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With the aid of friendly cabdrivers, encountering Cuba off the beaten path

For The Baltimore Sun
Experiencing Cuba off the beaten path.

Visitors ride along the streets of Old Havana in 1950s American cars-turned-taxis, their engines long since replaced with European or Japanese models. From these convertibles, they tour the sites of Cuba's heyday: the National Capitol, built in 1929; El Morro, a 16th-century fort; the historic Hotel Nacional, which hosted President Barack Obama last month and has housed many other dignitaries since it opened in 1930.

Across from the Capitol sits a pile of rubble and two walls, all that remains of a building. Apartment buildings are dingy with peeling paint. It's this contrast, beauty against dilapidation and disrepair, that marks Cuba.

Cuba logged 3.5 million tourists in 2015, a 17 percent increase over 2014, according to the country's tourism department. That increase came as Obama moved to normalize relations with Cuba, which included easing travel restrictions. Americans can visit without preapproval under 12 permissible categories of travel. And Cuban officials expect more growth this year.

Last year, "people around the world started racing to go to Cuba to beat the Americans to it," says Paul Prewitt, owner of Hot Cuba Travel.com. In a recent visit to Havana, he saw more Americans than ever. "Tourism has gone absolutely bananas."

The country is getting crowded. But the real Cuba doesn't exist around those parts most frequented by tourists. Instead, it is in the side streets, where vegetable and meat vendors line the sidewalk. It's in the parks and attractions outside Havana, where an enterprising visitor will find gems of beauty on the road less traveled. It is in the dining rooms of the casas particulares, the Cuban equivalent of a bed-and-breakfast.

And it is from the confines of the private taxis that visitors can explore the ways of the people, uncovering a Cuba few get to see. There, time spent with a host can equate a friendship.

Antonio Espinosa pulls up to the marina where his passengers are staying. His 1987 Lada, a Soviet-era Russian car, shudders to a stop, its engine turning over a few times after he turns it off.

"Hola, Antonio!" a marina worker calls to him in Spanish. "How are you doing?" The marina worker turns to the passengers as they climb out of the car. "Hey, that guy is famous," he tells them in English. "He's been in movies and on TV. He lives in my neighborhood."

Espinosa has starred in 17 feature films, as well as a number of television shows, and has emcee'd at the Tropicana. His face and voice are known throughout the country. He makes more money driving a taxi than he ever would in film. He's 78, and the roles don't come as often.

He is one of a growing number of private taxi drivers in Cuba, which increasingly outnumber the official, state-run yellow taxis on city streets.

Espinosa smiles and hands his passengers his card, emblazoned with "Actor-Director." The taxi might be how he makes his living, but he is an entertainer first. "You call me if you need a ride," he says in Spanish. "Anytime. All day, only $50."

The next day, Espinosa navigates the streets of the barrios dotting the road to Ernest Hemingway's Finca La Vigia with his passengers. Hemingway's finca, or ranch, was taken over by the revolutionary government and eventually restored to its original state. It is one of the top tourist attractions surrounding Havana.

For the half-dozen tour buses that fill the parking lot this day, this is the last stop. But it's not Espinosa's. He drives a half-hour farther south on small roads, following signs to the National Botanical Garden.

He pulls into the empty parking lot, weeds filling the spaces. Mostly it is schoolchildren who flock to the nearly 1,500-acre park that features the flora of Cuba, Asia, South America and Africa. Espinosa has never visited the park before, and so he joins his three passengers and a tour guide aboard the tram pulled by an aging red diesel tractor. It is midday, and they are the only visitors: The tour buses just don't come this far.

It is hard to communicate and get around in Cuba in the way the rest of the world has become accustomed. Cuba has only an intranet. Using mobile apps or searching for a bus route while on the go is impossible. Cubans get their information from the TV and from AM radio stations. These are devoid of advertising, so it's all news and information, in Spanish.

Many visitors find local expertise and at least a little English in the casas particulares, homes that rent rooms to travelers. These dot the neighborhoods surrounding Havana. Miramar, the embassy neighborhood, is considered the nicest. Vedado sits just west of Old Havana and is the city's music and entertainment district. Playa Del Este has the best beach close to Havana. In Diez de Octubre, the former summer homes of wealthy families of Cuba's past now host new restaurants and places to stay.

