Cuba is a rapidly evolving destination where a lot can happen in a few short years, says Evelyn Kanter
There are more postcard-perfect vintage cars in Havana than I remember from my last trip five years ago. Perhaps they’ve been brought in from other parts of the island to serve the tourists who continue to pour in following the easing of travel restrictions for Americans — for few can go home without a souvenir selfie in one of these iconic vehicles.
Everywhere you look, there are vintage Chevys, Fords, Buicks, Chryslers and Studebakers in pink and purple, lemon and lime, orange and turquoise and red — some looking like they might not make it to the nearest intersection, others beautifully restored, and a few outliers so altered that only an expert could identify their lineage. Their improved condition might be due to it being easier to get parts after Raúl Castro opened up the economy on taking over as president, from his brother Fidel, in 2008. These days, there are more privately owned restaurants and homestay properties, from single rooms in private houses to apartments.
With everybody selling Cuba lately, there’s more pressure on hotels, which have as much as doubled prices in the past five years. Rates now start at $250 at the historic La Nacional, where Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner honeymooned and where a cannon from the War of 1812 rests on the lawn. The locals seem to have grown more adept at handling the flocks of tourists, looking away or raising a hand in front of their faces to avoid being photographed.
Even the sleepy fishing village of Cojimar, where Hemingway is said to have been inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea, has figured out how to leverage tourists. The café where he used to hang out now charges $5 to go inside to take photos. Maybe they got the idea from the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana, where you have to pay to see Hemingway’s favorite room. The glorious sunset from the rooftop bar is free — for the price of a beer or mojito.
Hemingway’s farm in the hills, 10 miles from downtown is filled with comfortable chairs, simple wood tables, and what seems like miles of bookcases. His workroom is on the top floor with a view of the sea he loved. Photos aren’t permitted here, but when I tell the guard that I am a writer, she smiles, nods, and reaches for my camera to take photos of the typewriter he used to write For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Air conditioning in Havana is still virtually non-existent except in multi-star hotels and modern cultural destinations such as the Museum of Colonial Art, with its collection of 19th century and contemporary pieces by Cuban artists.
On my last visit, internet was available only in tourist hotels, insanely expensive and slow enough that you could go for a walk around the block while a page loaded; and mobile phones were rare sightings. Now, there’s wi-fi in parks and smartphones are everywhere. Few Cuban homes have computers or internet, so mobile devices rule.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the omnipresence of music. There’s a singer, guitarist or small band on nearly every street corner, and people literally dance in the streets. Tropicana, the legendary outdoor nightclub whose flamboyant performances gave birth to Las Vegas revues, is a must-see, even though its $100 entry fee is steep.
The Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, looks like it was dropped off here from New Orleans: wrought-iron balconies and all. Legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso performed here back in the day, and today’s performers include local heroes Cantores de Cienfuegos, a knockout choral group that switches seamlessly between Bach and Broadway.
Most restaurants also have live music, and each group plays ‘Guantanamera’, the beloved Cuban folk song derived from the poetry of José Martí, the national hero who fought for independence from Spain in the 19th century. His tomb in Santiago is a national shrine, guarded 24/7 by Cuban soldiers.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the friendliness of the people and their pride in sharing their history and culture. At the 16th century Casa de Diego Velazquez museum in Santiago, a docent wouldn’t leave me alone until she had showed me everything.
While the US isn’t presented in a particularly fond light at the Museum of the Revolution, it’s well worth seeing. Housed in the former Presidential Palace in Havana, it’s spectacular, with a Tiffany-designed interior, including a glimmering ballroom reminiscent of Versailles. The collection of Soviet tanks and missiles in the adjoining park is a sobering reminder of the war so narrowly averted in 1962.
US citizens have been able to visit Cuba since before the Obama Administration eased restrictions last year. Visiting Americans must meet one of the current standards for tourism, including people-to-people, humanitarian and cultural exchanges. It’s a joy to visit a local artist, learn salsa dancing at a local studio, and tour a tobacco farm and learn how to roll a cigar from a skilled maker.
Cuba has been preparing for its close-up as a top new destination by training additional tour guides. The streets are filled with hundreds of large, modern air-conditioned tour buses.
It will be several years before new hotels open, and they may not be American brands, since the state requires 51% ownership of any deal, and foreign government control doesn’t go down too well on Wall Street. Overseas hotel chains such as Meliá and Barceló already have a strong presence in Cuba, and are likely to grow.
Cruise traffic is also growing. My recent visit was aboard the Fathom Adonia, the first US-flag cruise ship to Cuba in more than 50 years (Fathom is owned by Miami-based cruise ship operator Carnival). It’s an ideal solution to unpredictable room availability on land, with reliable air-conditioning and internet, swimming pool, gym, spa, and a Caribbean-born chef with his own people-to-people program with local farmers and fishermen, to source as much fresh food as possible.