Powder blue, bright pink, vivid green; these were just some of the exaggerated, vibrant, 'candy colours' of the vintage cars lined up outside my Havana hotel. They conveyed an optimistic, although somewhat ‘theme-park’, tone to this crumbling Caribbean metropolis. From the guest room window, I had a privileged perspective of La Habana Viaja, the Unesco World Heritage historical centre of Cuba’s sprawling maritime capital. The warm tropical breeze carried up to the window the smell of motorbike and car exhaust from the street below, together with the muscular sounds of the idling car engines, as the drivers hustled for business.
In front of me were the palm trees of Central Park, surrounding the statue of José Martí, the revolutionary philosopher, poet and Cuban national hero, who symbolised island’s desire for independence from colonial Spain. Beyond, towering above the surrounding belle-epoque buildings, is El Capitolio Nacional, the former home of the Cuban Congress, and now an icon of early 20th century Cuba, when the country was very much in the US sphere of influence.
Standing aloft glistening white stonework, the Capitol’s vast dome is shrouded by protective covers, hiding the final labours of craftsmen who have been working on this years-long renovation project. Yet soon the glistening new dome will be unveiled - a powerful symbol of Cuba’s ‘obras por el 500 aniversario’ architectural restoration projects. In the last few years these works have accelerated as the city prepares to mark its 500 years of history.
Cuba’s capital has a population of over two million people, and Old Havana is home to some 50,000 of these Habaneros, living within a tight-knit community, sharing the dilapidated apartment blocks of the once opulent and decadent city centre. Havana has been ravaged not only by poverty under the country’s anti-capitalist Marxism-Leninism one-party government, but also by the unforgiving seasonal tropical storms and hurricanes that sweep across the Caribbean.
On first impression, the dereliction and decay of Old Havana lends the city a weathered beauty. An exotic, romantic atmosphere that is amplified by the classic cars, and the sounds of Cuban tunes and rhythms spilling out from the bars and restaurants.
Behind the weather beauty
Yet the crumbling architecture of some 60 years of neglect also represents an urban community that lives in extremely challenging conditions. If you can speak some Spanish, your experience as a visitor will be greatly enriched - yet also more challenging as one sees beyond the tourist world of art studios, boutique hotels and modern restaurants and instead gains an insight into the reality of life in urban Cuba.
Meander through the scruffy streets and you have the opportunity to meet friendly residents eager to help with directions, recommend a music bar or nearby place to eat. Chat more and you realise that the issues that absorb them are not international politics or global events; they are the mundane challenges of Cuban daily life, such as water or power cuts, unreliable waste collection and the limited availability of affordable, varied food.
However, as a traveller you can indulge in another Cuba, one of refreshing mojitos and colourful daiquiris - and abundant regional delicacies such as ‘tamal en hojas’ (maize with pork, cooked wrapped in corn leaves) and ‘tostones rellenos’ (fried plantain filled with fish or cheese). In the lively city restaurants, you will no doubt be served by Cubans, and entertained by talented Cuban musicians, but the chances are, you won’t be dining with Cubans. That’s because in this predominantly cash economy, there are presently two currencies used on the island.
The CUP (Cuban peso or moneda nacional) is used by locals, whilst the CUC (Cuban convertible peso) is used by visitors. Arriving at the airport you queue at special government cash machines that debit your foreign account and issue CUCs. Almost everything for visitors is priced in CUCs. Since they are valued at some 25 times more than the local currency, don’t expect to see any locals sipping cocktails in your hotel bar. With the monthly salary of most public sector employees being around 1,000 CUP (less than 40 euros), Cubans are priced-out of much of the heart of their own capital city. The occasional fruit stall; mini-market with rationed produce; kiosks selling rum; or an ice cream vendor will be the few CUP-priced enterprises in touristy old Havana.
Yet it appears the focus of Havana’s investment is to grow high-end international tourism, in the hope that the wealth created might trickle down to the locals. Of the 3,000 or so buildings that are just about standing in old Havana, the most emblematic Spanish colonial, neoclassical, and Cuban baroque are being saved and restored. Many are becoming hotels to accommodate the growing number of inquisitive travellers eager to become immersed in this romantic city of tropical rhythms and late-night dancing.