In the living rooms and over breakfast, owners share their ideas, experiences and knowledge of Cuba. This is how visitors learn the intricacies of traveling in Havana: Yellow taxis are state-run; private taxis are the alternative to tour buses for a daylong private tour of Havana, or for a jaunt outside the city; local taxis are shared cars that cost a rider the equivalent of $1 and run set routes around all neighborhoods in Havana. Flag them down by sticking out your arm and an index finger.

Havana is a perfect jumping-off point for a half-dozen day or overnight trips. Gaspar Perez drives west on the highway out of Havana, past sugar cane fields filled with workers, past horse-drawn carts full of newly harvested crops. He has run a private taxi for the past 25 years. Perez learned Russian in school. Now he wishes he knew some English.

The Vinales Valley, where Perez is today, lies in the mountains of western Cuba. Natural domed megaliths called mogotes rise from the valley floor in a stark otherworldly landscape, made more so by the traditional methods the farmers use to grow, harvest and prepare the crops at their base. It is also one of the top tourist destinations in Cuba, but enterprising travelers who avoid the large tour buses can still find unique experiences.

Perez pulls over so his passengers can take a photo of a farmer as he unloads freshly harvested tobacco leaves from his horse-drawn cart. The farmer gestures inside the barn where he is taking the tobacco. "Do you want to come inside and see?" the farmer asks.

Such spur-of-the-moment invitations aren't uncommon.

After three days with the same passengers and many hours talking about Cuba, America and life, Perez turns to them and says, "We are friends now. Always.

"Maybe tomorrow you'd like to come to my house for coffee?"

It's this warmth and openness that make a visitor want to come back. An invitation to a person's home — for a birthday party, a celebration or just coffee — is common. This is where the real Cuba unfolds.

"If you want the Cuban experience, you've got to talk to the Cuban people," says Cuban-born Adalen Still, owner of Adalen Travel & Cuba Services in Annapolis. She has been taking visitors to the country for the past 15 years, and says these invitations to share coffee or a piece of life are common and one of the best things visitors can do to get a sense of the country. "It gives [visitors] a better understanding of the Cuban people, about how we live and interact as a society."

Some of her travelers have become friends with the Cubans they met while visiting, relationships that last past the trip. "For many years there were closed doors. Whatever Americans knew was on TV and whatever Cubans knew was what was said to them," Still says. "Now we get to meet each other and see we are just humans and everybody is welcome.

"We are Americans and we are Cuban and we are meeting again and seeing each other for who we really are," Still says.

Where the money goes

Visitors can travel to the country if it's for one of the 12 U.S.-government-approved categories, or if it's for people-to-people cultural exchanges. It's illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba solely for tourism.

Many Americans are reluctant to travel to Cuba when most of the dollars from Cuba's tour companies, restaurants and hotels go to the government.

To better get your tourist dollars into the pockets of the local people:

•Avoid official tour operators Havanatur and Gaviota. These state-run agencies provide organized bus tours and tourist excursions. Use private taxis instead of state-run yellow taxis.

•Stay at a casa particular, which are all independently owned and run. The state still operates all hotels.

•Ask at restaurants if they are state-run, or independently owned paladares.

— Laura Willoughby

Logistics

Flying: Island Travel & Tours' BWI-to-Havana service with partner Swift Air was short-lived. JetBlue offers charter service from New York's JFK to Havana. A number of airlines are bidding on commercial routes to Havana.

Money matters: Things are changing quickly, but the U.S. Embassy in Havana notes that ATM and credit cards issued by U.S. banks do not work in Cuba. You need to exchange money to CUCs, the convertible Cuban currency used by travelers. Cuba charges a 10 percent exchange rate; hotels charge up to 13 percent. You may get a better rate if you exchange Canadian dollars or euros, but check the exchange rates.

Lodging: Accommodations aren't what many Americans are used to. The beds are often older. Expect simple, clean rooms.

— News services

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