Havana is bursting at the seams.
Anyone who figures they can wait and visit Cuba when it opens up, more hotel rooms are available, and the rates are cheaper will have a long wait. The city is already doing a brisk tourism trade, and dozens of buildings that started as hotels have been converted to residences.
Here’s what I think: When trade between Cuba the U.S. opens up, accommodations are going to be at a premium. It’s not going to be cheaper, it’s going to be more pricey. So, if you have a chance to go now, I would.
A massive restoration is going on in historic Old Havana. Our tour guide for the area, an architect named Daniel, explained that his department has wide latitude to take some of the rent new business tenants pay to fund the restoration projects; not unlike TIFF financing in the U.S. However, restoration is slow because nearly every building has existing tenants who are not willing to leave their homes, even if they might be able to return later to a remodeled building.
So it’s not uncommon to walk down a street and see a beautiful restaurant in the middle of two crumbling buildings. What happens to the restaurant if none of the other storefronts nearby can be saved?
Speaking of restaurants, it’s only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private restaurants to open. Called paladars, these establishments are some of the most profitable businesses in the country. A server can make the equivalent of several months’ salary in just one night’s tips, meaning a waiter or waitress makes far more money in a month than a doctor.
The idea of zoning hasn’t exactly taken hold in Cuba. Some of these paladars are located in suburban neighborhoods. Imagine a bus pulling up next door to your house and disgorging forty tourists into the place for dinner.
Private development is contributing a lot, however. An artist named Jose Fuster has spent the last twenty years adding artistic facades and decoration to his neighborhood, which is beautiful, but looks a little like Disneyland on hallucinogens.
Driving through Havana, the contrast between historic colonial structures and the utilitarian architecture brought by the Russians is striking. But both kinds of buildings have one thing in common: Laundry hanging in the window. Most Cuban households have a washing machine, but no dryers.
Our group took just one day trip out of town, but it was amazing. The Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage area, whose landscape is notable for its mogotes, a series of tall, rounded hills that rise abruptly from the flat plain of the valley. Only a few locations in the Pacific Rim share this stunning geography. It’s an agrarian area, with many tobacco farms, one of which we had the opportunity to visit.
The Cuban government is unlikely to allow private companies to come in and buy up large amounts of buildings or land in central Havana, no matter how much they are in need of repair. If I had to guess, I think development will take place outside of the city, with people busing or taxiing into town to take in the sights. At least until developers and the state can figure out a way to modernize the city’s core without dynamiting everything and starting over.
Here is a link to our photo gallery of Cuba Sights: