TRAVEL New Rules for Visiting Cuba: The Perfect Havana EXPAT Tour

A vintage car drives to the Floridita bar in Old Havana, Hemingway’s favorite.
A vintage car drives to the Floridita bar in Old Havana, Hemingway’s favorite.

Touring Havana with Legendary Cuban-American Dual Citizen, Attorney Manny Ramos

Let’s just say if I had known Manny was a distant cousin of Fidel and Raul’s I might have made it to his daughter Suzie’s wedding in Havana two years ago at the base of the Spanish fort overlooking the Old City. Manny hired 30 vintage American cars and the 102 guests, who had flown in from Belfast and Hong Kong, Paris and New York, San Diego and Charleston, were all chauffered to the La Divina Pastora restaurant for the festivities. Most of Manny’s ex-wives even showed up. He’s had four and is on to his fifth. They still all speak to him, which shows how good a negotiator he may be. Manny Ramos, a founder of the San Diego office of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard and Smith, is the only person I know to hold duel US-Cuban citizenship. At age 8, he was on the last flight out of Havana after the Revolution. His father was the City Treasurer for the Batista dictatorship, his father’s job, to collect the taxes from the mob casinos. His father did not come to Suzie’s wedding. “This would be like a Jew getting married in Auschwitz,” wrote Suzie’s Aunt Victoria.

But by all accounts it was a great wedding.

I met Manny when our families lived somewhat communally in Raymond Chandler’s old house in La Jolla, CA. Manny had this idea if I wrote some op-ed it would preserve our little shack from being torn down. The LA Times ran “Farewell My Lovely Landmark” and we got another year of occupancy. Even in upscale La Jolla tearing down the house where the greatest mystery writer since Poe wrote The Long Goodbye and Little Sister was too much, just so a Chicago real estate developer could reap a few million for a remodel.

After Lewis, Brisbois, Manny’s job was to sue other lawyers for malpractice. He became a wolf’s wolf. Then he applied on-line (no kidding) to usajobs.gov and became the only Latino lawyer to recover money from corrupt and failing banks after the Crash of ’08. If you saw a guy on “60 Minutes” in a flak jacket with a computer in his hands flanked by armed marshals with guns drawn rushing into banks to stop a bad element of the 1% from hiding billions from taxpayers and stockholders, that was Manny. He quit after two years, out of boredom and upset that his bosses were more protective of bankers than their victims.

So I knew when we got off that almost too-good-to-be-true 9 am PST -4:30 pm EST non-stop flight from LA to Havana on Alaska for $355 R/T, we were not going to get the usual Cuba tour you read about in the glossy travel magazines.

No, we were going to get the Manny Tour.

Manny picked us up in a multi-parted Renault from an earlier century, and took our crisp $100 bills to achieve the best rate on the open black market. My wife, Ines, who is from Brazil and always paranoid in 3rd World countries, had asked Manny to set us up in a safe place. He put us in a one-bedroom air-conditioned apartment across from the American Embassy on the Malecon causeway overlooking the ocean, cost per night, $40. It was a bit austere, the view, but well guarded.

In the morning Manny returned us some hundreds of dollars in CUCs, some kind of Cuban money—he told us not to worry about holding cash, there is no street crime in a Communist country, he said—and we buzzed off to the Club Havana for lunch and a dip in the ocean. On the way, he showed us his old house, which occupied an entire suburban block, next to the house formerly owned by the Barcardi rum family. Manny’s house was now a neurological institute. After the Revolution, Fidel wanted to keep an eye on the remaining bourgoisie so he garrisoned troops a block away and as a rapt child Manny played with the soldiers. To the shock of his parents, his fraternizing turned him into a socialist, sort of, at least a kid with a foot in each camp, communist and capitalist.

Afterward, Manny had some shopping to do with Yanet, his 5th wife, who is 30 or 35 years younger, but who’s counting. He dropped us off in front of the warehouse of folk art back downtown where I was struck by the street traffic, vintage ’53 blue Buick Specials lined up beside brand-new Chinese transit buses.

“After Columbus killed off the Indians,” explained Manny, “the Spanish came, then the Americans, then the Russians, now it’s the Chinese. See you tomorrow.”

