’s what my girlfriend Lois and I did during our weeklong adventure.
We arrived at JFK at 6 a.m. for JetBlue’s 9:10 a.m. direct flight to Havana’s José Martí International Airport. The sign for “Cuba Flights” directs you to a counter at the far right end of the terminal where the line was surprisingly short. Within minutes, the agent had checked our bags, issued our boarding passes and sold us Cuban travel visas ($50 each).
The US Treasury Department has a long list of rules and regs regarding travel to Cuba, but the bottom line is: the airline takes care of everything when you buy your ticket (round-trip, direct on JetBlue was a bit over $500 with one checked bag). When you purchase the ticket online, you are required to declare your reason for visiting by picking from a list of 12 options. Tourism is not an option. You may be part of a cultural group, a credentialed journalist on assignment, a member of an educational excursion. But, if you are simply an American who wants to see Cuba — not a tourist! — you select Option 8 called Support of the Cuban People. You will be supporting the Cuban people by spending money in this impoverished nation. Over the course of the week, we supported taxi drivers, waiters, bartenders, artists, musicians, restaurants, a hotel, a tobacco farmer and several Cuban people in whose homes we stayed.
Most of all, we supported Cesar. For $1,500 each, Cesar mapped out and presented an eight-day itinerary, which had been developed with our input over the course of several months, and escorted us through every minute of it. His fee included breakfast and lunch each day, accommodations in government-licensed bed-and-breakfasts, all travel, tips and admission charges to the many venues we enjoyed.
The straw hats, guayabera shirts, rum, cigars and coffee were on us.
Tip: We were advised by a Cuba travel veteran to carry about $2,000 each. This guy must have have been buying rounds at the Hotel Nacionale every night! Together, we spent less than $1,000.
Three hours and seven minutes after takeoff, we touched down in sunny, 82-degree Havana. Cesar met us in the terminal, which seemed to be run by a squadron of officious, unsmiling 18-year-old women in tight, short uniforms. (Don’t try to photograph them; they get annoyed.) He was wearing his own uniform — and orange T-shirt and black baseball cap with his Cuba 360 logo on them — and smiling like an old amigo. The capitalist concept of branding works here.
The first stop after we collected our bags was the money exchange window near the most colorful taxi line you can imagine. Your credit cards will not work here; the United States has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba since 1962, when the rebel government nationalized American-owned oil refineries without compensation. Your bank has no relationship with a Cuban bank, and very few places accept US dollars, so you have to convert your cash to Cuban CUCs — the local legal tender. At Cesar’s advice, we brought euros instead of dollars because the exchange rate is better (unless your home bank charges an exorbitant rate for euros).
Cuba is renowned for its “Happy Days”-eravintage American cars which have been painted bright, cheery colors and pressed into service as taxis. But outside Jose Marti, they share the line with shiny, yellow Audis and Peugots that look like they could be cruising New York City for fares. Are the old cars just tourist bait?
No, Cesar explains. The new cars are owned by the government, which leases them to drivers for several years or until they hit 300,000 kilometers. Then they are sold to “rich Cubans” for 10 times what the government paid. The vast majority of Cubans are priced out of the market, so those who are motivated to start a one-man taxi enterprise have to scrape together what money they can to buy a clunker and dress it up. Tourists looking for quaint and unique experiences make this viable.
On this day, Cesar selected a yellow Peugot operated by Enrique, who is old enough to remember when New York Yankee ace Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez worked as a cabbie on this very line.
“He drove an illegal taxi. An old Russian car,” Enrique laughed.
The airport was the first of many sites where we experienced the culture shock of the public baño. In hotels, restaurants and B&Bs, the bathrooms were as nice as any you’re likely to find in the US. But on the road they are supervised by an attendant who collects an admission fee. Inside the baño, there will be one toilet without a seat. It may or may not flush. There may or may not be toilet paper. It is possible, but not probable, that there will be a sink. Forget about air conditioning, there may not even be a light.
Tip: Get change early and keep a supply of quarters in your pocket. That’s the going rate for toilet admission. And pack a supply of tissues and wet wipes. Toilet paper is not guaranteed.
We were going to the Hotel Sevilla in Old Havana, where we planned to spend three nights (about $150/night) before cozying up to the Cuban people. But first, we had scheduled a visit to Callejon de Hamel, site of a weekly Afro-Cuban block party that draws drinkers and dancers every Sunday. Lois read about it and insisted that Cesar add it to his list of regular attractions.
