By Randy Wayne White, author of Cuba Straits
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Cuba but I have a patchwork knowledge—the equivalent of snapshots assembled from twenty-some trips, the first in 1977, the most recent in December, a week before the White House announced plans to normalize relations. My Spanish on a good day is poor; my understanding of lingual nuances non-existent. However, my admiration for Cubans and Cuban Americans is limitless and dates back to the Mariel Harbor Boatlift in 1980. I spent more than a week in Mariel and returned on a 55-foot fishing boat overloaded with 147 people who, when we raised Key West, took up this chant: Libertad . . . Libertad . . . Liberty. Witness such bravery, and your life changes. I’m not the only Yankee to visit Cuba during the 50 year embargo, of course, but suspect I’m among the few who have never traveled with a group or tour guide sanctioned by the Cuban government. Tours there are politicized choreography; dissemination with lunch stops. “Researching a book” was and is an unshakeable alibi when dealing with crabby immigration officials. This alone, I hope, qualifies me to offer off-the-beaten-path advice about your first visit to Havana. Don’t wait to plan your visit. Cuba’s clock started ticking about two years ago. Change will come fast when Havana is finally able to breathe.
Get Out and Walk
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Revolution Square (Central Park), across from the Capitol, is a good place to start. It separates Old Havana from Chinatown, and the squalor of a city that, for half a century, has been trapped in a vacuum and is still waiting to breathe. If you exit the park south, you’ll notice a large group of men arguing, using threatening gestures, and spitting. If you’re a student of Cuban profanity, bring a notebook. The first time I saw them (they’re always there) I anticipated a riot and almost hailed a cab. Don’t. They’re just baseball fans—and no one loves, lives, and worships baseball like a Cuban. Meetings are daily at “La Esquina Caliente,” or the Hot Corner, which is what this section of the park is called. Havana’s most famous thoroughfares are the Malecón, five scenic miles that wall the Gulf Stream from the Old City, and Paseo de Prado, a tiled boulevard built for luminaries and parades. Stunning, you bet, but Cuba’s reality—particularly after dark—is found in the narrow calles west of the park. Fear not. The most absurd rumor about the island is that Cubans hate Americans. Just the opposite is true. Even with my bumbling Spanish, I’ve been befriended by street corner domino champs, blessed at a Santeria drum ceremony, and coached in the subtleties of the island’s favorite gambling “sport,” cockfighting, which is brutal, cruel, illegal, but colorful. Once was enough for me, but if you choose to inquire, don’t rely on an English-Spanish dictionary for a literal translation. Cubans call it “Pelea de gallos.” Better to memorize that phrase than risk a misunderstanding.
Visit Colon Cemetery
Colon Cemetery, half-a-mile long and wide, is filled with a million headstones, crypts, and mini-mansions so elaborate that the word “mausoleum” does them an injustice; picture the Parthenon after being spiffed-up by designers of the 1957 Chevy Bel Air. Dating back to the 1800s, Colon is considered one of the most important cemeteries in Latin America because of its architectural marvels. I don’t base this claim on cheap rumors or heresay. Nope. I just looked it up. From personal experience, though, I can promise you’ve never seen anything like this place. It’s Disney World for the dead, with trees rattling in a Gulf Stream breeze instead of lines and noise. On my trip, I found the graves of Dolf Luque (1890-1957) Cuba’s first Major Leaguer, and Buena Vista Social Club pianist Ruben Gonzalez, whom I was lucky enough to meet before he died in 2005.
See a Ballgame
Salsa at the Copacabana, daiquiris at La Floridita, wearing a Meyer Lansky tux at the Hotel Nacional—all fun but standard stops on a tourist’s well-worn trail. For a real island experience, go to a baseball game. The Cuban National League consists of 17 teams in four divisions, and they play in parks that range from rural diamonds with bleachers to facilities that seat 70,000. There’s always a game going on somewhere and most attract a cadre of fans who bring bongos, guitars, trumpets, and accordions; music that, depending on the score, lends an operatic flair, or a joyful thrumming that, to me, resembles a salsa band mounted on galloping horses. I guess you’d have to hear it to understand. And you should. Havana’s equivalent of Yankee Stadium is the Estadio Latinoamericano, or the “Gran Stadium,” as it’s known. It’s less than two miles from Central Park, but it’s better to take a cab. I love watching games there and have twice played on the field with a team of fellow over-the-hill, out-of-shape gringos. Fun, but strange, too, because the stadium is large enough to house government offices unrelated to sport. I once exited the field through a wrong door and surprised a room full of mothers nursing their babies while being lectured on the merits of birth control. Down the hall, through another wrong door, a man in a white smock demonstrated the accepted method of folding what might have been towels. The place is catacomb of bureaucracy and disjointed intent, not unlike Cuba itself.
