Most Americans who sail to Cuba do so for the first time through the Marina Hemingway facility about 10 miles west of Havana. This is the logical destination since the number one attraction to Cubaat least for first-time visitorshas got to be Havana. After all, if beautiful islands or beaches were the primary attraction, one could do just as well in the Bahamas with a lot less trouble and without having to skulk around like an expatriate criminal.Havana has a historic, tropical appeal for all North Americans. Its rich Spanish history predates that of the United States. Havana is mysterious, exotic, totally foreign, and yet so close. Perched right on the edge of the sea, it is also incredibly beautiful, despite the fact that it has in the past four decades suffered through a long period of neglect and decay at the hands of its government.
There are actually nine other Cuban ports besides Marina Hemingway where foreign yachts can make entryalmost all of them more tropical and enchanting than this, but Marina Hemingway still gets the lion’s share of business. In 1995 the government counted just under 700 foreign yachts entering their country through Marina Hemingway. The number is said to have gone up since then. At the beginning of the decade there were fewer than 100. Typically about 75% of arriving yachts are American, according to marina officials.
Marina Hemingway still exists today so that sailors arriving from other nations can experience the history, sights, sounds, and feel of Havana and its surrounding countryside. There’s really no other reason for anyone to be there, since it has little intrinsic appeal on its own. Quite simply, it is the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way for a seagoing American or Canadian to get a quick glimpse of this curious Caribbean capital of communism and to mingle with its enchanting but impoverished citizens.
Marina Hemingway is definitely an urban experience. Although Cuban country life is not far away, the immediate vicinity is anything but pastoral. The road outside the marina compound gates is a noisy highway leading directly to downtown Havana, and the marina itself is a busy complex of shops, hotel, restaurant, night club, and other attractionsall of it operated by the government and with no lack of employees.
The marina consists of four linked canals roughly parallel to the beach, each about a quarter mile in length. The northernmost canal (Canal No. 1) literally fronts on the beach. It looks like a hard northerly wind would send spray flying directly over the causeway onto moored yachts; however, they say this never happens. A spectacular ocean view, night and day, combined with the constant sound of surf would seemingly make this the preferred canal for visitors. Canal No. 2 is slightly removed from the ocean but equally close to marina amenities such as restaurant, laundry, showers, tennis court, and convenience stores. It lacks the direct ocean view and surf sound, however.
Canals No. 3 and 4 are even farther removed from the ocean and would seem to be less desirable, although new apartments and hotel-like facilities have been built just off those canals. In total there are about 120 slips available at a cost of about 45 cents per foot per day, including electricity and water, when such luxuries are available. The general routine is that marina officials will board an arriving yacht at the customs/police dock and ride with it to its assigned marina slip. Since most arriving skippers don’t know the layout or the routine, few request a specific canal. A request for Canal No. 1 would definitely be worth the risk, however.
Marina Hemingway is no one’s idea of paradise. It is a gated, walled compound set aside for foreigners. A visit to Marina Hemingway itself is hardly a visit to Cuba. It is an unnatural situation. Although plenty of ordinary Cubans can be found within the complexe.g., employees, visitors, drivers (not to mention prostitutes and other assorted sales professionals)it is illegal for most Cubans to board visiting yachts. The compound is a sort of yachting ghetto, not unlike Falmouth Harbor or Nelson’s Dockyard in the relatively impoverished Caribbean island of Antigua, a neighborhood reserved for a certain type of people who are different from those of the surrounding community.
Like the rest of Cuba, the Marina Hemingway compound also has its share of physical problems. The government-operated complex seems competently managed by a friendly and cooperative staff, but the facility itselfor parts of itare perpetually in disrepair. Here and there, sections of concrete docks can be seen crumbling into the canal; various buildings are abandoned and in disrepair, showers are often inoperative, and toilets don’t always flush. The car rental office often has no cars and the hotel often has no rooms. But what the heckit’s still a lot nicer than the living conditions for the average Cuban!
For those who want to see and experience the harsh realities of everyday life under the regime of Fidel Castro, all it takes is a walk through the gates, which is what many folks have to do to find transportation, since most drivers with private cars, although eager for tourist fares, are not officially allowed into the compound, and official taxis are sometimes difficult to find. Besides, many Americans choose not to be seen blatantly spending money directly in front of the marina.
All yachtsmen at Marina Hemingway soon become familiar with the four-lane highway called Fifth Avenue that leads east towards Havana and west into more rural areas. This busy road, with a sizable landscaped median divider, and two busy rotary circles, is lined for part of the way towards Havana by huge mansions, mostly rented to foreign embassies and businesses, many shaded by towering tropical banyon trees. Also en route are two substantial grocery stores and several hotels near where Fifth Avenue converges with Third Avenue. (The hotels are good spots for Latin-style dancing late at night.)