Callejon de Hamel is a short, narrow street lined with tiny shops and bars. The walls on both sides are painted with abstract graffiti art and decorated with sculptures created out of junk. There is a tent about halfway up the block and a band is in there, hidden by the pulsing crowd, pounding out a rhythm that drives the outdoor dance party until dark.
We checked into the hotel, had a drink — a mojito, of course, it seems to be required in Havana – at the courtyard bar where a five-piece salsa band was playing, got showers in our room, which looked exactly like the photo online, and headed out to dinner in New Havana.
The restaurant was called Ideas: The main idea seemed to be that tourists want a break from the realities of Cuban life at the end of a long day of souvenir shopping in Old Havana. The restaurant was upscale, sophisticated, decorated with contemporary art and designed to cater to western tastes. The food was delicious, Cesar picked up the tab and we all had mojitos.
We ended the day with one of the highlights of the trip — a visit to the FAC, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, for the last night of the biennial art exhibit. The crowd was mostly young and hip-looking (except for us) and the energy was high. The building occupies a full city block. It is three drab stories tall and has been gutted to accommodate the maximum amount of coolness. There is a bar on each floor, plus two performance spaces including a packed theater where a band was rocking a more-than-credible version of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name.”
But the main attraction was the art, and there was a ton of it. Painting, photography, sculpture, jewelry, installations, immense canvases, photo projects that covered entire walls. It was sexy and sexist and wild and funny and warm and disgusting. It was eclectic and avant-garde. There were social statements and images intended to spur conversations, if not arguments.
And not a portrait of Che Guevara among them.
After a breakfast of strong coffee, fresh pineapples, bananas, guavas and papaya, eggs, breads, potatoes and more in the hotel (included with the room), we were fortified for a daylong walking tour of Old Havana. The visual impact is startling: an outdoor military museum on one corner, the 18th-century Cathedral de la Habana and its majestic plaza a few blocks away and the ever-present old taxis zipping through the scene like candies falling from a smashed piñata. The culturally significant and historically relevant sights confront you at every turn, as do the souvenir vendors who survive on paintings of the classic taxis and mostly nude women, wooden sculptures of elongated Afro-Cuban characters, T-shirts, baseballs, key chains and more emblazoned with “Cuba” and glassware bearing the logo of the national rum, Havana Club.
The museums of art, music and, of course, the revolution abound, and their descriptions fill the guide books. We chose to focus on the places people went to have fun. Like the Bodeguita del Medio, the bar that has become famous for inventing the mojito to slake the thirst of legendary drinker (and novelist) Ernest Hemingway. Or the Floridita, which, not to be outdone, invented the daiquiri so Hemingway would have something to wash down his mojitos.
The Bodeguita is a little place on a narrow street with a live band playing just inside the front door. It was packed with rowdy tourists looking for the same liquid inspiration Hemingway found there. But Cesar talked us out of sampling the signature fare.
Tip: There’s a lot to photograph in Havana, but you can get lost in the process. Watch your back. Cuban drivers don’t like to slow down for pedestrians, stray dogs or distracted camera-wielders. They honk, and it’s up to you to jump out of the way.
“When they get very busy, they make the mojitos with Sprite,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval.
We walked on, photographing a statue of Sancho Panza, but turning down the opportunity to take a picture — for a tip — of a small, thin, toothless, elderly woman smoking an enormous cigar. We snapped a produce vendor pulling a wagon that had been intended for a horse, a woman feeding a dozen of the city’s feral cats, laundry flying from apartment windows like flags of poverty, narrow streets punctuated by iron balconies and the colors of Cuban life, and the images of Che Guevara, the Argentinian idealist who has been the face of the Communism in Cuba because, according to Cesar, Fidel didn’t want to revolution to be all about him.
We strolled into a tiny bookstore specializing in Che, as many do. On a rack just inside the front door was a black-and-white photograph of John Lennon and Guevara playing guitars. Perhaps “Revolution” was inspired by this meeting. I have been a Beatles fan since the British Invasion of the early 1960s, and I had never seen this photo. Maybe they met in 1964, when Che visited the Cuban Mission to the United Nations, I thought. Maybe it sparked the idea that resulted in “Revolution,” I thought. So I bought it for $10.
My “find” turned out to be a hoax. The original photo, taken in the early ‘70s, has been altered. Che appears in the spot originally occupied by a guitarist who played with Lennon and Yoko Ono. I still like it better than a souvenir car made out of a Cristal beer can.
