New Havana

“I wanted to see Cuba,” explains one man in our group, “Before it changes.”

We all nod in agreement, except for the two Cubans in the room, who simply smirk.

“I’ve been hearing that for the last twenty years!” says Migdalia, our guide. And she’s right—I’ve been hearing (and saying) the same thing for the last twenty years. For so many of us, the urgency to visit Cuba is fueled by this inherent belief that one day, with the whoosh of a magic wand, Cuba will change into something unrecognizable.

In this mysterious future to which we allude, the magic allure of Cuba will somehow vanish. The country will become average and uninteresting, unworthy of any special attention. But for now, the strange island to the south remains an outlier, tempting us with exotic and forbidden charms.

One by one, our group shares their inspiration for coming to Cuba. Bucket lists are mentioned, “My parents honeymooned in Havana in 1949,” explains one lady. “My father was in the reserve for Bay of Pigs,” says another, followed by, “My son married a Cuban.” As with most National Geographic Expeditions, these are curious travelers who wanted to discover a destination personally,  for themselves.

Our first impressions vary. As our plane from Miami breaks through the clouds, the woman next to me stares at the green land below and turns to me, flushed, “As an American, this is all very moving, to be landing in Cuba—I can’t believe it!”

Fifteen minutes later, waiting in line to get our Cuban visas stamped, a Russian woman disapproves, “This feels like going back to the Soviet Union—why would I ever want to do that?”

Driving into Havana, I see little resemblance to the Soviet past, nor any resemblance to America. In lieu of billboards and blatant advertising, there are only the rustling palms that grow over a few bold displays of propaganda, painted across cement walls in caps lock: AMO ESTA ISLA—I love this island.

The general lack of signage surprises me. Havana today wears no flashing lights or attention-grabbing titles. The only signs I read are handwritten sheets of cardboard pinned to upper-story window grills, announcing: “Se Vende Casa” (House for Sale)—those, along with the much larger announcements posted around Cuba’s historic capitol building, entombed in scaffolding: “Closed for Restoration.”

Moving into the old city, we watch silently from the bus, oohing and aahing at the exquisite architecture displayed on the streets. Stately columns, elegant archways, ornate cornices, solemn busts and artistic carvings all stack up nicely into this elaborate ensemble of dilapidated beauty rising against the hot blue sky.

But these beautiful buildings are ghosts of themselves—old and airy, gaping toothless skulls of past glory, each one missing something: window glass, doors, floorboards or roofs. Even the vaguest hints of pastel paint have faded away, so that the once-stately homes along the Prado now resemble rows of moldy wedding cakes.

There is a reason for all that grey—at the moment, a gallon of paint in Havana costs around 30% of a Cuban’s monthly salary. To paint a whole house—let alone renovate the interior or improve the structural integrity of the building—is simply unaffordable.

Architect Miguel Coyula expounds on the challenges and complexities of restoring Havana. The first person in our schedule of “People to People” meetings, Miguel works as a city planner for Cuba’s capital city. His passion for Havana’s history is infectious—he takes us through centuries of architecture like chapters in a book, stretching back to 1537 when Spanish castles guarded this perfect bay on Cuba’s northern shore.

With every sugar boom, the buildings got bigger and more fanciful, and with each political change came new styles, from the baroque to the neoclassical. The British lifted the Spanish blockade in 1762, sending molasses north to Rhode Island. Returning ships carried ballast from New England—Massachusetts granite that was shaped into the cobblestones that pave Havana streets to this day.

“So technically, when you’re walking in Havana, you’re walking on American soil,” jokes Miguel. The streets are old in this town, and the houses are too.

“The average age of a house in Cuba is 75 years old,” he continues, crunching the numbers to highlight Havana’s major challenge today.

“Cuban families are guaranteed 260 square feet of living space, with a bathroom and kitchen. 94% of houses [including apartments] are private—meaning they are owned by the inhabitants.” This is a staggering figure of home ownership, overwhelmingly higher than in America.

“A 2-bedroom house costs around $30,000, and Cubans have 20 years to pay for it, with no mortgage or interest. Owners are responsible for care of their own units, but the problem is that nobody is really responsible for the care of the buildings. Tenant boards are simply a formality,” says Miguel.

And there lies the rub.

The result is that while most homes are kept clean and comfortable, the larger buildings decay to a dangerous degree. The most dire situation comes after heavy rains, when the drying stone of ancient buildings expands and breaks apart.

“Last November we had 16 inches of rain in two days. The day after, 206 houses collapsed,” reports Miguel. These collapses are called Derrumbe, and in Havana, they average more than three per day. The sad fact is that this city is slowly falling apart.

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This is a troubling thought on its own, but more troubling at dinnertime, when I find myself perched at the edge of the third-story stone balcony of La Guarida, one of the city’s more famous paladars (privately-owned restaurants).

The open-air view of Havana at dusk is spectacular, as is the food (red snapper carpaccio followed by roast chicken glazed in honey-lime sauce) but the idea that the ancient house may collapse beneath me is unnerving.

The Cubans we meet are all quite frank about the problems they face, but they are also quick to point out how much has already changed in their country. The simple fact that Cubans can buy and sell houses is significant, and the abundant (but controlled) private enterprise on the streets is telltale—Cuba has already changed, a lot.

My hotel has WiFi, Havana just opened a microbrewery, and America’s hipster fashions have clearly infiltrated. Whatever we imagine Cuba once was, it has already moved on. Havana was not built in a day, and it will not be rebuilt in a day, either. It will take time—and money, and new laws—before things can really change.

How this all gets reconciled with Cuba’s past is the biggest puzzle of all, but the Cubans seem undaunted, despite the obvious hardships. There is confidence in the future.

“In Cuba, we always find a way,” says Miguel. His message is hopeful and offers a clear insight to the current realities.

Alas, our group did not make it to Cuba in time . . . before it changes. That time is long gone, but we made it to Cuba while it is changing, and for me, that is enough.

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.

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