We wandered on foot along the back alleys toward the American Embassy. My paranoid wife made us stroll down the center of the streets, as Julia, a 2017 graduate of La Jolla High, snapped pictures on her iPhone. I poked my head into churches and crumbling apartment lobbies with electric Chinese motorcycles lined up next to fish tanks. This was pretty much the slums—but these slums struck me as safe in this most contradictory of countries with $500 a night hotels frequented by pop stars like Beyonce and Jay Z.This crazy mixed oldness fascinated Julia, a child of Southern California newness.

Day 2: Manny picks us up for a morning at Los Pinos Beach. Above us in the lanai of the beachfront restaurant on the perfect stretch of sand, 50 Danish women receive Rumba lessons. As Manny and I swam out from the beach with a strong current carrying us toward Havana, the Buena Vista Social Club melody splashed around our ears.

After our swim, Manny took us to Le Mare in Guanabo where Don Cheadle filmed the last episode of Showtime’s House of Lies, with Manny as location manager. Le Mare was a completely unpainted (paint seemed in short supply in Cuba) restaurant on the water where we shared a bowl of paella with shrimp so fresh they squirmed on the plate and a dessert of flan, and then we stripped to our bathing suits, walked down the short steps from the open dining room to the water and body-surfed for 20 minutes in the 80 degree waves.

DAY 3: Museum Day. Julia rousts us at 6:30, jet-lag be damned, and we rocket out of the apartment on Cuban coffee. First we hit the Museo de la Revolucion. This is not the US view of history. Photos of how Che and Fidel came out of the mountains to defeat the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, then photos of the many attempts on Castro’s life, the CIA’s poisoning of Cuba’s tobacco crop, the bio-warfare (hotly denied by us) using swine flu germs, department stores bombed, and Cuban Flight 455 which was, according to Havana, blown up by Cuban exiles killing 73 people including the Cuban fencing team and several children. Out the backdoor of the Museo is the glassed-in Granma, the boat Fidel and the revolutionaries motored over from Mexico to so annoy America for the last 58 years. The glassed-in Granma, 63 feet long, is Cuba’s Shroud of Turin. Holy ground! Next door is the Cuban Museum of Modern Art, paintings as good as anything you’ll find at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Lunch was taken at the La Guarida, the “Locacion del filme Tresa y Chocalate.” I had never heard of the film “Strawberry and Chocolate” or the restaurant but Julia had noticed the Khardasians had eaten there live. La Guarida was a bit of an extension of the Museu of Modern Art, surrealistic paintings of naked crow-women on the walls. I watched as outside two beefy guys pedaled a large working tricycle loaded with seven skinned and gutted pigs to market, the pigs pink, the houses behind a cerulean blue. Cuba. Beautiful.

Pigs pushed to market outside La Guarida restaurant.
Pigs pushed to market outside La Guarida restaurant.

Dinner at El Cocinero (“the Smokestack.”) Julia wanted her picture taken smoking an el Cubano with a glass of Ron Santiago de Cuba 11 anos, a drink specially paired with the better cigars, and a snifter you will not find at most graduation parties in San Diego. Sunset, and an art reception for 500 college students from Canada, California, and Europe.

Julia Chapple has herself a smoke atop El Cocinero, “The SmokestacK” restaurant.
Julia Chapple has herself a smoke atop El Cocinero, “The SmokestacK” restaurant.

We note there are no visible homeless in this city of 2 million, and Manny quotes James Patterson, the world’s highest selling author, after Patterson returned from Cuba last year: “Why can such a poor little country like Cuba take care of for free all the basics like education, health care, housing, and food and America can’t?”

Day 4: Hemingway

The Hemingway Tour is not overrated. We started at 7 from the lobby of the El Presidente which is much less formal than the National and vanned with our guide to Ernesto’s home, the Finca Vigia, or farm with a view, overlooking Havana.

The house is open on all sides. Tourists circle it like a museum that has been frozen from the memories of the many books we all read in high school, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, Islands in the Stream, as you look inside at the author’s bed, the scale upon which he weighed himself every morning, the weight marks still there beside the toilet, his typewriter, an old Royal, which is, if you ever thought of writing a novel yourself like gazing upon the bare bones of some saint,

Hemingway’s typewriter
Hemingway’s typewriter

the African skins on the floor, the Wyoming antelope heads on the walls. Below is a long swimming pool where everybody swam naked (what’s happened to us frightened, uptight Americans?) and beside it the Cubans have dry-docked the Pilar, Hemingway’s boat from For Whom the Bell Tolls fame. It started raining, a tropical downpour, and we ran to a tent where a live band was playing Afro-Cuban jazz and young Communist women thrust Havana Club rums into our hands and then maybe couple of refills, and we were ushered back into the van and on to a restaurant in the harbor where Hemingway kept the Pilar before it was a museum piece and more cheap rums were forced into our outstretched hands, and there was more dancing, with the Germans especially having a good time, this new live band wailing and it was yet barely noon, the rain increasing, and we were shunted back to downtown Havana to visit the hotel room where Hemingway repaired when too many guests showed up, John Huston, A.E. Hotchener and the rest of us.

