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Cuba And Old Havana: 'Expect The Unexpected'

The easing of travel restrictions to Cuba could unleash a torrent of 'Yanqui' tourists, something that has the potential to transform a poor island that is rich in history, architecture and natural beauty.

WUSF's Steve Newborn visited Cuba with Sarasota-based Sea to Shore Alliance before the United States embassy reopened. He takes us on a tour of Old Havana and sees what is being done to prepare for a possible influx of newcomers.

Even though it's only a 45-minute charter plane ride from Tampa or Miami, going to Cuba is like going back 60 years in time.

Your first clue that this isn't an ordinary stop comes when you step off the plane at Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Marti-La Habana. Here, you walk on the hot tarmac to a terminal that looks like it's from the dawn of aviation. Throngs of people cling a metal railing at the terminal exit - perhaps looking to get their first look at a relative bringing in something from the states. People shove huge carts laded with shrink-wrapped goods brought from Florida

My first view outside: a 1956 Pontiac taxi in mint condition, in front of a billboard exhorting, "Revolucion Socialista!"

Later, I take in the view from my hotel rooftop.

View of Havana's port from my hotel rooftop
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
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WUSF News
View of Havana's port from my hotel rooftop

My first impression of Havana is that it's a cacophony of people everywhere - most of them walking or riding buses or jitneys that spew exhaust, and these magnificent old cars from the 50's. I took a ride in a 1953 Mercury that was in mint condition - that, if it was back in the states, it would have fetched $50,000. And you ride past these magnificent, grand crumbling mansions along the waterfront that would be worth millions of dollars in Florida.

We walk through ancient cobblestone streets to one of the few bars humming on a weekday night. Only a handful of tourists gather around La Bodeguita del Medio, an historic bar that claims to have invented the Mojito, the island's signature rum drink.

Here, Havana beckons like a grand dame, the belle of the ball way past her prime.

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Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
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WUSF News
Scene in Old Havana

"We have to take back the history that was falling down," says Raul, our tour guide, as we walk through Old Havana.

The old city boasts cathedrals dating from the 1500's. Our guide blames the decay on the "special period," right after the Soviet Union collapsed, when Cuba lost its major benefactor. He says they're betting on tourism to pay for renovations that are slowly remaking this crumbling capital.

"It's one of the reasons that buildings are being rebuilt, and that's one of the things we're doing right now. So you're going to see many buildings in Old Havana in bad shape, because they're going to be fixed again," he says. "Many of these buildings are lived in by people, many of them have fallen down but their facade stay, because the office of the historian wants to keep it for in the future to make something else. So I'm sorry if you don't like that things are the same in Havana, but some people say it's part of it's richness, no, to have old things and new things together, Ok? So let's go on..."

I'm in Havana courtesy of Sea to Shore Alliance. The Sarasota-based environmental group organized a first-ever tour of manatee breeding grounds in the south of Cuba. Before we arrived in Havana, Alliance executive director James "Buddy" Powell told me to "Expect the Unexpected."

"We're going to see some changes, particularly along the waterfront, in that area of Old Havana the renovations are pretty dramatic compared to what I saw 15, 16 years ago," he said. "You're seeing many more newer cars, and more of them. You're seeing people who tend to be a bit better dressed, you're certainly seeing a lot more tourists, where 15, 16 years ago it would be rare to see any other American."

-MU

At the shore of a little beach town called Playa Larga, on the Bay of Pigs, a four-man band plays American standards to a handful of tourists, mostly Europeans. The site of the failed 1961 counter-revolution is a languid, tropical place with two streets and pristine coral reefs a dozen yards offshore. There, I saw a man carrying a sailfish off his rowboat. It looked like something out of "Old Man and the Sea."

Freshly-cleaned catch at Playa Larga
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
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WUSF News
Freshly-cleaned catch at Playa Larga

Before that, we looked for manatees on the Isla de la Juventud, the southern Isle of Youth. We stayed at the Hotel Colony, built in 1959 just weeks before the Cuban revolution. It hasn't changed much since. This place is so retro, it almost seems new. Except for two British tourists, we were the only people there. Swaying palm trees frame a Caribbean beach utterly devoid of people.

It's a little more bustling in the capital, which seems a world away. Powell has been to Havana at least 25 times since 1999.

I ask him how important it would be opening Cuba to El Norte.

"It's not only important for Cuba, but it's of global importance. Because Cuba and Havana have been the hub for development for this entire region throughout this entire region of the world," he said, "from the day Columbus set foot."

So in many ways, the isolation is an historical aberration, and it's just now coming back to where it's always been.

As I get back on the plane, I can only imagine what a culture shock it will be to come back to the 21st Century.

Cuba And Old Havana: 'Expect The Unexpected'
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Caribbean moonlight at El Colony Hotel on the Isla de la Juventud
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
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WUSF News
Caribbean moonlight at El Colony Hotel on the Isla de la Juventud