This gave Cesar new insight into his clients, so we set off for the John Lennon Bar.
Like most Old Havana shops, it’s a small space with an unassuming façade on a narrow, cobblestone street. (Turns out The Beatles remain enormously popular in Cuba. We also saw the Amarillo (“Yellow”) Submarine bar in New Havana and The Beatles bar in the ancient city of Trinidad.) Inside, the bar was decorated with a wall-length mural on the left, Beatles album covers on the back wall and a video screen above the bar playing only Beatles songs. Customers, local and foreign, drank beer and sang along in tuneless camaraderie to “Imagine.”
Later, as we meandered, we ate corn-meal empanadas steamed in the husks from a street vendor and saw neatly uniformed children walking home from school. Despite the nation’s poverty, education – primary, secondary and post-secondary – is free for Cuban citizens. The catch: Cuban professionals are required to work for the government after graduation. Cesar’s girlfriend, Sandra, for example, is in her fourth year of a five-year chemical engineering program. She pays nothing, but when she finished, she will owe her homeland three years of service at a wage of about $75 per month.
Tip: Bottled water is readily available. Drink it and use it to brush your teeth. Avoid salads that may have been rinsed in local water, juices that may have been diluted and order your mojitos and other beverages without ice. Your waiter may look at you like you’re strange, but he’ll be polite.
We wrapped up the afternoon at the mercado — a factory-size schlock emporium featuring the world’s largest collection of Cuba-branded souvenirs. And, yes, we succumbed. I snagged a linen guayabera shirt and a baseball cap that resembles the one I had seen the Cuban national team wearing during the World Baseball Classic. Lois bought a straw Panama hat, which shielded her from the hot sun for the rest of the week, some T-shirts for her son in Brooklyn, and enough percussion instruments to outfit a salsa band. The vendor repeatedly told us what good friends Americans and Cubans are as he demonstrated the maracas, the guiro (a gourd-shaped instrument played by scraping a wooden wand across it rippled surface), and a hollow wooden tube that he beat on with a wooden rod. Lois bought them all.
We chilled at the hotel pool before dinner, sipping the government-brewed, Cristal beer, which tastes like seltzer that someone left out in the sun all day and then shook wildly before opening. The only reason to drink this stuff is that it’s not Cuban tap water. Many Cubans get defensive if you express concerns about the effect their agua may have on your G.I. tract, but it’s a real concern for travelers. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that we both had unpleasant moments in which the water was believed to be the culprit.
Dinner was a delicious ceviche and lobster tail in a tomato broth at Senditas, a modern restaurant that would fit in in Manhattan. It was a bit pricey as Cuban restaurants go ($14.50 for the lobster), but the food was excellent. Seafood, of course, is plentiful in Cuba and the hotels and restaurants in Havana know what the tourists expect.
Finding the place was a challenge. Cesar was off duty and our navigational skills were lacking. It is not easy to find English speakers after dark on the streets of Havana. We were ready to give up our quest when we were directed, haltingly, to a second-floor café where “the locals eat.” The atmosphere was comfortably casual, the music was live and good, and we thought we were about to have an authentic Cuban experience. Then the waiter, trying his best to translate the menu for us, described the fish as “dry and hard.” Like fish jerky? He said this with a smile; he was still smiling when we walked out the door.
The Viñales Valley, famed for its tobacco farms, is among the most beautiful places in Cuba. We got there in an orange-and-white 1956 Ford with orange sponge dice hanging from the oversized rearview mirror. On the two-hour drive, we passed papaya farms and banana farms and skinny cattle and horses grazing along the highway. Vendors selling cheese spread with guava jam waved at the speeding traffic.
Conversation is difficult on a long trip in a Cuban taxi. The cars’ original engines have been retired to the scrap heap. They have been replaced by turbo-charged diesels, often Japanese, which get better mileage than gas engines. That is a key factor for taxi drivers who must pay about $600 per month for a government license. But those turbos are loud. Add to that the pulsing beat coming out of the rear speaker right behind your head and it is next to impossible to think, let alone hear.
