Cuba, last American frontier

Been to Cuba, twice. Once when working as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter and the other, decades later, with friends from Switzerland. We experienced a lively and colorful Caribbean destination with no McDonald's, no mega-sized cruise ships, only a few tourists on the main streets but, thankfully, both visits featured Cuban coffee, the Tropicana cabaret, aromatic cigars, the finest of Caribbean rum, idyllic scenery, lively music and very friendly locals.

The first visit was shortly after Castro and his amigos (freedom fighters or outlaw guerillas depending on your point-of-view) had taken power, a transition period when few had any idea where Cuba would be politically and economically moving. We took a full-day cab ride around Havana and environs to soak in the local color. The Bacardi rum plant was in full operation as was the Tropicana cabaret but the Batista prisons had been emptied of most prisoners. The waterfront bars/brothels were doing great business and only mildly disrupted where we evidenced a few “Freedom Fighters” from the mountains wearing scraggy beards and dress and sporting machine guns. Late one night, we saw them shoot up the ceiling of one bar where, right above, the women were trying to make wages and tips. At 16 years of age, all new stuff to me.

The return trip, decades later, was more tamed but no less illuminating. Right away, it was not hard to see that the cars made in the USA of the 50’s were elevated to the Cuban pedestal of our Mercedes Benz’s and BMW’s of today.

The coffee bars along the street were occupied on the outside by local workers in the area dropping by for a standing cafecito (espresso brewed with sugar to be very sweet), a cortadito (standard espresso, brewed with sugar, topped off with steamed milk) or a café con leche, (espresso without sugar served alongside a cup of hot or steamed milk). Workers in the area also often buy a colada (3-6 shots of Cuban style espresso served in a Styrofoam cup along with small, plastic demitasses for bringing back to their work and sharing with their colleagues).

The Tropicana cabaret is a Havana institution not to be missed. It was launched in 1939 at Villa Mina, a six-acre suburban estate with lush tropical gardens in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood. Both visits to the Tropicana were highly entertaining. The first was with my mother’s uncle, the ship captain, where I experienced my first mojito and Cuban cigar. Decades later with was with the Swiss couple and similar routines. The show had changed little in the decades-long interval, still as colorful, wild and fun as ever.

When you visit Havana (do it now before the big cruise lines move in), don’t miss Hemingway’s house up in the hills (Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia), El Moro and El Malecon. Also, get out of Havana to see some other parts of the country. And, when visiting a coffee bar (and/or the Tropicana), enjoy an extra sip for me. Gracias, y buen viaje amigos.

Written By Bob Utne, Chairman of EWA Travel

Katlyn Pierre