Time Travel in Cuba
Ernest Hemingway’s niece visits the author’s favorite island
There are but a few places in the world that seem trapped in a time bubble. Havana, Cuba, is one such place. The city skyline looks much as it did in the 1950s when my uncle Ernest Hemingway was writing his novella, The Old Man and the Sea. What attracted my uncle to live and write in Cuba was far more than just the fine weather, great fishing and good coffee. He loved the colorful characters, the diverse culture and the rich history. And Havana still offers this marvelous milieu.
However for Americans today, travel to this Caribbean island is not as easy as it was back then. To visit Cuba, citizens must first get a travel license. The best way to do that is to join a tour group that is already licensed by the U. S. Treasury Department. Because of the economic embargo against Cuba, the U. S. government has restricted travel by Americans for the last 50 years.
My first visit to Cuba was in 2001, when I was researching for my book, Hemingway
in Cuba. I returned several times over the next two years with my husband, Jeff Lindsay, and produced a PBS documentary on the same subject. But travel to the island became highly restricted after our military moved terrorists to our naval base in Guantanamo. In January of 2011, some of these restrictions were eased. Today, more than 250 travel agents across the U. S. fulfill the legal requirements to lead Cuban tours. Most are through universities and religious or non- profit organizations. To join a tour, you must follow an itinerary that focuses on visiting historical, cultural or religious sites.
A year ago, my husband and I returned to the island with a small group of friends and family members. Our tour was led by Scott Schwar, who’s licensed by the Treasury Department to conduct Cuba travel programs. We stayed in the elegant and newly restored Hotel Sevilla just off the Prado, a pedestrian boulevard, in Central Havana. After checking in we did a walking tour of Old Havana and then a bus tour around the Havana Harbor to El Morro Castle, where we watched the reenactment of the historic sunset cannon ceremony and enjoyed the breathtaking view and lights of Havana and the Malecon, the harbor’s famous promenade.
Our days were spent visiting with artists, students and teachers. We stopped at a ballet school and in the evening watched a
staged performance of flamenco dancers’ interpretation of Phantom of the Opera. The next day we toured Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts, then made a lunch stop at the Jose Fuster Art Studio, which takes up three blocks and covers most of the neighbor’s homes and walls. Using colorful tiles, Fuster creates mosaics that resemble Picasso- like images depicting a Dr. Seuss story.
On our last day we visited my Uncle Ernest’s home in Cuba. His estate is located just outside of Havana in the hills of San Francisco de Paulo and is called Finca Vigia, which literally translates as “Lookout Farm.” And from the top of a three- story tower, you can see the Cojimar coastline and deep blue of the Gulf Stream that flows just off shore. When we last visited
my Uncle Ernest’s home- turned- museum, the structure was under renovation and workmen were fixing leaks in the roof. Now the home was solid and strong. Meticulous care had been taken to paint the walls the right color and recover furniture so it would look exactly as Papa ( Hemingway’s nickname) had left it in July of 1960.
One fellow traveler in our group was Wes Wheeler, the grandson of the boatbuilder who built Pilar, Papa’s fishing boat. Pilar is considered by many to be the crown jewel among the artifacts preserved at the Finca Vigia. We were allowed unprecedented access to take measurements and photos of her hull and engine room, which inspired Wheeler to design a new Wheeler boat based on Pilar. It has hard chine and higher horse power, so she can get out to the fish faster, but still maintains the elegant lines that Papa found so desirable.
Everyone in our group left Cuba having gained insight into the past. There are advantages to stepping into a time bubble with open eyes. For starters you can learn how to hold on to your heritage.
For a U. S. travel- licensed tour of Cuba, contact Scott Schwar at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Havana’s capitol building is the same design as the U. S. Capitol in Washington D. C., only the Cubans built theirs a few feet taller.
THE CITY SKYLINE LOOKS MUCH AS IT DID IN THE 1950S WHEN MY UNCLE ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS WRITING HIS NOVELLA,
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.
A vintage photo of Ernest Hemingway driving away from his Finca Vigia estate
From top: American cars from the 1950s still populate Havana’s roads, and owning one is a sign of wealth in Cuba; Hilary Hemingway and boatbuilder Wes Wheeler with Papa’s Pilar ; the kitchen ( left) and dining room ( right) in Hemingway’s house at Finca Vigia.