A big part of the fun of traveling in Cuba are the experiences you have on the way to the experiences you had planned. We had a couple of those moments at a roadside rest stop where we met Pedro, an accomplished classical guitarist who plays there for tips. We listened to him for a few minutes and gave him a dollar. This must have been a pretty good incentive, because he got very animated, gave us the universal sign for “wait,” and ran for his maracas. In a second, we were part of the show, with Pedro on guitar, Lois on percussion and all of us singing “Guantanamera.” In the baño, Lois struck up a conversation with the attendant, who was admiring her makeup. So they shared, and when we drove away, the woman was grinning with a freshly painted face.
To truly see the Viñales Valley, you have to stop above it. Our old Ford pulled into the overlook and parked beside other cars and several tour buses. An all-girl band was doing and excellent version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” while wearing skin-tight red dresses. We passed on the CD they peddled to the crowd.
The view is spectacular, stretching miles across the lush greenery of the tobacco farms to a wall of mountains on the horizon. Before arriving at the family tobacco farm, which was our destination, there is another mandatory tourist stop: the Mural de la Prehistoria. This is a rock face that rises about 100 feet and stretches 600 yards from end to end. It depicts ancient people, dinosaurs, and sea life in bright blues and reds and yellows. It is more notable for its size than its artistic value, but it’s impressive. According to Cesar, Fidel Castro commissioned it in 1961 to promote tourism. It took the artist and a crew of 11 local painters six months to complete.
The experience is accentuated by a rancher named Allejandro, who hangs out with his white ox Campo Allegre (“Happy Field”) and poses for photos. Tips, please. At this moment, Allejandro is engaged in a heated argument with a taxi driver who thinks Campo Allegre has strayed too close to his cab, which is his prized possession and livelihood.
The site also features a piña colada bar that will be remembered fondly by all alcoholics who visit. The bartender serves up virgin piña coladas and leaves a bottle of Havana Club rum on the bar. The customer completes the drink to his taste. Add a shot. Add two. Pour in half a bottle of rum. Salud!
If rum gives you an appetite, El Sabor is the lunch spot for you. It’s a patio restaurant attached to the home of its proprietors on an unpaved road in a residential neighborhood in the valley. Directly across the street is another restaurant exactly like it, and around the corner there’s another, only bigger. At the end of the street a smiling, toothless fellow named Andrew proudly shows off his livestock, including a hen and rooster in the act of producing the eggs he will sell to his neighbors. He speaks virtually no English, but he manages to describe the barnyard action: “F–ky, f–ky,” he cackles. We’re communicating!
Lunch at El Sabor is literally a feast: 13 courses, including lamb, pork, tuna, clams, yellow rice, black rice with beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, red and green tomatoes, cucumber salad, corn tamales, cole slaw, taco chips and drinks. It’s on Cesar.
Before we reach the tobacco farm, we make a quick detour to Cueva del Indio, a huge limestone cavern through which runs about two kilometers of the San Vincente River. In less than 30 minutes, we walk the cave, which the indigenous Guanahatabey people used as a refuge during the Spanish conquest, and take a guided boat ride that ends in a pool on the other side of the mountain. The guide, speaking in English and Spanish, uses a laser pointer to highlight formations that look like faces and animals, or have been given names like Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria.
The Juan Luis y Luis tobacco farm is a family business operated by five of the 14 children of a tough country woman who wouldn’t speak in the morning before she had her cigar and her coffee.
Her son Marco is an affable jokester who talks about his mother and inquires about your love life (“more mojitos,” he advises), while explaining the intricacies of tobacco growing and cigar-making. At a makeshift table inside his barn, he displays tobacco seeds, which are smaller than grains of salt. “Can’t plant one at a time,” he says. From seed to cigar, the process takes nine months. The harvested leaves are separated into three groups by quality. Those from the top of the plant get the most sun and have the best taste. The middle and bottom leaves are useful, but less desirable.
Chickens, cats, goats and a peacock roam around the barn, while a wrangler hitches a horse to a wagon, and Marco sends us off to the cigar shed where we meet his brother Henry.
Henry offers us a drink and launches into his spiel while pulling up tobacco leaves and rolling a cigar — organic, he points out. First, he strips the vein from the leaf, because that’s where the nicotine resides. He will save the veins and sell them to a cigarette maker. As he rolls, he talks and laughs, as cheerful as his brother. They must have entertained at each other at breakfast as kids, while Mom was getting her smoke and caffeine fix.
The best cigars, according to Henry, are the Cohibas, which are made with two top leaves, two middle leaves and only one bottom leaf. The Romeo and Juliets have only one top leaf and the Montecristos have none.
