Land of slow cars, big cigars and music everywhere

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2001

Juneau Empire photographer Brian Wallace flew to Cuba last fall on a tired-looking Soviet YAK42, complete with signs in Cyrillic and an occasional hammer and sickle for decoration.

"I decided to go Cuba during a fishing vacation in Costa Rica last November," Wallace said. "I needed a break from the rigors of battling marlin, dorado and giant red snapper."

Wallace bought his ticket to Cuba in Costa Rica. The total cost for a round-trip ticket from San Jose to Havana was $507. That included hotel costs for three nights and one allday guided tour. A visa was $15.


Nov. 15, 2000: The old man and the cigar. He is my vision of Santiago from Hemingway's "The Old Man and The Sea," but instead of fighting great marlins for three days and three nights, he smokes giant stogies for perhaps just as long.


Traveling to Cuba - called 'The Socialist Republic of Workers and Peasants' in the country's constitution - was easier from Costa Rica than it would have been if Wallace were in the United States because of this country's embargo on direct trade and travel.

"It is not possible to fly directly to Cuba from the U.S. because of the embargo," Wallace said. "But it is quite easy from a third country such as Costa Rica, Mexico or Canada."

To avoid complications reentering the United States, Cuban customs officials do not stamp American passports with a Cuban visa. Instead they stapled a visa into Wallace's passport and took it out when he left.

He stayed in the Hotel Acvaro, rated four stars.

"But in the capitalist world it would probably be a star and a half," Wallace noted.

"After getting settled I hired a taxi to take me to Plaza de la Cathedral in the center of Old Havana," Wallace said. "The colonial architecture is a joy."


Nov. 15, 2000: While wandering the streets of Old Havana, I came upon a group of elderly men playing traditional Cuban standbys, such as "Guantanamera." The cards on the players hats' are their permits to play for tips.


UNESCO declared Old Havana a World Heritage Site and funded the renovation of many of the buildings in the area.

Wallace has visited the capital of almost every country in Latin America. He said Havana by far felt the safest. Shortly after his arrival, he was resting on a park bench with a protective arm around his camera bag when a policeman approached him.

"He saw how paranoid I looked and said, 'This is Cuba. No one is going to bother you.'"

The guided sightseeing that came with Wallace's package included a bus tour and a walking tour of Havana. Hawkers abounded, selling everything from cigars to fortunes. Wallace also hired local guides to show him the open air markets and music clubs.

"I just did music clubs non-stop," he said. "I was up till four or five in the morning going to different music clubs."


Nov. 16, 2000: Taxi driver Pedro Fernandez waits for fares with his 1955 Ford. No two taxis in Cuba are alike. There are powder-blue Cadillacs, black Fords, red Chevies, rusty Plymouths. One day I asked the taxi driver of a decrepit Plymouth to turn on his boombox. Since it was an ancient car, I was fantasizing it might be some cool 1950s doo-wop music, but instead my fantasy was shot down by an apocalyptic blast of Kenny G.


Vintage cars are another Cuban highlight. Classic American cars, from beat-up jalopies that barely run to showroom quality antiques, abound in Cuba. Wallace said the Cubans make their own parts to keep those cars running.

The photographer made one side trip east of Havana to the seaside resort town of Veradero.

"It was just German and French tourists everywhere. I could've been on the Riviera," he said. "I took the next bus back to Havana."

Wallace spent days riding around in vintage cars and wandering Havana's winding streets before flying back to San Jose and then to Seattle.


Nov. 17, 2000: Madame Cecilia Revera came to Havana from the city of Camaguey to tell fortunes to tourists. The city is packed with fortune tellers, guides and musicians performing for the u.s. dollar.


"Back to the land of freedom, democracy, Dr. Pepper and the Quarter Pounder," he said.

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