As we stepped from the bus in Havana I noticed there were no horse-drawn carriages in the streets as we had seen in Holguin, Cuba, 13 hours earlier in the day. But 1950’s era American cars were everywhere. I thought what perseverance the Cuban people must have to keep these vintage vehicles on the road. Used primarily as taxis, they provide basic transportation for tourists and Cubans alike. Our whole trip to Cuba was like something out of a Hollywood movie. It was as if we were on some magical time machine, and time stood still in 1959 for this Island nation, the year of the revolution.
At the first sign of morning light Nancy and I hiked a few blocks to the Malecón, Havana’s 8km-long ocean boulevard with wide open views of the beautiful Caribbean Sea. It somehow felt romantic as we peered into the crystal blue waters, with vintage buildings surrounding us in dire need of repair. We found Havana to be a vibrant run-down city, but viewing the beautiful architecture with a little imagination gave us visions of what the city must have been like in the 1950’s. Through all the disrepair, grit, and grime the grand old beauty fascinated us.
As we hiked the old town streets, we could not help but be drawn to the contrasts everywhere we turned. The Cuban people were often making do with what little they had yet seemed genuinely happy about life, and proud of their country.
Cutting through a side street, we suddenly came upon another stark contrast. The Hotel Nacional built in 1930 stood out as a diamond in all the rough. This world-class upscale old building in outstanding condition seemed totally out of place in this run-down city. Clearly this unique building was a government priority. As we walked through the Cuban Missile Crisis era lookout bunkers on the hotel grounds, I couldn’t help but think that even the finest hotel in Havana had a hidden vintage character lurking just like the rest of the city.
Havana certainly has a unique history frequented by pirates, poets, authors, and politicians. One of the most famous to many Americans is Ernest Hemmingway. He loved the city so much he lived in the village of San Francisio de Paula just outside of town from 1939-1960. In his house overlooking Havana, commonly known as the Finca Vigía, he wrote much of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Remarkably, the Cuban Government has worked since 2005 with a team of US engineers, conservationists and architects to restore his home as he left it with all his furniture and artwork intact. A 30 minute taxi ride from Havana took us to the front door of the Finca. We stood before the open windows and doors in amazement. It looked like the famous writer just stepped out for a visit to his favorite pub. His home furnished like he left it, was filled with his books and hunting trophies. You can even see the columns of numbers scribbled on the bathroom wall where Hemmingway religiously recorded his weight and blood pressure. I couldn’t help but imagine what life must have been like for Hemmingway in this beautiful home. I could almost see him at his desk writing with those sharpened #3 pencils. I can see him, drink in hand, staring out over his view of Havana contemplating his next chapter. It is one of those scenes I will relive for many years to come.
The next day our visit to Cuba came to an end, but it felt different than any of our other travels to faraway places. It felt like we were going to get back on the time machine to the year 2014. I must admit I would have liked to explore the Cuban time capsule a little longer. My only consolation are the photos I took of some of our remarkable moments in our time.
Safe travels… and may the remarkable moments be yours.