It’s hot and sensuous in Cuba, but the climate is changing. Tourists are arriving in droves to taste the authentic Cuban passion for life… before the Americans arrive.
It’s almost midnight on the Malecon, Havana’s famous broad promenade that flanks the ocean, and an old man with a silky tenor voice unexpectedly launches into an emotive ballad. His song carries through the humid night air to the apartment blocks opposite, while around him young couples draw close and spontaneously begin dancing a slow, sexy salsa. Sleep can always wait when there’s a sweet slice of Cuban street poetry like this to savour.
It’s one reason why Cuba is currently on the radar of many travellers. Some say they want to experience the country “before it changes”, although no-one can identify just what Cuba will change into. The US agreement to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba means that more US tourists will soon be coming—and big cruise ships have started docking in Havana—but there seems no eagerness to become colonised by the US. Cuba remains too bold and vibrant to submit.
Visitors are more eager to engage with the local music, dancing, food, rum, and classic cars. Even with a solid language barrier in place—most people speak only a Spanish or Creole dialect—strangers greet you with a grin, or in the rural areas an old cowboy politely tips his hat in greeting. There is no street hustle for money. Instead, a strong sense of community and fraternity flows between young and old, especially at sunset when people haul their rocking chairs into the streets to chat lazily with neighbours.
There’s an absence of Western luxury, yet Cubans live more comfortably than most of their Caribbean and Central American neighbours. It’s noticable as you move around the country, and the landscape changes drastically between cities.
In Cuba’s western highlands, the lush tobacco-growing region around Vinales has steep-sided limestone mogotes erupting dramatically in tight clusters from the surrounding fields. Guajiros, the leather-faced mountain farmers, ride their horses down the main street, while the front porches of shacks covered in brilliant bougainvillea serve as makeshift barbershops.
The vibrant candy-coloured cottages of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, are relics from the early 1800s, when the Spanish colonised this area to produce sugar. The cobblestone streets now ring with a festive spirit. Hot young salsa troupes, such as Profesor de Salsa Cubana, teach the basic steps during rooftop classes, then urge you to put them into practice later that evening at the open-air casa de musica beside the cathedral in Plaza Major. Dancing continues in Disco Ayala, a deep cave on the edge of town formerly used as a hospital during the war of independence but now has intelligent lights pulsing to the salsa beat until 3am. Mornings in the town are understandably slow.
In Cienfuegos—expected to be a major port for Caribbean cruiseliners—concrete homes with sleek art deco lines are being boldly repainted in anticipation of increased tourism. Casa Esparanza, a beautifully clean suburban home that offers bed and breakfast accommodation, has been accepting tourists for six years, and profits have enabled the owners to add a pool, spa, cocktail bar and a second block of rooms in their back yard. It’s far more lively and engaging than a conventional hotel, because you get to know the proud host family through mangled Spanglish and extravagant hand gestures over a few outstanding pina coladas, made with fresh pineapple juice and costing only 2CUK (the equivalent of $2US).
The state-run Casas Particulares program, established in the late 1990s, has helped alleviate a critical shortage of beds. Cuba had 3.5 million visitors last year but only 62,900 hotel rooms, many in tired old buildings or in states of disrepair. Casas have filled the gap, along with Airbnb, which has surged to more than 4000 listings in the past year, making itthe fastest-growing market in Airbnb’s eight-year history.
Casas show a fascinating change in how Cuba is coming to grips with new entrepreneurism, although in the heart of Havana’s old town it’s quite deceptive. Dilapidated mansions near the seafront are a pitiful sight, their crumbling facades signaling both fierce humidity and neglect. Families own a lease for interior apartments, but the government owns the building, and neither considers it their role to repair the outside. So it takes on the look of ruin, while casa rooms inside retain a sense of grandeur: high molded plaster ceilings, brilliant tiled floors, ornate shuttered windows.
Amid these crumbling buildings, there are new signs of life. Frente rooftop bar and restaurant has a cool contemporary style that would be at home in Peel Street or Melbourne’s Flinders Lane. It’s similar at Nao, on a cobblestone laneway, with a salsa band leaning against the wall while we eat the local speciality, ropa vieja: shredded beef flank simmered in tomato-based sauce until it falls apart. It’s understated and delicious.
Throughout this neighbourhood, the avenues crawl with classic American convertibles that serve as taxis. You can stretch out in the back of a pink Cadillac Eldorado, or climb aboard a creaking 1937 Ford Plymouth, still operating by some miracle of makeshift engineering. It matters not that holes punctuate the bare metal floor, or that the gears groan and grind, the young driver, who co-owns the vehicle with his farmer, beams with pride. It’s a curious metaphor for Cuba’s mix of old and new influences; what’s old is new again in heaving Havana, as the climate of change begins to take grip.
All photos courtesy of David Sly—All Rights Reserved.