Posted on Sun, Jan. 29, 2006
Cuba's mystique luring tourists
Travel industry growing despite U.S. sanctions
By Rosemary McClure
Los Angeles Times
HAVANA - The Rev. John Bakas walked the crowded cobblestone streets of Old
Havana, dined on spicy red beans and rice at an outdoor cafe and led vesper
services at a Greek Orthodox Church near Havana Bay. Several members of his
congregation, St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, joined him
on the November trip, his third to Cuba.
At the same time, Kim Zimmerman, a Los Angeles pediatrician on her first
trip to Cuba, was visiting the capital with a group of health care workers
on a tour designed by Global Exchange, a San Francisco human-rights
organization. She watched young dancers in colorful folk costumes swirl
across a makeshift dance floor at a hospital for children with Down
syndrome, then joined them for a few moments, earning hugs and broad smiles
from the troupe.
Bakas and Zimmerman were among an estimated 40,000 U.S. residents who
visited the off-limits island last year. Despite tough new sanctions from
the Bush administration, about 2 million tourists traveled to Cuba in 2005.
Most were from Canada and Europe, but U.S. citizens came, too.
Some, such as Bakas and Zimmerman, visited legally on authorized tours, but
many did not, defying U.S. regulations by flying to Havana from Canada,
Jamaica, the Bahamas or Mexico.
Regardless of how they arrive, most tourists are drawn by Cuba's legendary
mystique. It is an intoxicating destination for travelers, a place of fine
rum and cigars; sugary-white Caribbean beaches; attractive, friendly people;
unbelievable '50s kitsch; potent music and dance; and a wealth of untouched
Spanish Colonial architecture.
Once a U.S. playground, Cuba has been forbidden fruit for its giant neighbor
to the north since the U.S. trade embargo began more than four decades ago.
For some, that makes it all the more inviting.
When I visited in November - journalists are allowed to travel to Cuba - I
interviewed tourists who were there legally and some who traveled there
without U.S. permission.
"I think everyone who really wants to go (to Cuba) finds a way to get
there," said a Los Angeles woman who visited Havana last summer, entering
by way of Mexico.
The Havana of long ago isn't hard to find. I needed only to step outside
Jose Marti International Airport to vault backward in time. Old Studebakers,
DeSotos and Oldsmobiles were everywhere, their horns honking and black smoke
belching. In town, the 75-year-old Hotel Nacional, onetime host to notables
such as Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, overlooked the blue waters of
the Straits of Florida in serene elegance. And down along the 7.5-mile
seafront boulevard - the Malecon - couples embraced or strolled arm-in-arm.
That night, when I heard a conga drum and the words, "Babalu, babalu,
babalu," I really sensed I'd entered a time warp. Desi Arnaz wasn't here,
but the Tropicana was, still entertaining guests on its stage under the
stars just as it has since 1939. Six platforms from rooftop to aisle were
full of swirling dancers in gauzy costumes, many parading hats that could
have doubled as hotel chandeliers. Men toked on fat cigars, couples mixed
rum-and-cola drinks at their tables and guests swayed to the steamy rhythms
of the music.
As my week in Cuba unfolded, I explored Havana on foot and by pedicab,
horse-drawn carriage and taxi. The city swept by in indelible images: live
chickens being hawked by habaneros; front-stoop musicians jamming for their
neighbors; young ballerinas practicing pirouettes in a storefront studio;
newlyweds smiling broadly as they rolled down the Malecon atop a gleaming '52
I found the people of Havana to be good-humored, sharing jokes and stories
about life in a Communist regime. "Havana has 2 million people," one man
told me, "and 1 million police."
There's speculation about life after Castro, who has been in power since
Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. "When the dog is dead," a habanero told
me, "there is no rabies."
Like most tourists, I stayed in Old Havana, La Habana Vieja, the historical
core. It was founded in 1514 - more than 50 years before St. Augustine,
Fla., the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States.
Old Havana is a warren of narrow cobblestone avenues lined with Baroque
buildings that have changed little since the 17th and 18th centuries. The
street life is vibrant, the surroundings impressive. One of my first stops
was the fifth-floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway
worked on his 1940 novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
My self-guided walking tour took me to Plaza de Armas, the city's oldest
square, a beautifully landscaped park where booksellers barter with tourists
and residents. I walked a few hundred yards farther to Castillo de la Real
Fuerza, the oldest stone fort in the Americas, and listened as a guide
explained an archaeological dig and restoration project under way.
Restoration - I heard the word often in La Habana Vieja. During the last
decade, charming hotels, cafes and shops have emerged from the disheveled
ruins of once-beautiful mansions.
Neglected for more than four decades, Havana is rife with imperfections:
Sewage runs in the streets; water pipes won't work; abandoned structures,
some converted into slum housing, collapse overnight.
When Fidel Castro's rebel army won in 1959, life changed irreversibly for
the Cuban people; it changed again in 1990 when the Soviet Union departed,
taking its financial subsidies with it.
Cubans have little cash - incomes range from about $10 to $18 a month - and
supplies are hard to come by. A ration system allows each person eight eggs,
6 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of beans and 2 pounds of sugar monthly. But
Cubans have universal health care and an effective education system.
Despite the economic hardships, residents have a contagious energy and
enthusiasm. They savor life, are warm to visitors and are passionate about
After Havana, I went west, away from the heavy pollution and crowded
streets. Cuba, about the size of Pennsylvania, unfurled a land of mountains,
beaches and vast farmlands.
A multilane autopista took me into Pinar del Rio province, past tobacco
plantations, verdant grasslands and farmers tilling ocher-colored fields
with teams of oxen.
The highway itself offered entertainment: Billboards bore revolutionary
sayings and advice; hawkers stood at the side of the road selling cheese,
grilled chickens and live turkeys; huge groups of hitchhikers hid from the
tropical heat under overpasses.
About three hours outside Havana, I reached Valle de Vinales, where oddly
shaped mounds of limestone tower over a patchwork quilt of farms. The
scenery was striking, but more interesting were the people, many of them
guajiros, Cuban peasant farmers. I stopped to talk to several; all were
gracious, talking about their fields and crops.
I saw few tourists on the road. Although Cuba's tourism industry is one of
the fastest-growing in the world, most visitors see only the country's beach
resorts or Havana.
Varadero, about 100 miles east of Havana, draws many Canadians and Europeans
to its surfside hotels, which stretch along a sandy isthmus facing the
Straits of Florida. It's a magnet for budget travelers. Canadians can
purchase a weeklong, all-inclusive vacation for $700, including airfare.
More than 600,000 arrived last year.
Cuba continues to expand tourist facilities, planning new resorts and
encouraging foreign investment in hopes of luring more Canadian, European
and Latin American tourists. But the big plum is just next door.
"The highest spenders are Americans," said Miguel Alejandro Figueras, a
Cuban tourism official. "We want them to come. We think they want to come."
He's hopeful that change is on the horizon. If it is, will Cuba be ready?
"The first million American tourists will be no problem. But give us notice
for the second million."