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From Havana to beaches, Cuba is an exotic mystery

Old Havana streetfront buildings.

david l. ryan/globe staff

Old Havana streetfront buildings.

HAVANA — When I entered Sloppy Joe’s Bar, one of Hemingway’s legendary haunts, I was surprised at how brand-new it felt in a city, and on an island, that seem suspended in time. Then I learned that, nearly 50 years after closing, it had recently reopened following an extensive renovation. Today, it is sleek and dark, with a DVD of Frank Sinatra crooning, photos of Marilyn Monroe, and rows of good whiskey displayed in glass-and-mahogany cases.

I preferred El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway drank his daiquiris. The barmen still keep the blenders busy, and serve fine ice-cold daiquiris. The only difference nowadays is that customers can have their photos snapped next to the bronze statue of Hemingway, who is leaning on the bar, his elbow next to a bronze paperback. Wish we knew which one.

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I recently spent a week in Cuba, visiting Havana and the countryside before checking out the beach. Because the country remains under US embargo and travel by US citizens is limited — journalists and academic researchers can go, and certain “cultural exchanges” are allowed — I wanted to get there and write about it before the floodgates open and tourists overrun the place.

Havana is really two cities. Its former beauty can still be seen, through squinted eyes and imagination, in the stately but crumbling colonial buildings that line some streets. Thanks to decades of sun and neglect, many of the colorful concrete and stucco buildings have faded to lighter shades of green, blue, yellow, and pink.

Then there’s the post-1958 Havana. It can be seen in the pot-holed streets and run-down apartments where lines of clothes hang from windows and balconies. It can be seen in the ubiquitous image of Che Guevera, which adorns everything from billboards to T-shirts, and in the revolutionary signs that proclaim: “Be Proud of Our History!” and “Revolution is achieved by audacity, intelligence, and realism.”

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It can be seen in the cars from the 1950s — from the bulbous Chrysler De Sotos to the finned Chevy Bel Airs — that somehow keep rumbling down the roads. The day after I arrived in Havana, a guide approached me as I left my hotel and asked if I wanted to take a tour of the city in his bright yellow 1953 Chevy convertible. I did.

For a couple of hours, Alberto and his father drove me around the city, hitting the highlights, including “The Fifth Avenue of Havana,” in the seafront Miramar section of town, where the wealthy lived before the revolution that ushered Fidel Castro into power.

It may be prime real estate, but many of the grand mansions are abandoned or in disrepair. Still, there are lovely embassies and lush foliage such as hibiscus, bright orange Flamboyant trees, and enormous banyans more than a century old.

Despite its pitiful infrastructure, Cuba maintains its natural beauty, and the balmy weather — except during hurricane season — means that people are outside a lot: families, couples, schoolchildren in uniforms.

Yes, there is poverty, but it isn’t the dire desperation that you see in other capital cities across the world. Health care and university education are free. But the socialist government can’t provide all the housing and jobs needed. Alberto told me that he worked a couple of days a week in a parking lot; he and others have to hustle up second jobs “to feed our families.”

I stayed at the Parque Central Hotel, which overlooks a park at the edge of Habana Vieja, the oldest and most interesting part of this city of 2 million. I loved simply looking out my window at the park, with its statue of José Martí, hero of the Cuban fight for independence, and lovers holding hands — or making out. Public displays of affection are common here.

Habana Vieja includes the formerly walled section where the 16th-century city began. Later, in the days when pirates were a threat, a cannon would be fired at 9 every night, warning citizens that the gates were about to close. The gates are gone, but the cannon custom continues.

The old city is home to colonnaded buildings with domed archways and wrought-iron balconies of churches, mansions that are now apartments, hotels and museums that grace cobblestone squares. The architecture is a mishmash of styles, from colonial to rococo to Art Deco.

Alberto and his father took me to the Hotel Nacional, built in 1930 and apparently the premier place to stay, judging from the photos of luminaries that line the lobby bar, including Greta Garbo, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Murray. (In April Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed at the renovated Saratoga, another beauty.)

We rode past Chinatown — the Chinese arrived in the 19th century to work in the sugar cane fields — and then to the Plaza de la Revolución with its metal visage of Che Guevara on one government building, and a similar one of comrade Camilo Cienfuegos on another.

We stopped in at the Legendario Rum bottling plant and sipped various flavors of the famous Cubano elixir: pineapple rum, cherry, and mint. Then a bartender made me a cup of “rum coffee.” He heated some rum, lighted it, stretched his arm over his head, and poured the rum — now a thin, fiery stream of liquid — into a coffee cup on the bar, 4 feet below. Not a drop was spilled.

Old Havana is best seen on foot, and there are some great pedestrian paseos. I spent the next couple of days walking the city, along Empedrado and Calle Obispo, lined with shops and restaurants, small art galleries, and a crafts market. The staples of a Cuban meal are pork, beans, and rice, but the fish is excellent, the paella heavenly.

A couple of mornings, I ran along the Malecon, an oceanfront boulevard with one of the few wide, and uncrowded, sidewalks in the city. I loved watching the fishermen and divers in wetsuits.

The sweeping Plaza de Armas is ringed by bookseller stalls, featuring historical and political treatises in Spanish and English. Hemingway fans stop in at La Bodeguita del Medio, made famous by the writer’s penchant for the bar’s mojitos. They still know how to pour rum and muddle mint there, but it has become a tourist magnet.

The Hotel Ambos Mundos on Obispo is where Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” A clerk told me that Papa lived there “off and on” for seven years. I didn’t spring for the $2 to see Room 511, now preserved as a mini-museum.

But I willingly sprang for the Buena Vista Social Club legends, who play traditional Cuban music. Though most of the original members are gone now, a few are left, and they are backed by a great band. At Cafe Taberna, they sang their way around the room, even getting some of the ladies up to dance. They are still fabulous after all these years.

I wanted to see more of the country and so, along with other hotel guests, I boarded a bus for a day trip to Valle de Vinales, about two hours west of Havana. We passed fields filled with tobacco and other crops, with an occasional team of oxen plowing. On the highway we passed horses pulling buggies; some even passed us.

The trip included a stop at a farmhouse, a modest concrete home with a roof of palm fronds. Tobacco farmers must sell 90 percent of their product to the government, keeping 10 percent for personal use, our guide said. A farm worker showed us how to roll a cigar, a painstaking process. He said each worker is expected to roll between 80 and 140 a day.

Last stop, the beach. In Varadero, I stayed at the Iberostar Laguna Azul Hotel, an all-inclusive place filled with Canadian, European, and Latin American tourists. The beach was wide, the water clear and warm, and it was a great chance to read “Our Man in Havana,” by Graham Greene.

He wrote, in 1958: “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt.” Here, even the dowagers are beautiful: those once-dignified buildings that have tried to withstand the vagaries of time, but could use a good facelift.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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