Photos Credit: Sarah Staples

Havana: Then, Now & Its American Future

Jun. 18th, 2016

As you reach the Malecón—the five-mile boulevard hugging the coastline of Havana—the camera immediately comes out. You can’t help but photograph the mid-century modern hotels, fading colonial villas, and the ‘50s-era Studebakers and Dodges rumbling along: it’s all so beautiful. But as you look closer, you begin to see each cracked concrete seam and neatly re-stitched taxi seat as a reflection of Cubans, and how much they’ve endured. It sets in perspective the very real progress they have made, and all of the promise that stretches out before them, like the view from that famously long, curved sea wall.

A woman on my Cubana Airlines flight described shoes that, as a teenager, she’d hand-stitched for herself from scraps of rubber tire. It was in the mid-1990s, the so-called “Special Period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and departure of Cuba’s Russian backers. Imports of food and construction supplies to maintain buildings and roads, slowed to a trickle. Shortages of fuel needed for farm equipment left agriculture devastated and led to years of famine. Now think of the grit that it takes to rename your worst years of isolation and misery as ‘special.’

In Havana, life is changing. There’s a sense of excitement around President Obama’s state visit in March (the first by a sitting U.S. president in nearly a century) and the renewal of diplomacy with the U.S.— but also hand-wringing about what this will mean for the future of Cuba. Everyone has an opinion.


When I arrived, I went straight to the waterfront, where families and couples were gathered. Vendors pushed carts along the boardwalk. Rows of men tended to long fishing lines that disappeared beneath an ocean that is a little darker than the color of a cloudless sky. And nearby, at Havana Harbor, where the Malecón begins, passengers of the first U.S.-flagged cruise ship bound for Cuba in decades had disembarked from Carnival Cruise Line’s Adonia and disappeared into Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The stars and stripes were on full display, on ball caps, t-shirts, lapel pins sported by Cubans and tourists alike. And news reports predicted at least a dozen cruise lines would debut itineraries crossing the Florida Straight soon.

Tourism has been growing steadily for a couple of decades, and visits by celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Karl Lagerfeld and the Rolling Stones are giving the island a marketing boost. Around 3.5 million visited in 2015, up 17 percent in one year. Of those, around 161,000 were Americans. Even though the embargo remains in place (because only Congress can lift it), the U.S. now ranks third in the numbers of visitors it sends to Cuba, behind Canadians and Germans.

Foreign developers and hotel chains meanwhile are eyeing the beachfronts and world-renowned landmarks. Dozens of hotels are in development or renovations across the country. And in Havana, freshly-painted storefronts—even the odd wall of graffiti—are appearing alongside the Malecón’s crumbling façades. It makes you wonder: how much longer will this city remain a charming anachronism?


“Of course, things are going to get better,” affirmed Angel Norniella who, with his wife and fellow artist Amelia Carballo, runs the ceramics studio Terracota IV onCalle Mercaderes (Merchant's Street), an extensively restored pedestrian way in Old Havana. Carballo served coffee as I admired shelves of ceramic bowls, dishes and figurines, many done in the Raku technique Cuba is famous for.

More tourists arriving will translate into a better standard of living, explained Norniella, as there will be more souvenir-shoppers popping by the studio to support his craft. The couple also produces wall-size murals, “but smaller pieces sell very well because you can easily take them home,” he said.

My route to the studio had consisted of a pleasantly haphazard stroll through the compact, UNESCO World Heritage-listed downtown, which converges with the Malecón at Havana Harbor. By mid-morning, crowds were lining up at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Hemingway’s many hangouts, a popular lunchtime spot for live salsa and mojitos. This and El Floridita (said to have invented the Daquiri) are probably Havana’s most popular tourist bars.


Down the street, I stepped into the darkened Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana to escape the heat. The Plaza de la Catedral—one of four public squares—is another key attraction, housing a museum dedicated to colonial art plus the national contemporary gallery named for Wifredo Lam, Cuba’s foremost artist of the last century. It was all blocked off for a private party hosted for celebrities like Tilda Swinton and supermodels Gisele and Stella Tennan, who were attending a nearby Chanel fashion show.