“Try it,” Henry says when he finishes. I have despised cigars since I was a child. My uncle used to smoke them in a closed car and invariably I would feel sick. But, when in Cuba …
Henry advised dipping the tip of the cigar in honey before lighting it, and that was a pretty good sales trick, because the honey made the smoke taste sweet. Lois and I shared one cigar and, although we didn’t finish it, we both found it not unpleasant.
Marco and Henry work hard to keep their business thriving. Unlike Cesar, they are in an industry that is heavily regulated and heavily taxed by the Cuban government. But they own land, and that is invaluable.
This was a lost day. We were scheduled to drive to the Bay of Pigs, not to recreate the failed invasion that was supposed to topple the revolutionary government, but to snorkel. Then, on to the historic city of Cienfuegos, home of the Cuban Mambo King Benny More.
But it rained, hard, all day. So we loaded into a black and white 1954 Chevy Bel-Air with white-on-black sponge dice and Jondi at the wheel and took a four-hour drive to the ancient city of Trinidad.
Jondi’s Chevy is powered by a turbocharged Toyota diesel, and it’s fast. It’s hard to know how fast because the speedometer doesn’t work — and the turbocharger didn’t work that well, either. As a result, we were exposed to a strong and irritating diesel odor for the entire ride. Jondi would have to stop periodically to refill his turbocharger with something that looked like old oil, but he kept a good attitude and tried to impart the same to us.
“These are the kind of things that happen in Cuba,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
Tip: Mechanical equipment is unreliable in Cuba, because parts are difficult to come by. If you’re taking a long car trip, make sure your driver‘s vehicle is up to it.
You can’t judge a casa by its cover.
We arrived in Trinidad, on the island’s southern coast, in the early evening for our first night in the home of a Cuban family. The first impression was daunting. Trinidad is Cuba’s third-oldest city, founded in 1514 by Spanish explorer Diego Velasquez. Our building looked like it should have had a plaque that read “Velasquez Slept Here.” From the car, all we could see was a flat wall at the edge of a narrow, cobblestone street. But when our hostesses, Eva and Barbara, opened the door, we were transported into a beautiful, old-world courtyard with wrought iron furniture, tile floors and a small fountain. At the right, an open staircase led up to a party deck, equipped with a wet bar, that overlooked the colorful, tile-roofed neighborhood.
Our room was furnished with a double and a single bed, a nightstand between, and a locking armoire with a safe, just like the one in our hotel room in Havana. The bathroom was modern, with a large tiled shower, a toilet with a seat, and no tub.
The safe was a happy discovery. We had known from the outset that we would be carrying cash. And, although we had been assured that Cuba is a very safe country, the idea of walking around with a wad of bills was disconcerting. As we learned, safes are ubiquitous in venues that host tourists.
Eva and Barbara served breakfast in the courtyard, and it was a typical — meaning lavish — Cuban affair. Fresh fruits, juice, strong coffee in demi tasse cups, eggs to your liking, breads and jam.
Our walking tour of Trinidad was much like our walking tour of Old Havana. The city is teeming with charm and beauty, but it is much safer to stroll. Much of it is restricted to automobile traffic, so pedestrians share the streets with motor scooters (many electric) and pedicabs. If you want a workout, try pedaling a 200-pound tourist up a cobblestone hill in a one-speed cart! These guys earn their pesos.
Tip: American coffee-holics. Ask in advance for Café Americano if you expect to get your daily dose. Cuban coffee is strong, but it is served in small portions.
Trinidad’s history is preserved in its numerous museums, many of which surround the Plaza Mayor and the Plaza de Cespedes, named for one of the leaders of the first revolution, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who famously and without embarrassment declared himself “The Father of All Cubans.” According to the legend, he made this pronouncement after the Spanish threatened to kill his son, setting the bar for intimidation pretty high.
Music is never far from your ear in Cuba. On this day, a five-piece band was playing in the Plaza Mayor. The Latin rhythms, the hot sun and the laid-back approach set the tone for a leisurely stroll through a colorful world rich in history and ripe for imagination.
The shops and galleries in Trinidad were filled with more unique and original art than we had found in Old Havana. And the prices were pure bargain bin. Lovely pieces of hand-made wire and stone jewelry were selling for $7 and less, as were one-of-a-kind ceramic mobiles. In Gallery Studio, I found exactly the kind of gift I wanted to bring home for my three adult children: a small painting of a chimp contemplating the words “REVOLUTION” and “EVOLUTION.” This was not the kind of thing you’d find in a souvenir shop. But there was only one. With Cesar translating, I explained to the manager that I wanted three, and he called the artist. Within minutes, he was in the shop, we agreed on a price and he promised to deliver two more by 8 p.m. He was as good as his word.