Here things got a little turned around. We entered the Floridita Bar, probable source of the proto Cuba Libre, the whole place vibrating with happy gringoes from every country in the world, more rums, etc etc, and I lost the group.

Crazed gringoes at El Floridita, Hemingway’s bar.
Crazed gringoes at El Floridita, Hemingway’s bar.

I thought I found them at the Don Quixote statue down the street but I was mistaken. We finally reconoitered on top of the Hotel Ambos Mundo for lunch. By this point our guide looked like she wanted to kill me but guns are forbidden to private citizens here, thank god, at least in my case.

The Cruise Ships Cometh.
The Cruise Ships Cometh.

I forget what lunch was but the view from the rooftops was of the coming apocalypse: two mammoth white cruise ships rising up between antique buildings on the harbor like the heaving alibaster breasts of royal virgins between the crumbling dugs of the past. Thousands of people would soon be taking the Hemingway Tour, crowding the Floridita, bussing to the country idyl of Vinales. No matter the payback of our current President to aging exiles in Miami, group travel will be booked, and if not the Americans, then the Italians, the Canadians, the Chinese. Definitely the Chinese. So get on that too-good-to-be-true Alaska direct flight now, dear reader, before the Coca Cola billboards rise over the Guarida. The Khardashians have already lunched. The cruise ships cometh. Cuba is just too much fun to stop the onslaught. Politics--be damned.

Author Steve Chapple, Cuban-American attorney Manuel Ramos, and Ines Salgado Chapple finish off the flan at El Bacura outside
Author Steve Chapple, Cuban-American attorney Manuel Ramos, and Ines Salgado Chapple finish off the flan at El Bacura outside Havana

A SAVVY ATTORNEY’S VIEW OF THE NEW TRUMP TRAVEL RULES:

“Nothing changes until the new rules are published and the comment time expires,” explains Manny Ramos. “The hotels and restaurants that Americans cannot stay at or eat in because they are 51% owned by the Cuban security apparatus will need to be identfied. Lots of hotels and restaurants will not be on that list. Group travel will not help get money to small establishments, which is what Florida Sen. Rubio wants, and so I think the only real change is individual travelers to be safe will need to take better notes and keep records to establish people-to-people exchange, or whatever reason they are traveling. In the eight years of Obama not one American got fined for violating the congressionally enacted tourist ban. I predict the same will happen with Trump. Also, 55 Senators led by Jeff Flake of Arizona have signed on to the Freedom of Americans to Travel to Cuba Act. When Raul steps down February 24, 2018, and no Castros are in the government, my guess is that it will pass and Trump will not veto it.”

Steve Chapple is the author of the bestseller Outlaws in Babylon, and co-author of Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run, both now available on Amazon Kindle. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

https://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Store-Steve-Chapple/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A133140011%2Cp_27%3ASteve%20Chapple

https://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Store-Steve-Chapple/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A133140011%2Cp_27%3AStev
https://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Store-Steve-Chapple/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A133140011%2Cp_27%3ASteve%20Chapple

Travel Tips/Getting There

4) La Guarida, $$$$ on Yelp, http://www.laguarida.com/en/

6) El Bacura Restaurant, best flan in Havana after Manny’s grandmother’s, https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g147271-d4932608-r230184860-El_Bacura-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html

7) BOOKS: Cuba Emails: Still My Happy Place by Manuel Ramos, https://www.amazon.com/CUBA-EMAILS-STILL-HAPPY-PLACE-ebook/dp/B0749XYYSP/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1503095259&sr=1-1

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition

Street scene outside El Floridita in March 2016 when Pres. Barack Obama became the first sitting president in 88 years to vis
Street scene outside El Floridita in March 2016 when Pres. Barack Obama became the first sitting president in 88 years to visit Cuba, which is 90 miles from Miami.
Fishing by hand at Regla
Fishing by hand at Regla

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