Skip a stone in the historic quarter, and you’ll most likely hit a few museums, since they sit on practically every block, for every interest—rum, chocolate, tobacco, religious art, archaeology, ceramics, photography, vintage playing cards. Galleries, theaters and artist studios, all make Habana Vieja a true creative and cultural hub of the city. Cuba’s state-funded educational system produces an abundance of artists. Those featured by Terracota IV—Carballo and Norniella, Jorge Ferrero, Angel Rogelio Oliva LLoret, José Ramón González, Agustín Villafaña and others—are all internationally renowned. (Carballo’s works are collected by the wife of former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, for instance).

Outside, a woman with a straw hat walked by waving an American flag, as Norniella later guided me through cobbled streets to meet a friend: Ángel Ramírez was at work on the second floor of the Office of the City Historian, which awards studio space to the country’s best artists—Carlos Guzman, Roberto Fabelo, Zaida del Río, Ernesto Rancaño, and Pedro Pablo Oliva among them.


Havana’s artistic community has been strong for years, said Ramírez, whose mixed-media pieces are in galleries nationally and abroad. Artists are courted by dealers and critics through international cultural exhibitions, like the Bienal de la Habana, he explained. And they’re allowed to operate more entrepreneurially now. As an example, Fábrica de Arte, a performance venue and nightclub housed in an abandoned factory, has become the hottest cultural ticket in town. It’s a mash-up showcase of music, dance, theater, cinema and visual arts, and it represents an unprecedented common ground where Habaneros and tourists freely socialize.

Still, some of the “progress” that Ramírez has observed from his studio overlooking Plaza de las Armas, is infuriating. Dozens of film production trucks had come into the quarter, blocking traffic as they maneuvered through narrow streets to shoot locations for the next installment of the Fast and the Furious. “We don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate an avalanche of people,” he lamented. “A bit of the heart of Havana has been sold.”


One thing’s for sure: it’s best to book months ahead if you want to find a place to stay in Havana. Kim and Khloe Kardashian along with Kanye West (who I spotted leaving the Museo del Ron Havana Club), were rumored to be staying at one of the renovated grand dames, Iberostar Parque Central. I was at the business-chic Melia Habana. Culturally-motivated tourists looking for a home-stay experience can try one of the growing thousands of B&Bs, bookable through Airbnb or travel agents. But only Americans can book through Airbnb, for now, since the U.S.-based company is legally restricted from “supporting travel by non-U.S. citizens” to Cuba.

Many of the best little boutique hotels are owned by Habaguanex, a hospitality company created by the same Office of the City Historian that is responsible for rehabbing dozens of colonial buildings in Old Havana. If you can, stay at Hotel Saratoga, the Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal, or the Santa Isabel: three gorgeous examples of old-town luxury. Or, for a bit of whimsy, try one of the themed hotels, such as Conde de Villanueva, dedicated to cigar aficionados, which has a cigar-roller on staff. Profits from Habaguanex’s hotels, restaurants, tours and museums are reinvested in preservationist activities and in community housing and health projects.

Nearby, the Office of the City Historian has a university campus to train future preservationists. It’s in a rare modernist building that used to belong to an American company, which had demolished a colonial structure and installed a helipad on the new rooftop. The City Historian ordered the whole thing wrapped in mirrored glass. If nothing could save the original architecture, they reasoned, at least the building should reflect back Old Havana as it was meant to look.


People-watching is the thing at Hotel Inglaterra, steps from the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, where Obama formally addressed the Cuban nation. The hotel is in a neighborhood next to Habana Vieja, called Centro Habana. It fronts onto a broad avenue called Paseo de Martí (or Paseo del Prado), which was the first paved street in Havana, a beacon of progress in times past. Today, the area is a densely-packed microcosm of life, where around 116,000 live in a neighborhood originally designed for 25,000.