For a perspective on the beauty of Trinidad, we climbed the 119 wooden and granite stairs to the top of the bell tower at the Museo Nacional de Lucha Contra Bandidos, the tallest and most famous landmark in the city. A former convent, it was converted into a museum in 1984 to honor the fight against anti-Castro guerrillas — armed and financed by our CIA — in the Escambray Mountains in the 1960s.
The tower is tagged with visitors’ graffiti and provides a view of the entire city and the blue Caribbean beyond. Which is where we headed late in the afternoon. Beach time was definitely on our vacation agenda.
The beach at Trinidad is free, as is the parking. This is, after all, a land owned communally by all the people — at least nominally. But you still have to pay to use the public bathroom! You can rent a chair and umbrella from an attendant, and there is a place to buy snacks and drinks. The stretch of sand was quiet, despite the presence of a nearby hotel, and unlike public beaches in the United States, there were no lifeguards.
“Aren’t you worried about riptides?“ I asked Cesar. After I explained what riptides are, he said, “We don’t have them here.” That’s all the oceanographic research I had time for.
Dinner in Trinidad adhered to a theme: in the midst of ancient ruins, fine dining establishments rise like phoenixes to satisfy the jaded palates of capitalist tourists. In modern Cuba, tourism is the big dog and he eats.
After another sumptuous courtyard breakfast, we said adios to Eva and Barbara, exchanged hugs that transcended the troubled politics of our two nations, and got back into Jondi’s rolling diesel-fume factory for the long ride back to Havana.
Almost immediately, we hit a uniquely Cuban traffic jam. The highway out of Trinidad was covered with toxic Moro crabs for as far as we could see. Jondi slowed to a crawl and wove the car through the moving carpet of crabs migrating from their nesting grounds at the beach, where they had laid their eggs, to higher ground on the north side of the road.
Thousands of crabs tried to make this perilous journey, but sadly, many would not survive to grow old with their hatchlings. As they scurried frantically toward safety, some drivers tried to avoid them out of respect for life, while others were motivated by a fear of the flat tires broken crab shells can cause. Others plowed heedlessly through hapless crustaceans, squashing them into the pavement in an epic road kill massacre. After a mile, we hit clear roadway, but crab cakes will never taste quite the same.
We stopped briefly in Cienfuegos, mostly for fresh air and because we had missed it in the downpour on Wednesday. Cienfuegos is old, a lot of its buildings are old and at its center there is a beautiful plaza ruled by a statue of José Martí, the martyred symbol of Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. The overall impression, however, is a small, bustling city striving to live in the present. Hot dogs — perros calientes — are part of the street fare here, which made it less charming, but worth a short visit.
Our accommodations Friday night were in a very modern B&B in New Havana in a building that had been the home of a well-to-do Cuban family before the revolution. The neighborhood might be described as recovering. There are many very nice houses next to others that had seen better days; it was trending up.
And, there was free Wi-Fi. This is a big deal in Cuba. Internet and cell phone service are spotty and unreliable. In some hotels, visitors can purchase Wi-Fi cards to gain internet access. I turned on my phone for the first time in six days and checked the baseball standings. The Mets and Phillies were still tied for first place in the NL East. Lois sent a text to her son in Brooklyn, letting him know she was alive. Then we turned our phones off again.
Tonight was music night on our itinerary; we were going dancing. According to Cesar, who lives with his parents and brother just a few blocks away, the hopping joint is the Casa de las Musicas — and the late show starts at 10 p.m.
But the 10 p.m. show was actually scheduled to begin at 11, we learned, so we dawdled for an hour at an open-air bar in the same block and watched an industrious street dog canvas the floor for scraps. We returned at the appointed hour, then stood in line until 11:45 p.m., when we were waved inside. We paid the $15 cover and entered the auditorium, which had a five-foot-high stage in front, a bar on either side and a floor covered with tables and chairs. Havana Club rum was selling like bug spray at a mosquito convention. The room filled slowly until, at 12:30 a.m., the 17-piece Jose Luis Cortez band took the stage in front of a slide that said they performed there every Friday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. (“That’s Cuban people’s time,” Cesar would say the next day when we recounted the tale.)
