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Cuba, suspended in time

Stricter U.S. rules have made it harder to visit this country of old-world mystique and real-world problems.

January 15, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Havana — FATHER John Bakas walked the crowded cobblestone streets of Old Havana, dined on spicy red beans and rice at an outdoor cafe and led vesper services at a 2-year-old Greek Orthodox Church near Havana Bay. Several members of his congregation, St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, joined him on the November trip, his third to Cuba.

At the same time, Kim Zimmerman, a Los Angeles pediatrician on her first trip to Cuba, was visiting the capital with a group of healthcare workers on a tour designed by Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights organization. She watched young dancers in colorful folk costumes swirl across a makeshift dance floor at a hospital for Down syndrome children, then joined them for a few moments, earning hugs and broad smiles from the troupe.

Bakas and Zimmerman were among an estimated 40,000 U.S. residents who visited the off-limits island of Cuba last year. Despite tough new sanctions from the Bush administration, about 2 million tourists traveled to Cuba in 2005. Most were from Canada and Europe, but U.S. citizens came too.

Some, like Bakas and Zimmerman, visited legally on authorized tours, but many did not, defying U.S. regulations by flying to Havana from Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas or Mexico.

Regardless of how they arrive, most tourists are drawn by Cuba's legendary mystique. It is an intoxicating destination for travelers, a place of fine rum and cigars; sugary-white Caribbean beaches; attractive, friendly people; unbelievable '50s kitsch; potent music and dance; and a wealth of untouched Spanish Colonial architecture.

Once a U.S. playground, Cuba has been forbidden fruit for its giant neighbor to the north since the U.S. trade embargo began more than four decades ago. For some, that makes it all the more inviting.

When I visited in November -- journalists are allowed to travel to Cuba -- I interviewed tourists who were there legally and some who traveled there without U.S. permission. After I returned home, I spoke with others in the latter category, whose names I have not used because they could be subject to fines and prosecution.

"I think everyone who really wants to go [to Cuba] finds a way to get there," said a San Pedro woman who visited Havana last summer, entering by way of Mexico.

Welcome to yesteryear

THE Havana of long ago isn't hard to find. I needed only to step outside Jose Marti International Airport to vault backward in time. Old Studebakers, DeSotos and Oldsmobiles were everywhere, their horns honking and black smoke belching. In town, the 75-year-old Hotel Nacional, onetime host to notables such as Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, overlooked the blue waters of the Straits of Florida in serene elegance. And down along the 7.5-mile seafront boulevard -- the Malecon -- couples embraced or strolled arm-in-arm.

But that night, when I heard a conga drum and the words, "Babalu, babalu, babalu," I really sensed I'd entered a time warp. Desi Arnaz wasn't here, but the Tropicana was, still entertaining guests on its stage under the stars just as it has since 1939. Six platforms from rooftop to aisle were full of swirling dancers in gauzy costumes, many parading hats that could have doubled as hotel chandeliers. Men toked on fat cigars, couples mixed rum-and- cola drinks at their tables and guests swayed to the steamy rhythms of the music.

As my week in Cuba unfolded, I explored Havana on foot and by pedicab, horse-drawn carriage and taxi. The city swept by in indelible images: live chickens being hawked by habaneros to earn extra cash; front-stoop musicians jamming for their neighbors; young ballerinas practicing pirouettes in a storefront studio; newlyweds smiling broadly as they rolled down the Malecon atop a gleaming '52 Chevy convertible, the bride's long white veil streaming behind her in the wind.

Like most tourists, I stayed in Old Havana, La Habana Vieja, the historical core. It was founded in 1514 -- more than 50 years before St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest continuously occupied city in the U.S.

Old Havana is a warren of narrow cobblestone avenues lined with Baroque buildings that have changed little since the 17th and 18th centuries. The street life is vibrant, the surroundings impressive. One of my first stops was the fifth-floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway worked on his 1940 novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

My self-guided walking tour took me to Plaza de Armas, the city's oldest square, a beautifully landscaped park where booksellers barter with tourists and residents. I walked a few hundred yards farther to Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest stone fort in the Americas, and listened as a guide explained an archeological dig and restoration project underway.

Restoration -- I heard the word often in La Habana Vieja. During the last decade charming hotels, cafes and shops have emerged from the disheveled ruins of once-beautiful mansions.

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