I finished my lemonade and made my way down San Rafael street, conscious of straying ever-further from the touristy sheen of Habana Vieja. Children played on the doorsteps of disheveled apartments that rose over ground-floor shops. There was an ice-cream stand, a barbershop, even a pizza takeout counter, and several grocery depots called “agros,” where people pick up monthly rations of rice, sugar, oil, soap, salt and similar necessities.

There were several For-Sale signs along the way. Cubans have been allowed to buy and sell their homes and cars since 2011. They can own two properties maximum, but can only sell them to fellow Cubans. They’re also allowed to travel abroad in a controlled way (on artist exchanges, for instance), and they connect through growing numbers of public Wi-Fi hotspots dotting the country.

For the last few years, Cubans have also been able to open home-based businesses. I thought of my tour guide Alba Adelis Mosqueda, a trained engineer who makes a better living today in tourism and has turned her home, a couple of blocks from the national theater, into a B&B. I felt safe as a woman walking alone in Alba’s neighborhood in the evening—Cuba has one of the lowest crime rates in Latin America. But eventually I picked up the pace, the sun was setting and I was heading to dinner at one of Havana’s trendiest private restaurants.


Barack Obama was actually the sixth president to eat at Paladar San Cristóbal. He ordered solomillo—triple A steak—while Michelle Obama tried the “Tentación habanera,” a fajita-like dish with fried plantains. The Kardashian entourage had dined there the previous evening, and as I arrived, Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, was tucking into his main course. Waiter Jorge Cotilla Espinosa served the Obamas, “the greatest experience of my life,” he called it. All Cubans are hoping that more than a half-century of embargo may soon be over, he said. “Dreams can seem like they’ll never come true, but with positivity and hard work, anything is possible.”

I let owner Carlos Cristóbal Márquez Valdés decide what to serve, and he chose pescado Monte Carlo, his favorite fish dish to prepare ever since he was a 10-year-old learning to cook at his grandmother’s side. She served some of Havana’s richest families before the revolution. He’d been Fidel Castro’s chef, before opening the restaurant directly above his modest home on San Rafael street, but he didn’t mention this. “With the opening of Cuba to the world, our food and culinary traditions have been enriched with a fusion of ingredients and influences from Europe, America and Latin America,” he said. “At the same time, Cuban cooking is attracting attention and we’re shining a light on traditional recipes.”

Taking time to stop by every table, the chef urged, “Every guest is equal as far as I’m concerned.” Weeks later, he would leave for New York, to cook alongside Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Masaharu Morimoto and Charlie Palmer at the Rockefeller Center’s Citymeals on Wheels fundraiser. Such a collaboration might well have been unthinkable a few years ago. 


Americans are maneuvering within an equally fluid definition of what is possible in Cuba. U.S. Commerce department regulators have officially green-lighted six U.S. airlines to start flying to the country this fall. At the same time, Americans still can’t legally travel there as tourists—though they can apply for 12 different visas, from educational to religious reasons. No matter. They’re coming anyway.

At the next table was a doctor who had visited Havana as a teenager with his parents in 1958. He said he wanted to return before the city evolves into something he might no longer recognize. Across the street as I was leaving the restaurant, a man was cleaning his parked vintage taxi with a soft cloth. I continued a few quiet blocks through the neighborhood to the Paseo del Prado, and crossed back into Habana Vieja; into the inevitable energy of the tourist district once more.

Sarah Staples

Sarah Staples’ award-winning travel and lifestyle stories are published internationally in print and online. Sarah writes the monthly Frequent Flyer short profile series in Air Canada’s enRoute inflight magazine, and is a veteran of feature reporting and travel assignments in the Americas, Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia-Pacific. Along with JustLuxe, she has upcoming bylines in EnRoute, Dreamscapes and Ensemble Vacations magazines, Sharp magazine’s Fall 2016 Book for Men, Montreal’s The Gazette newspaper fall style supplement, Walmart’s Live Better print and tablet edition magazines, and more. ...(Read More)