Fifth Avenue is also where a visitor gets his first glimpse of Cuban-style mass transportation system. Aside from occasional real buses, many Cubans find themselves crammed daily into bizarre-looking, low-slung wagons pulled by farm or truck tractors. At times these are so crowded that late-comers must cling to the outside like bats, breathing exhaust from poorly muffled engines the entire way. At intersections one sees groups of citizens standing by, obviously without transportation yet still in need of reporting to work by some means. Almost everyone is a hitchhiker, though not all put out their thumbs. A highly recommended means of travel for visiting sailors is by bicycle. Havana is within easyand interestingbiking distance from Marina Hemingway. Travelers can blend in very nicely on bikes, even obviously rented ones. (Leaving the marina, one can also bicycle in the opposite direction from Havana, toward the town of Santa Fe. Additionally, between the marina and Havana are unlimited suburban-style neighborhoods of typical small homes, all fully accessible by bike.) On a bike, it’s easier to ask directions, linger whenever the mood strikes, and meet people of all types. Cubans use bicycles regularly, and often when a road offers two lanes one might be completely dominated by bicyclists. Here, perhaps, is the ideal technique: Pick up a couple of old bikes in Key West as deck cargo en route to Havana. Then, at the end of your stay, give the bikes away to someone you’ve befriended, and smile graciously if customs officials hit you up for a small tax when they notice the bikes are missing as you clear out. Heading in towards Havana, one passes through a short tunnel under the Riviera Almendares (itself of interest to sailors) and after that it’s downtown Havana right under your wheels. Possibly the more strategic way to approach is by staying on Fifth Avenue, which turns into a broad boulevard known as the Malecón.
For those who arrive by sea, the most spectacular part of this centuries-old city may well be the ocean-washed Malecón, which forms the northern perimeter of the city. Here one can find jellyfish and coconuts lying still wet on the sidewalk as seawater disappears through ancient storm drains after drenching passing cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Here one can see lovers strolling hand in hand, children dodging spray as it bursts over the sea wall, fishermen casting from favorite vantage points, ships passing through the narrow cut into the harbor, and, just over the shoulder, two million of the poorest people within 100 miles of American beaches.
From here, also, one can truly visualize some of the majestic history of Havana. First seen by Columbus and settled as a Caribbean capital in 1520, Havana was greatly treasured by the Spanish until it was finally wrestled away during the Spanish-American War in 1899. (Cuba remained in Spanish control for all but about a decade of the past few hundred years, that decade belonging to the British). Viewed from the Malecón, at least, even the oppressive poverty of the adjacent city is overshadowed by the sense of history and closely linked oceanic beauty.
Its official name is Avenida Antonio Maseo, but the word Malecón, meaning an embankment or dike of masonry along the sea, seems more appropriate and traditional. The street, always popular with strollers, was constructed in 1901 as were many of the buildings along its broad sidewalks. The Malecón stretches from the harbor entrance about a mile west to the restored Hotel Nacional, one of the top hotels in Havana. With 495 rooms and five-star hotel facilities on the lower levels, the Nacional, with its extensive grounds and long driveway, stands as an isolated oasis of splendor from the noise, traffic, dirt, and ever-present poverty of the big capital city.
The gracefully curving Malecón is lined elsewhere by a continuous stretch of near-identical buildings with columns, old-world arches, and ornamentation dressing the facades of each floor. Unfortunately, many of these multicolored buildings are in utter disrepair. Residents on the top floors use crudely made hoisting rigs to lift plastic buckets of fresh water to their apartments. Here and elsewhere in Havana, running water is anything but ubiquitous, and electricity is rationed by sporadic blackouts. Tattered bed sheets and worn clothes hang from the balconies, dried by ocean breezes fresh from the Atlantic. And bits of fallen building can be found on the sidewalks in front of each facade. In any other city, apartments like these with spectacular ocean views would make for exquisite and expensive abodes, but along Havana’s Malecón, in a state still clinging to the outdated principles of communism, they are simply dwelling units, and poor ones at that.
Despite the dismay that a visiting American or European is likely to feel at the sight of such real estate in decay (not to mention feelings for people), there is a fascination that draws tourists to the buildings, the architecture, the streets, to the symbols of Cuban culture, and to the people themselves. This fascination is intensified in so many subtle ways by the friendliness of the Cubans.
Indeed, no matter where one travels on this island, the one consistent impression that Americans seem to bring home is the open-hearted receptiveness of the Cuban people. They readily invite foreigners into their modest homes, and they speak of conditions, past and present, with shifting moods of nostalgia, resentment, and hope. Older Cubans are quick to remind visitors of the crushing poverty they experienced in the days before their Communist revolution. They are grateful that today, despite the oppression, everyone has shoes, medical care, education, and, in most cases, a roof over their heads at night. Cubans seem to know that Castro is at least a well-intentioned despot, whether or not they are eager for political change. Above all, Cubans consistently give the same impression to visitors: they love their country. For us Americans, it’s a great place to explore.