Welcoming the world at 500
With the city’s official 500th anniversary fast approaching, the established hotels are all getting a facelift; and new ones are under construction.
Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is one such landmark that has already been given a new lease of life. This stunning building occupies the entire city-centre block of Manzana de Gómez. In the early 1920s it was the city’s first luxury shopping centre, at the epicentre of Havana’s indulgent, privileged lifestyle. After the Cuban Revolution, the grand building fell into disrepair; until a few years ago when it was developed by the Communist Party authorities into a 240-room luxury hotel.
Starting the day here with breakfast in the Confluencias restaurant, with the Caribbean sunlight bouncing off the mirrors and crystal chandeliers, I had found it hard to imagine that I was staying in a Communist country that rationed food to residents. The generous breakfast buffet was much like any other international five-star hotel. Yet here such an abundance of food could only be dreamed of by the local residents who lived in the surrounding streets.
With the on-going US trade embargo, Russia’s diminishing support, and the crisis in Venezuela, Cuba is more economically isolated than ever before. With limited commercial enterprise, tourism is an increasingly important sector that is keeping this country from collapse.
Antonio, my guide for a morning classic-car tour, was waiting for me at the hotel entrance. The lobby air was scented with the rich earthy aromas of cigars that must have been enjoyed late into the night in the hotel’s smoking lounge by wealthy aficionados from the US, Asia and Europe.
My ride for the morning was a first-generation Chevrolet Bel Air hard top. Its chrome trim and wheels sparkled against the polished black bodywork. Inside one felt cocooned in Eisenhower-era luxury with a thick upholstered roof and bouncy, sofa-like seats. The retro-fitted air conditioning was thankfully set to full-blast, a respite from the Caribbean humidity.
During Cuba’s economic boom years in the 1950s, before Castro seized control, the island imported over 100,000 of these luxury Detroit-made cars from the US including Chevrolets, Buicks, Ford Fairlanes and others. Today over half are thought to have survived - remarkable when you think that spare parts were not allowed to be legally imported for 60 years! Hermes, our driver, told me that these restored classic vehicles now have new engines from China or Korea and are set to continue to be in use for many years to come.
A tour in one of these huge machines certainly lends a sense of surreal, anachronistic glamour among the poverty of Havana. Cruising the city’s famous boulevards is a memorable way to take in the sights - from the imposing communist architecture of the Plaza de la Revolución; the cracked and faded pastel-plastered Spanish colonial buildings of Paseo del Prado to the lively El Malecon seafront boulevard.
Yet Havana, especially the older quarters surrounding the main squares of Partagas, Catedral, Vieja and Armas, can only really be explored on foot. Bars such as La Floridita or La Bodeguita del Medio, so evocative of the Ernest Hemingway era, may well come as a disappointment though, as you wrestle to get a daiquiri at the bar through a two-people-deep crowd. So be willing to explore a little further to discover the Havana that has not yet been gentrified, and ‘repackaged’ for tourists.
For my first night in Havana I had booked a ‘casa particular’, a private home converted for tourism use. Travel specialists Cuba Direct had recommended the family-run Residencia Santa Clara guest house. Found in a residential neighbourhood, away from the man tourist sights, it offered an authentic experience in the city. A chance to meet and chat with locals, to eat home-cooking and glimpse the simplicity of a typical residential neighbourhood.
Pristine white bed sheets billowed in the breeze, hung on washing lines in front of ramshackle and fragile colonial-era façades. Dogs lay in the shade of trees. A few women chatted quietly, while their children sat crouched on the pavement kerbstones. A few hole-in-the-wall stores sold tourist paraphernalia; others home-made art; another stocked just with a few local-branded beers and bottles of Cuban rum.
I walked a little further and stumbled upon small courtyard, attracted by the sound of conversation and laughter. It was the Book and Curiosities Market. Surrounded by vendors’ bookshelves laden with copies of Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; and biographies of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and José Martí, were four men sitting at a small folding table playing dominos. The pace of life appeared undeniable slow.
Yet throughout my stay in Havana I couldn’t help feeling that the residents were impatient for a better future, for faster growth in the city’s quality of life. For the Cuban authorities it would appear the means to a brighter tomorrow is linked to the income from international tourism.