At the Malecón, the eight-kilometre boulevard hugging Havana’s coastline, I can’t put the camera down.
Fifties-era Studebakers and Dodges cruise the famous long, curved drive lined with mid-century modern hotels and colonial villas. Families relax by the seawall, and rows of men tend to fishing lines dropped into an ocean a slightly darker hue than the cloudless sky above. This is the Havana I’d read about, the charming anachronism I couldn’t wait to see. And I’m determined to see the city now, partly because I wonder how much longer it will stay this beautiful.
Life is changing in Havana. You see it in freshly painted storefronts. There’s even the odd wall of graffiti appearing alongside the crumbling façades of the Malecón. Tourism is on the rise across the island—up 17 per cent in 2015 alone during the year that the United States restored diplomatic ties with Cuba. There’s lingering excitement around Barack Obama’s visit in March 2016. Dozens of hotels are under construction or renovation, and American commercial passenger jets now fly to several Cuban cities. What will all this mean for the future?
On the day I arrive, Carnival Cruise Line’s Fathom-branded MV Adonia becomes the first U.S.-flagged cruise ship to dock in Havana in decades. The Fast and the Furious movie franchise is filming downtown and Karl Lagerfeld is about to stage a Chanel fashion show. I even run into Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at the Rum Museum and manage to sneak their photograph.
ART AND CULTURE ABOUND
Crowds gather outside La Bodeguita del Medio as I pass by and salsa music echoes from this former Hemingway hangout. On my pleasantly haphazard stroll, along with live music venues, I come across a bonanza of museums where exhibits range from rum and archaeology to ceramics and photography, as well as galleries, theatres and artist studios throughout Havana’s downtown historic quarter and the neighbourhoods beyond.
Cuba’s state-funded educational system produces world-class visual artists, performers and musicians. One of them is mixed-media specialist Ángel Ramírez, whom I meet at his second-floor studio on Plaza de las Armas. Ramírez’s works are in the Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts, and in public and private collections from Europe to Japan. He recommends a visit to Fábrica de Arte, an example of the new Havana arts scene. It’s a nightclub and multimedia performance space housed in an abandoned factory in the Vedado neighbourhood. It’s also a rare venue where Habaneros and tourists freely socialize.
Still, some “progress” the artist has observed lately from his perch overlooking one of Habana Vieja’s four main public squares is infuriating. Film production trucks have been clogging traffic as they manoeuvre through the cobblestone streets. “We don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate such an avalanche of people,” he laments.
BEYOND THE TOURIST CENTRE
Reaching Paseo de Martí (also known as Paseo del Prado), I pause for lemonade on the ground-floor terrace of Hotel Inglaterra, a prime people-watching spot. It’s just down the street from the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, where President Obama addressed the Cuban nation.
Then I turn down San Rafael street, in the residential neighbourhood of Centro Habana (Central Havana), conscious of straying ever further from the touristy sheen of Habana Vieja.
Children are playing on the doorsteps of dishevelled apartments that rise over ground-floor shops. I see an ice-cream counter, a barbershop, a pizza takeout counter and a grocery depot, called an agro, where locals collect rations of household necessities like rice, sugar and oil.
There are several for sale signs along the way. Cubans, since 2011, have been allowed to buy and sell their homes and cars, within certain limitations. They’re creating home-based bed and breakfasts and paladares (private restaurants). And they connect to one another (if not yet to the wider world) through recently upgraded Wi-Fi available at hotels and public access hot spots.
Before sunset, I arrive at trendy Paladar San Cristóbal, owned by Carlos Cristóbal Márquez Valdés, who was once Fidel Castro’s chef before he opened this restaurant directly above his modest flat on San Rafael.
The chef sets down pescado Monte Carlo, one of his grandmother’s favourite fish dishes. His grandmother had cooked for some of Havana’s richest families before the Revolution. “With the opening of Cuba to the world, our food and culinary traditions have been enriched through a fusion of ingredients and influences from Europe, America and Latin America,” he says. “At the same time, we’re shining a light on traditional recipes.”
Barack Obama was the sixth president to eat at Paladar San Cristóbal, explains my waiter, Jorge Cotilla Espinosa. Obama ordered triple a solomillo while his wife Michelle tried the Tentación habanera, a fajita-like dish.
Serving them was “the greatest experience of my life,” Cotilla Espinosa says, adding that all Cubans hope for an end soon to the U.S. trade embargo. “Dreams can seem like they’ll never come true, but with positivity and hard work, anything is possible.”
Americans, too, are manoeuvring within a fluid definition of possibility. They can’t legally travel as tourists to Cuba yet, but they can apply for visas for educational, religious and similar reasons. Already the U.S. ranks third, behind Germany and first-place Canada, in the number of visitors it sends annually to Cuba.
I chat with a doctor from Colorado seated at the next table, who had come to Havana as a teenager in 1958, and wanted to return before the city evolves into something he might no longer recognize.
As I leave the paladar, a man across the street is cleaning his parked vintage taxi with a soft cloth. I continue a few quiet blocks and cross over into Habana Vieja and into the inevitable energy of the tourist district once more.
For more information on Cuba, visit:
Cuban Tourist Office: autenticacuba.com
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam:
Havana Biennial: biennialfoundation.org/biennials/havana-biennale; bienalhabana.cult.cu
Hotel Inglaterra: hotelinglaterra-cuba.com
Museo del Ron Havana Club: havana-club.com/en/havana-heritage/havana-club-museum-0