People & Places

Cuba: A trip back in time

Cuba undergoes fast changes, but not as fast as you think

Dennis Green photo

Rows of old cars are parked in El Parque de la Fraternidad (Brotherhood Park), near the Cuban Capitol building.
Dennis Green photo Rows of old cars are parked in El Parque de la Fraternidad (Brotherhood Park), near the Cuban Capitol building.
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Cuba is a land of contradictions:

• It’s a country where the average salary is $24 a month, but the literacy rate is 99.8 percent.

• It’s a tropical island but don’t expect to eat a lot of fish.

• Its government has regarded the United States as an enemy for half a century, but the natives welcome Americans with open arms.

While most of Havana is an unusual combination of Spanish Colonial architecture next to Soviet-era cement towers, the city’s original core, Old Havana, looks much the same as it has for the entire 500-year history of the city. No Cuba trip is complete without a walking tour of this beautiful area.

Old Havana is bookended by two historic churches, the Cathedral de San Cristobal (St. Christopher), where legend has it, the remains of Christopher Columbus once rested; and the Basilica of San Francisco de Asis (St. Francis of Assisi).

In between, the district is undergoing massive restorations, funded mostly by the government, but also using taxes levied from new private businesses in a Cuban version of tax increment financing.

But the work goes in fits and starts. It’s not uncommon to walk down a street and see a brand-new restaurant in the middle of two crumbling buildings.

Speaking of restaurants, it’s only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private restaurants to open. Called paladars, these establishments are some of the most profitable businesses in the country. A server can make the equivalent of several months’ salary in just one night’s tips, meaning a waiter or waitress makes far more money in a month than a doctor or lawyer.

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Most restaurants, even high-end ones, serve mainly chicken and pork. There are few seafood entrees. Apparently, the temptation of lighting out for Miami is too much to allow many Cubans to own fishing boats.

The Colon Cemetery is also a common stop for tourists. Built in 1876, the cemetery has more than 500 monuments and mausoleums. It still is in use today. The chapel can host as many as 20 funerals daily.

Ernest Hemingway’s home, Vinca Figia, which means “Lookout House,” is a must. Whether you are a fan of the author or not, the view from the back of the house explains the name.

Roll Your Own

Cuban tobacco is regarded as the world’s finest. And even though we all are well aware of the health effects of smoking, it’s hard to resist the temptation to give a Cohiba or Romeo y Juliet a try.

Every Cuban cigar is hand-rolled. Workers in a cigar factory are expected to roll at least 100 cigars a day. Workers are allowed, even encouraged to smoke while they work, and some are actually designated as tasters, providing quality control on the fly.

One of the signs of the loosening of the trade embargo is that U.S. citizens are now allowed to bring back $100 worth of cigars and rum per person. Prices are the same whether you buy at the cigar factory store, or the cigar bar at your hotel. For the cigarette fan, the Cuban version of the legendary Lucky Strike is the only cigarette made exclusively from Cuban tobacco.

The Cars

It’s easy to assume much of “Cuba is full of old cars” is hype. Not so.

Classic American cars are everywhere.

Fords, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, all pre-1960 models; along with a sprinkling of Peugeots, Kias, Toyotas, Russian Ladas, and even a Volkswagen or two.

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You can walk to just about any corner in Havana and take picture after picture of classic cars cruising through the intersection. Rows of old cars are also parked near El Parque de la Fraternidad (Brotherhood Park), where the drivers will let you sit in one for a photo, in exchange for a few pesos.

The cars also are in various degrees of wear. Some look every minute of their 60-ish years, which does little to diminish their charm, but others are immaculate.

On the outside, at least. On the inside, they are a Frankenstein-ian conglomeration of original, remanufactured, and jury-rigged parts. Many run on diesel, which is easier to get in Cuba than gasoline and are now powered by Peugeot, Toyota, or Mercedes engines. Parts must be fixed or re-machined using the ingenuity Cubans have had to develop during their long isolation.

I imagine a Havana mechanic as often having to act out a Cuban version of that scene from Apollo 13 ...

“We’ve got to find a way to connect this (holds up a GM carburetor) to this (BMW throttle) using only this (points to a pile of assorted gaskets, barbed wire, and a tin of sardines.)”

Many of the classic cars are operated as cabs, which you can hire for a ride across town or across the entire country. Unlike most cities, no one counsels you against taking a private, “gypsy” cab. You’re perfectly safe getting into a car whether or not the driver has documentation as a taxi driver, and the rates are all about the same.

Final Thoughts

Don’t assume that just because Cuba is opening up that the prices will be going down any time soon.

In fact, for a while at least, it will be exactly the opposite. Cuba has a limited number of hotel rooms, and even in a socialist country, demand will drive up prices where supply is constrained. I’ve heard that every hotel room in Havana is booked for all of 2016. For some time to come, the best option for Americans will be the existing companies with a Cuba travel license who have connections and contracts with the government and Cuban travel industry.

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That said, the average Cuban is excited to the point of giddiness that the Americans are coming. But there also were cautionary notes, such as the architect who squired our group through Old Havana. He admitted he was looking forward to tourism dollars from the United States, but as a historic preservationist, did not want to see 500-year-old buildings torn down to put up a Starbucks.

Hopefully, the Cubans will be just as pleased to see Americans after we’ve been there a while.

• Dennis Green is the general manager of Jazz 88.3 KCCK, and a fiction novelist. He traveled to Cuba this past May and will be leading a trip to Havana in January 2016. For more information on the trip, visit www.kcck.org/travel.

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