There’s something different about the Malecón, the seawall that traces the north side of old Havana; it takes a minute to put your finger on it. By sunset the five-mile esplanade is lined with thousands of people, talking and eating and fishing the lapping waves. A man playing a saxophone stands atop the concrete wall; every hundred yards a guitar player leans against it.
And yet: As the sun dips into the sea, there’s not a single glowing cell phone, not one shoulder dipped in a texter’s hunch.
Wireless service is limited even in the heart of Cuba, only available on a few street corners. So most of Havana is as buzzy and personal as the Malecón. It’s hard to imagine more life, culture, and history crammed into a sunny Caribbean island.
In some ways, Havana delivers on its reputation as a picturesque time capsule: The Communist capital is filled with crumbling Spanish colonial buildings. Soviet-era Ladas and 1940s Buicks—bright paint, rusty floors—cruise past handheld carts. In the imposing Plaza de la Revolución, a government building sports a seven-story Che Guevara sculpture.
But Havana is hardly preserved in amber. Try the fresh fruit daiquiris at O’Reilly 304; with its mason jars and exposed brick, it could be in Brooklyn or Capitol Hill. Rent an Airbnb in historic Old Havana and odds are it’ll come with A/C.
Yes, Cuba was largely cut off from the United States for decades through embargo, and after the fall of the Soviet Union it languished without investment. Today Havana’s a rapidly growing and changing city—kind of like Seattle.
Alaska Airlines launched a route from Seattle to Havana in January (with a stop at LAX), the first commercial link between the West Coast and Cuba in 50 years. University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce was on the very first flight, returning to the home country she left at age three.
New flights don’t mean Cuba is a free-for-all. The U.S. government still requires American travelers to self-report into 12 authorized “licenses,” including religious activities, educational programs, or humanitarian projects (straight-up tourism is technically prohibited). Flyers must book lodging in advance and bring cash, since no American bank cards work on the island.
Once in the country under those broad parameters, Americans join a throng of global visitors. At an outdoor table of Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Castro’s headquarters in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Newfoundlanders reminisce about their last eight trips to Havana. At Ernest Hemingway’s beloved La Bodeguita del Medio, bartenders pour mojitos by the dozen for Papa fans, like the cadre of tipsy Germans dancing an awkward salsa.
“I want to see Cuba before it changes.” It’s a common refrain in America, and Seattle artist Daniel R. Smith has heard it a lot, even though it’s not that simple.
“If you say, ‘I want to go to Cuba before it’s ruined,’ you’re imagining a place where corporations do not dominate our environment,” Smith says. Voyeurs should fight that influence at home, he thinks, rather than expect it from a country stalled by America’s own embargo. Those gracefully decrepit buildings? They aren’t just Instagram bait. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and partly because of that crumbling architecture,” he says. “But it’s a dangerous situation for a lot of people, and not fun for them.”
UW’s Cauce, though, kind of gets it: “There’s a sense that you’re stepping back in time. That has a certain appeal.” The innocence born of limited commercial development or advertising bombardment, she thinks, could fade. “I want Cuba to change, but at the same time I look around the Caribbean and think, What do I want it to change into?”
Both Cauce and Smith define real Cuba not by its 1950s trappings but its people; both quickly saw the depth of Havana’s art scene. Smith organizes poster shows with Cuban and Seattle artists. “Artists are still valued in Cuba in a way this country has forgotten,” says Cauce.
Cauce’s favorite place in Cuba is that nightly rum-and-snacks Malecón party. “It hasn’t been easy for them, regardless of how you look at politics,” she says, “and yet the joy of life is still there.” She has old photos of her parents on the seawall half a century ago; now Cauce walks the Malecón to hear “Cuba’s heartbeat, which is a salsa beat.” The country was like forbidden fruit for 50 years of her life, she says—now it’s “so profoundly part of who I am.”