By Maria Karagianis | Boston Globe Correspondent
PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba - A hundred miles southwest of Havana, in the pincushion-shaped hills of Pinar del Rio, amid stone outcroppings where fugitive slaves once hid, a member of our group pleaded for a rest stop.
Our Havanatur van, twisting and turning up the sun-drenched green hills, past fields of tobacco under cultivation, lurched to a stop at the modest homestead of peasant farmers. Their outhouse was up a rutted dirt road, past a small house without running water or electricity.
Beyond lay a water pump and a sick pig lying on its side, chained to a post. Workers bent over tobacco plants in the fields beyond. There was a drying hut nearby where women were stringing tobacco leaves on long needles for hanging. A dark-eyed toddler scampered out to observe the visitors from America. Meanwhile, a lady of the house quickly brewed several thimblefuls of strong, black Cuban coffee. And a young man in a straw hat - we dubbed him the Cuban Tom Cruise - took out a bag of tobacco leaves and started handrolling cigars for his unexpected guests.
The peasants’ warmth and generosity came on the same day we swam in waterfalls, explored an abandoned coffee plantation and its crumbling slave quarters, and lunched on strong rum-and-honey drinks plus ham and cheese sandwiches (minus the bread because the restaurant had run out).
Organized by ADS Ventures of Concord, owned by former Massachusetts congressman Chet Atkins, our delightful weeklong trip was one of many licensed each year by the US government, despite the travel embargo to Cuba. The 16 of us included three writers, a state legislator, a high school student, a former academic dean, a social service worker, a Cuban exile, a congressional staff employee, and a couple from Palm Beach. It also included a daughter-in-law of Ernest Hemingway, who lived and wrote and drank and fished in Cuba for many years and left his Nobel Prize there at the feet of the black Madonna del Cobre, in a church we visited at the east end of the island near Santiago de Cuba.
From the beginning, ours was a largely cheerful group. For that, we were lucky. The finicky traveler would probably do best to avoid the endless quirks of Cuban travel: a dearth of toilet paper, breadless ham sandwiches, poor service, shower heads that fall off midstream, and occasional electricity failures, like the one that kept one of us trapped briefly in the elevator of the Habana Libre Hotel, where we stayed while in the city.
Built in the 1950s, with its 25-story facade of glass and steel balconies overlooking the city and harbor, this former Hilton Hotel was renamed in 1959, after Fidel Castro used it as his command post immediately following his victorious march into the city.
A better hotel choice would be the nearby El Nacional, overlooking the harbor. Its architecture is eerily similar to that of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. The indoor bar at El Nacional reeks of the heady atmosphere of sexual and political intrigue that was Havana from the 1920s through the 1950s, when the likes of Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and the Aga Khan made it their home away from home. The outside bar has huge white wicker sofas, the best mojitos in town, and stunning views out to sea.
Despite its quirks, or perhaps because of them, Cuba is a compelling, fascinating destination, especially for those who love a Latin lifestyle and fabulous rumba, salsa, and Afro-Cuban music.
It is genuinely unlike any other place in the world. Since the media is heavily censored, we spent a happy week oblivious to news of impending war, blizzards, and a stock market plunge. A land of ancient Chevys and decrepit 1950s-era Thunderbirds with lavish hood ornaments, this is an island nation in a time warp - the only communist country in the Western Hemisphere where the visual landscape has not much changed since Castro took power.
A land of surreal contrasts, Cuba has wonderful weather and spectacular Spanish colonial architecture, although many buildings in Havana are falling down, literally, with piles of rubble where sidewalks once were. Once known as the ‘‘Paris of the Caribbean,’’ Havana is still elegant, though faded. It is an eminently walkable city, with a perfect horseshoe-shaped bay, graceful plazas and squares, castles, mansions, fortresses, swaying palm trees, and the incessant, hypnotic beat of music long into the night. Our favorite nightclub became El Diablo Tun Tun in Miramar, but the visitor has dozens to choose from.
Cuba is also a mecca for artists, and we began our first full day of sightseeing looking at art, beginning in the cacophony of the outdoor art market near the harbor a few steps from the fabled Malecon. Built by Americans in 1902 after the Spanish-American War, this four-mile-long seawall is Havana’s outdoor living room - a place for strolling, drinking, making out, seeing, and being seen.
No American credit cards are honored in Cuba, so visitors need plenty of cash, and the locals are hustling for dollars. Aside from art and local handicrafts - my teenage daughter and I found some fabulous $8 bracelets fashioned from silver forks and spoons and semiprecious stones - there is not much to buy except for the obligatory cigars, rum, and coffee. But make sure to check regulations with your tour operator ahead of time because of the embargo.
A few steps from the teeming outdoor art market is the Plaza de Armas, one of five Spanish colonial plazas that knit together the winding, cobblestoned streets of Old Havana. Named for its use as a drill field by colonial troops, this plaza quickly became one of our favorite hangouts. Every day booksellers set up their wares, including historical tracts, postcards, old maps, and pictures of Castro, Che Guevara, Jose Marti, and other revolutionary heroes.
We visited the Plaza de Armas our first day for lunch in La Mina Cafe, where there is great traditional music, and returned day and night, when the Museum of Natural History opens its rooftop bar for dancing. One day people on stilts dressed in Carnaval clothes paraded by, accompanied by drums and tin whistles.
A week is not enough time in Havana and environs. One day we went only eight miles east to find a wide, unspoiled beach, uncrowded for a Sunday, with live music right on the sand and clear aquamarine water. On another, for a few pesos we took a short ferry ride to the island of Regla from a rickety dock in Havana across the street from the bar that American gangster Meyer Lansky used to own. A center of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that slaves brought to the New World from Africa, Regla was probably named for a West African Yoruba deity.
The timing of our 3:30 a.m. charter flight back gave us one long, last day in Havana - time to swim in the hotel pool, revisit the art market, have lunch one last time at La Mina Cafe in Plaza de Armas, dance on the roof of the museum, and wander the streets.
We enjoyed a candlelit dinner, the best food our our trip, next to a burbling fountain under the moon in the open courtyard of Hotel Santa Isabelle, possibly Havana’s best hotel. A genteel four-story 17th-century former palace, it became a hotel in 1867 when the last family member to live here was exiled to Spain.
Before heading to the airport, we took a moment to savor the view from our 23d-floor balcony. There was Havana at midnight, music pulsating up from every direction, the dark boatless sea in front of us, a huge round moon hanging low in the sky. We only scratched Havana’s surface, but even that was enough to have us dreaming of next time.
Maria Karagianis is a freelance writer and founding executive director of Discovering Justice, a Boston nonprofit whose mission is to teach about democracy. She lives in Milton.