Cuba has been invaded by an army of tourists looking for rum, sun, fun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PLAYA GIRON, Cuba -- The Bay of Pigs sweeps wide, in a big open-arm caress of the Caribbean Sea.

As natural endowments go, Cuba has more alluring bays than Bahia de Cochinos and silkier beaches than Playa Giron.

Few are more historic, though.

If the Cuban revolution had its stirring in 1956 when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro clambered ashore from a leaky yacht called the Granma, it came of age here in 1961 when Mr. Castro's forces throttled an invasion by U.S.-trained mercenaries and exiled Cubans.

Today's invaders are the tourists who flock here to soak up sunshine, lunch in the shade of seagrape trees and drink Cuban beer unfazed by the fact that Mr. Castro's communist government runs the island.

"You're guaranteed good weather here -- sunshine we can't get at home," says Patrick Keyes of Dublin, Ireland. "I'm glad to be here now. Ten years from now, you'll have charter planes flying in 24 hours a day."

A mere 90 miles from Florida, the land of rum, sun and Ricky Ricardo is hot, hot, hot. To accommodate a surge in tourists, Cuba is building more beachfront hotels and training more Cubans as social directors, dance instructors, tour guides and desk clerks.

Tourism brings needed infusions of cash. Cuba expects to welcome 400,000 tourists in 1992 and predicts 1.5 million by 1995.

Although it is illegal for most Americans to visit here, on Sept. 17 a panel chaired by former Defense Secretary Elliott Richardson recommended that flights and civilian communications resume between the two countries.

Europeans have a growing awareness of Cuba. Italians, Spaniards, Germans, French and British are finding a vacationland less crowded and less expensive than back home.

Canadians come by the planeload, too.

All the touristic activities are here -- Spanish-flavored historic cities, good restaurants, museums, diving and snorkeling at the Isle of Pines, party boats, night life, a Sea World-style dolphin show and white sand beaches such as Varadero, considered one of the world's top 10.

For Americans, except for the late 1970s and early 1980s, when travel restrictions were relaxed, the door to Cuba has been virtually shut to U.S. tourists since Mr. Castro's revolution in 1959.

Some cheat and come through third countries.

Americans who do slip in find plenty that's American.

Like baseball. Cuba's team won the gold medal at the Summer Olympics. U.S. dollars are what tourists spend here. There's the big U.S. naval base at Guantanamo. And '50s-era American-made cars are everywhere -- repainted and renewed Chevys, Studebakers and De Sotos. Cubans get behind the wheel when they can get the gas.

More Americans would come if U.S. laws allowed it. Cruise lines, hotel chains and airlines are taking aim, hoping for the U.S. trade embargo to be lifted.

What will it take?

Can you say adios, Fidel?

As long as Mr. Castro stays in power, U.S. tourists will not be allowed, say Cuba-watchers. When and how the 65-year-old leader goes is anyone's guess, but Cuba's economy is abysmal, fuel and food are rationed and dissension is growing.

"It's only a matter of time before the Americans come in," one Londoner told me. "I like it the way it is now, not overdeveloped or expensive."

Before 1959, the world played here. In Havana, you can still see the house Hemingway lived in, where he ate, and Floridita, the dark-wood bar he drank daiquiris in.

In its heyday, Cuba was exotic, erotic. There were sexpot shows, gambling and lavish parties at villas the wealthy built along the sea.

Such capitalist debauchery isn't allowed in communist Cuba. Still, Cubans who can scrape up the pesos rent the mansions for holidays. Looking forlorn on the beach, these estates are tile-roofed touchstones to a grander time.

But tourists are living it up.

At a lovely oceanside house called Mi Casita, I had divine grilled shrimp while watching the sun drop into the Gulf of Mexico. Another night, it was plates of pasta piled high at Restaurant Polichinela.

The travelogue Cuba includes the horse-and-buggy taxis of Cardenas, grazing cattle along the Atlantic Coast, and lush fields of sugar cane, banana and tapioca plants to the south.

It's the smile of a youngster at a gift of gum, handsome Cuban men and women with their brandy-colored skin and 200 glistening bays and beaches.

A look around:

Havana: For an unforgettable view of Havana across the harbor, stand at the ramparts of Morro Castle (1589). Cuba's capital is squatter than I expected, and there's less of a din with the fuel shortfall.

The dreary asphalt of Revolution Square, where Mr. Castro addresses political rallies, is anchored by a statue of Jose Marti and ringed by government and Communist Party buildings. Behind are Mr. Castro's heavily guarded offices and living quarters.

Old Havana invites a stroll, especially along the wide, tree-shaded Prado.

A few blocks from the Malecon, the harbor-side drive, is the Museum of the Revolution, housed in the former presidential palace; alongside this is a park full of war toys.

Worth a look is a museum of old cars in the former Municipal Palace. The museum's Spanish courtyard and architecture are as appealing as its exhibits. At the cobblestoned Cathedral Plaza, you'll note unmatched towers on the church -- one was reduced to let a street go through. In the city, good panoramic views are possible from the Tower restaurant.

Guama: Footbridges connect the islands of Guama, a thatch-roofed, canal-side village on the swampy south coast -- accessible by motor launch. An excellent park of sculpture and huts shows how the Taino Indians lived and played until the Spanish came. A hotel of thatch-roofed huts on islands is the only one I know where you get a boat at check-in.

This was once crocodile country. Now the crocs are corralled in fenced pens. Cubans rope the reptiles, pose for pictures and pass the hat. Disgusting.