From then on, the place rocked with a Latin beat that defied the most sedentary patron to stay in his seat. Cortez leads with his flute. He is flanked by four male singer/dancers and is backed by two keyboards, one bassist, four percussionists and a full brass section. From the first note, the audience was afoot. Chairs were forgotten and bodies were swaying to the rhythms all night long.
In the middle of the show, young women lined up by the stage and waited for Cortez to call them up for a twerking contest. After the third girl had shaken her booty to the delight of the crowd, she was surrounded by the singers, who proceeded to grind on her — in a purely good-natured, platonic way, of course.
She seemed not to mind. The audience liked it and it underscored an aspect of the Caribbean culture that we had seen throughout out trip: sensuality is embraced, celebrated and enjoyed. Cuba is a sexy place.
Much of the art we saw depicted nude women. The videos we saw on TV in the hotel or on the screen in the Casa de Las Musicas before the band came on would have been panned as sexist at home. And the dance seemed less artistic expression than mating ritual.
We lasted until 2.
Varadero is the most beautiful beach in Cuba, we were told by friends who had visited, and you must go there. If we must, we must.
First, we checked into the house where we would spend our last night in Cuba, the home of Angela, her son Raul, her daughter-in law Iskra and their two daughters. It is in the same middle-class neighborhood in New Havana and is surprisingly spacious. We had our own bedroom and bathroom, private but not as modern as other places we had stayed. But the family, particularly Angela, treated us like long-lost cousins before checking our passports and filling out the registration form. She kissed us upon arrival, she sat with us and chatted during breakfast on Sunday morning and she made us feel welcome.
Cuban families can supplement their incomes by hosting tourists. But even in a country where poverty is rampant and work is scarce and low-paying, it is not a matter of life and death. The Cuban government provides all citizens with the basic foods needed to sustain them. Iskra showed us the ration card she used to get chicken, rice beans eggs, milk, sugar, flour — even cigarettes — at no cost at the government market.
We engaged in some conversation, but their English was almost as limited as our Spanish. Sometimes the language barrier turned into a vehicle for humor. Take this exchange:
Iskra: “Where are you from?”
Iskra: “Oooh, Dracula!”
The real estate business in Cuba operates very much like the farmers’ market in an American town. There are no agents, brokers or lawyers. There is no government regulation. On Saturday mornings in Havana, people with houses to sell assemble in a square to meet people with money and a desire to buy. They strike their own deals and property changes hands. Cesar purchased a three-bedroom apartment for his family at one of these swap meets, and he got a great deal — $20,000 for a place that probably was worth $30,000, he says.
Varadero sits on Cuba’s northern coast about two hours east of Havana. It looks like a place you might see in a Sandals Resorts commercial. The water appears turquoise from a distance, but once you’re in it, it’s as clear as Evian and as warm and soothing as a bath. The horizon is deep blue, almost purple. The bottom is smooth — no broken shells or rocks. No seaweed. And the beach is an infinite stripe of pure white sand as far as you can see.
Again, the beach is free, but there is commerce. Lounge chairs and umbrellas can be rented for $2 each and you can rent a piloted catamaran for $20/person for a snorkeling adventure on the coral reef. If we had chosen to take the catamaran voyage, Cesar, a Cuban citizen, would not have been allowed to join us. The government fears that he might hijack the vessel and defect to Key West, Fla. Considering some of the jerry-rigged craft that have made that crossing, it’s not as far-fetched as it first seemed.
Varadero is truly an international playground hosting a cosmopolitan cast of characters at its hotels, bars and restaurants. It would be easy to forget the nation’s economic realities if you could parachute in. But the view from the highway tells the real story. Beachfront property is home to housing projects, with rusting air conditioners jutting from faded walls and laundry drying outside open windows. The road from Havana winds through pockets of decay and devastation and cinderblock shacks evoke images of a developing nation.
On the road to Varadero, we met Conrado Ramos at the Mirador de Bacunayagua rest stop. Like Pedro, who we’d met days earlier, Conrado makes a living playing music for travelers and selling CDs. He plays an instrument that’s traditional in Caribbean bands but rarely seen in the United States: the tres.
As its name suggests, the tres has three pairs of strings each tuned an octave apart — like a 12-string guitar. Conrado had his tuned A, F and D. His guitar was a converted classical with more miles on it than Jondi’s Ford. He played a few tunes to demonstrate the bright, joyful sound of his tres. Then he let me try it, and I was hooked. He got his tip and I bought a CD.