Stop by Cojimar
Guidebooks unvaryingly reflect itineraries created by Cuba’s largest tourism conglomerate, Gaviota, or satellite agencies, all of which are owned and operated by the Cuban military. Surprised? Don’t be. Police states can be fun—for tourists, anyway. The low crime rate allows some wiggle room for those of us prone to wander off on our own. Here are some ideas you won’t find in any guide books: The fishing village of Cojimar, twenty minutes by cab, was the setting for The Old Man and the Sea. By day, tour busses stop regularly at a restaurant there, La Terraza, but it is tourist-free after dark and a great place for drinks and dinner. A potential perk is that Raúl Corrales Jr. (son of the famous Cuban photographer) and daughter, Claudia, maintain a photo studio nearby. I took a chance, asked around, and now have timeless images of my wife’s first visit to the village where Hemingway moored his boat. The price of an original Corrales? A lot less than I expected, but not close to what the photos are worth.
Explore Museo Masónico
For another under-the-radar spot, travel two miles west of Central Park to an eleven-story art deco building crowned by a lighted, revolving Planet Earth. Seriously. Tell the doorman or guard you want to visit the Museo Masónico. Notice the surprise on his face (few outsiders know about this gem of a museum.) Also notice the massive stone statue near where the guard sits. It is Jose Martí, a Cuban icon, and founder of the country’s first Masonic Lodge. You don’t have to be a Mason, or even an interest in the organization, to enjoy what awaits on the second floor: a meticulously assembled exhibit that traces Cuba’s history from the 18th century to the present, including the island’s fraternal ties to the United States. Nowhere else will you find marble busts of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Roosevelt side-by-side with Martí, Simón Bolívar, and other heroes of the Cuban revolution. The guard will send you to the 11th floor to request permission, and a personal guide will be assigned. While there, ask to take photos from the rooftop; the view is incredible.
Randy Wayne White‘s novels featuring marine biologist Doc Ford and quirky pal, Tomlinson, have enjoyed a growing cult following since the first book appeared in 1990. His newest book, Cuba Straits, will be released in March 2015. Randy was a light-tackle fishing guide at Tarpon Bay Marina, Sanibel Island for 13-years, did more than 3,000 charters, and draws heavily on those experiences for his novels about Dr. Marion Ford and friends at Dinkin’s Bay. Randy’s eighteenth novel, Night Vision, was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in the Spring of 2011 to reviews that continue to cement his position as “one of the hottest writers in America” (Booklist). His previous novels, Black Widow, Hunter’s Moon, Dark Light, Everglades, Twelve Mile Limit, Shark River, Ten Thousand Islands, The Mangrove Coast, North Of Havana, Captiva, and others have accumulated devoted fans world wide. About Randy, the Denver Post wrote “He is a major new talent who has produced a virtually perfect piece of work.” The Tampa Tribune called Randy, “the rightful heir to John D. MacDonald.” A collection of essays, Batfishing in the Rainforest also received excellent reviews. Paul Theroux (author of The Mosquito Coast) wrote: “Batfishing in the Rainforest contains equal parts of comedy and courage. Randy White is not simply a wonderful writer; he is a fishing guide of genius.” Non-fiction books include, Batfishing In The Rainforest, The Sharks Of Lake Nicaragua, Last Flight Out, An American Traveler. Randy was a monthly columnist for Outside Magazine, and traveled the world, writing about natural history, archaeology, anthropology, travel and politics. He covered the America’s Cup in Australia, and has written about Africa, Sumatra, Singapore, Central America, Vietnam, Borneo, Malaysia, the Caribbean, and South America. He has dog sledded in Alaska and brought back refugees from Cuba.