Monday, May 01, 2006

Forbidden Cuba lures travelers

The Chicago Tribune

Americans find ways to visit

By Rosemary McClure

Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

Published April 30, 2006

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 from Canada and Europe.

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 Chevy convertible.

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 archeological 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 don'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, six pounds of rice, three pounds of beans and two 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 their homeland.

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."

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