Bellamar's Cave: Deep inside the belly of Cuba is a subterranean world of cream-colored stalagmites, stalactites and underground springs. "I feel like Indiana Jones," said one British visitor as each stony passageway led us to new floodlit wonders. Bellamar's Cave has drawn tourists since workers accidentally discovered it in the 1850s. We paused under a dazzling stalactite ceiling that resembled shredded coconut -- sort of like being inside a Mounds bar. You'll walk more than a mile, it's plenty hot, and thin air makes resurfacing a heart-pounding climb. It's outside Matanzos, which sprawls around a deep-water bay.

Du Pont Mansion: Buff-colored, with heavy, dark-wood trim, the green-roofed estate sits imposingly above a sea wall taking thundering hits from the Atlantic Ocean. In its heyday, the mansion was home to Irenee du Pont and a steady stream of glitterati attended by 40 servants. A favored sport was iguana fighting, and you can picture wealthy, white-suited friends of the family cheering on their favorite lizards.

Seven du Ponts lived here, though there are nine upstairs bedrooms, with their original furnishings. A door opens on the innards of the pipe organ, which you can walk through. Climb the narrow stairway up to the Moorish ballroom with its tile work and stunning, open-air views of the sea. Dine in baronial elegance at Las Americas, the restaurant in the library, parlors and other rooms on the main floor.

Marifiesta: Fast-paced shows of Cuban song and dance light up the Oasis International Hotel nightly except Monday. With glittery headdresses, the barest of costumes, the color and the percussive Cuban rhythms with their African nuances, Marifiesta a show made to order for a bottle of Havana Club rum (five-year), sitting back and letting Cuba take you away. $30.

Tropicana: Big and flashy, the Tropicana show has been a Havana mainstay since 1939. Angular dancers and singers perform outdoors in an Eden-like setting of palm trees, fountains and tropical foliage. So much onstage spectacle tends to smother the music (purists might prefer Marifiesta). But for staging and outrageous headdresses, the Tropicana is unrivaled. The Trop has seen the likes of Al Capone, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. $40.

Still, Havana, once playpen of the Caribbean, is a city of faded glory.

Habaneros have their own tombs: run-down shoe boxes for living quarters. It is why so many are out on the streets walking. Walking is something to do.

L Night life is television for those lucky enough to have one.

Havana (spelled and pronounced "Habana" here) literally is falling down. When time-worn buildings are in danger of collapse, residents move to apartment towers outside the city, a guide explained.

Havana's problem is it doesn't laugh. There's no gaiety in its old plazas or music on every street corner or sidewalk cafes in the sun.

Just lines.

At a tree-shaded city park near the Havana Libre Hotel, lines are long for ice cream. Because it is good? Because it is food, said a woman in line.

On a Havana street closed to traffic, I follow a long line to the source: mystery meat in a bun that locals unofficially call McCastro burgers.

Everything is rationed. If it is not your assigned day of the month to use your ration coupon for meat, rice, beans, deodorant, toilet paper -- whatever -- you do without or take your chances on the black market, where prices are 10 times higher.

Cubans aren't allowed in tourist shops. Those with a few dollars in their pockets have tourists shop for them. There is risk. Cubans caught with unauthorized goods such as sugar or toothpaste lose them and pay a fine.

While all this hardship is happening, tourists eat their fill in hotels and restaurants. At glittery shows, the rum flows in rivers. You realize there are two Cubas: the tourist Cuba and the real Cuba, the one that's hemorrhaging under Mr. Castro's rule.

To his credit, Mr. Castro improved the living standards of Cuba's peasants and poorest laborers. He raised health standards and wiped out illiteracy. But Cuba's economy is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist satellites in Eastern Europe.

What amazes me is that through all their hardship, Cubans hang in there. They are accepting, easygoing, unfailingly friendly to foreigners. Including Americans.

If you go . . .

The rest of the world's tourists are here, lapping up one of the greatest vacation bargains around.

Some American tourists are among them, using backdoor points of entry.

With few exceptions, travel by Americans to Cuba is restricted to journalists, researchers, people with close relatives in Cuba and those on government business.

A 29-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba makes it dicey for American tourists to go there. Some are going anyway.

Americans curious about this proximate yet outlawed land are slipping in on charter flights from such third countries as Canada, Jamaica, Cayman, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. Generally, fly-stay packages are for two to four days.

Luckily, Cuban authorities don't stamp passports. No one's the wiser.

It's not exactly illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. The catch is that you are forbidden to spend your dollars there.

U.S. government officials have no count of the number of Americans who travel to Cuba. It is likely in the thousands and certain to zoom if restrictions are lifted.

On Sept. 17, a task force of the Inter-American Dialogue, a business and political forum headed by former Defense secretary and attorney general Elliott Richardson, said Cuba would be less stifled politically if exchange of information and ideas with the United States were encouraged.

Resuming air service, improving mail and telephone links and encouraging cultural and academic exchange "is the best way to foster political opening [in Cuba]," the panel said.

U.S. citizens in Cuba are without the protection of a U.S. embassy. A U.S. Interests Section is maintained at the Swiss Embassy in Havana (phone 320551), and you should register, but that's it.

"I'm not saying no one slips through the net; they do," says Treasury Department spokesman Bob Levine. "But they're not supposed to go and can get into trouble."

American tourists caught violating the Trading with the Enemy Act are subject to up to $250,000 in fines and 10 years in jail.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
27°