My Cuba…Like a Local Guide says, “Centro Habana is run-down with a mix of tenements and Art Deco and Art Nouveau flourishes….It’s akin to taking a step back in time.” This is true. A city of more than 2 million, Havana undoubtedly has energy and spirit. Its future is splendid. But for now….
Cubans haven’t been able to buy new vehicles that weren’t made in Russia since 1959. Havana is unlike any other Caribbean city, and its oldest part, which we saw much of, is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There has been a population center where Havana is since 1519 and its existing mix of building styles is amazing; but a freshly painted, relatively well-maintained building will be next to or among a number of dilapidated ones. You’ll never be too far from an image of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and José Martí, a wandering, slightly menacing dog, or someone begging.
The grand buildings from before the revolution all seem to be getting do-overs. The imposing capitol building that looks like a somewhat larger version of the United States Capitol in Washington DC is currently empty. Scaffolding covers its dome. The city looks like parts of it are getting ready for boatloads of affluent American tourists. Several of the folks on our cruise were looking forward to a nostalgic evening performance at the Tropicana Cabaret for $169 a person. In one museum we were entertained by rappin’ Cuban grannies. We were clearly taken to places like the Gran Teatro de La Habana. We saw, I assumed after a while, what those in charge wanted us to see. Many old women chewing on unlit cigars approached me for photo ops.
New hotels are being planned. A large Four Points by Sheraton was announced 8 months ago. When it opens, it will be the first to operate under a U.S. brand name since 1959. We had lunch across the street from where the new Hotel Catedral is being built. Our guide took us through the Hotel Ambos Mundos. Ernest Hemingway liked to hang out here. As we walked through a cemetery, our guide pointed to the tomb where Hemingway’s bartender was buried.
When I tell people that I’ve been to Havana, they are immediately interested and curious. Many ask how they will be treated when they go to Cuba. For sure they will have opportunities to see many grand old buildings from pre-revolution times, ample chances to buy rum and cigars, and access to hundreds of old Buicks and Fords to cruise around in. Bring lots of money.