It’s our last night in Cuba and we were on a mission. We would find a taxi, communicate our intention to find a specific restaurant in Old Havana and deliver a message from friends at home to the bartender, Chickie.
At 9:30 p.m., we set out, but almost immediately we were drawn to the sound of a band giving a free concert in a park nearby. Following the music, we found a crowd, a stage and three young women playing electric violins and an electric cello to a prerecorded beat for about 100 people who had gathered in the evening’s warmth. The musicians were lovely, talented and clearly enjoying their performance. They did not try to sell CDs, at least while we were there.
We were unable to communicate with the first cab driver we flagged down, but the next one understood “Old Havana” and “Paseo de la Prado,” so we were on our way. Soon we were deep into a conversation about one of Cuba’s great passions: baseball.
“Si. New York Yankees.”
Cuban baseball fans are unhappy with the government, which has cut the budget for the national baseball league. That means fewer players and fewer dreams of becoming the next rich and famous El Duque.
Saturday night in Havana is party time. Along the Malecón, the city’s oceanside promenade, the nation throws a huge block party “for the Cuban people.” Thousands of Cubans, mostly young, flock to the street below the Hotel Nacional to dance to a band playing a free concert and drink and eat at the tents that line street. The atmosphere is festive, but our driver urged caution. Lots of drinking, lots of fighting and lots of police activity, he said with a judgmental head shake.
The Paseo de la Prado is a glittering boulevard that is home to the nation’s capital, El Capitolo, and a row of huge, beautifully restored buildings that house luxury hotels, bars and restaurants. These are for the Cuban people only in the sense that they provide service jobs. They exist to accommodate tourists.
The restaurant we were seeking, D’Lirios, was at the end of the block directly across the street from the capital. People on the street, including a couple of young patrolmen and two cab drivers, didn’t know it by name, but the desk clerk at the Hotel Inglaterra, which was the center of the upscale nightlife action in the area, gave us directions.
Having found the restaurant, we had to get in, and that was another adventure. First we were told that it was closed. Then, seeing the name on a sign inside the front door, we were escorted in by a waiter-in-training who was working hard to get a good grade. He summoned another waiter who took our order, got tongs to remove the ice cubes from our mojitos and found a pencil and paper so we could write a note to Chickie who, unfortunately, does not work on Saturday nights.
We said adios to Angela and her family and boarded an orange 1953 Chevy convertible, for a photo cruise around the city. We dressed for the pictures. I wore my new guayabera. Lois wore a black dress, big sunglasses and her new Panama hat.
Time was a factor, since we wanted to be at the airport by noon for a 2:20 p.m. flight.
“There’s a place I wanted to take you earlier,” Cesar said, “but we ran out of time. I want to go by there today. I think you’ll like it.”
That may have been the understatement of the week. Cesar took us to Fusterlandia — the live-in art project and lifetime obsession of Cuban artist José Fuster. He has turned his home, and his entire street, into a wonderland of mosaic art, painting and sculpture that has earned him the nickname “The Picasso of the Caribbean.” Admission is free, but Fuster’s creations, reproduced on items like posters and coasters, as well as original paintings, are for sale. In case you haven’t exchanged enough currency, Fuster accepts US dollars. You can wander the grounds and climb to second and third levels to experience a mini Disneyworld of bright, colorful, whimsical art. We got so lost in the experience, we arrived at the airport 30 minutes behind schedule. And it almost cost us.
Tip: Get to the airport in Cuba three hours before your departure time.
Our taxi — another old Ford that had replaced the Chevy convertible — dropped us at the terminal at 12:30. The line at the JetBlue check-in was long, but not worrying. Until it stopped moving. The notoriously unreliable Cuban internet service had chosen the worst possible time to fail and JetBlue’s system was down. We finally got our boarding passes at 1:30 and headed for the security area, where we met another long line. We cleared the security check-in at 1:50 and got into the carry-on screening line, also long. We were allowed to go to the front of the line after showing a security officer our passes and pointing out that our flight was already boarding. By the time we got our shoes back on, the flight attendant was calling our names for the second time. We got into our seats just before the doors closed.
Two hours and 55 uneventful minutes later we were on the ground at JFK. Nothing to it. Except that the delay at the Havana airport created some sort of behind-the-scenes havoc.
Lois’s suitcase was on the carousel, but mine was still in Havana.