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HAVANA – On a historic day for U.S.-Cuban relations, Secretary of State John Kerry took time out for a walking tour of cobblestoned Old Havana — just like many of the growing numbers of Americans traveling to the island since detente was announced eight months ago.
Dressed in slacks and a white dress shirt, Kerry toured a restored colonial-era church, checked out cigar humidors on a sun-drenched square and ducked inside for a cold lemonade at Cafe del Oriente, an upscale restaurant where Raul Castro once dined with a visiting Jimmy Carter back in 2011.
Accompanied by City Historian Eusebio Leal, who has overseen the rehabilitation of much of the neighborhood, Kerry also visited the former municipal palace and Leal's offices. He paused to contemplate a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in the leafy Plaza de Armas, which is home to a daily book and trinket bazaar and also a building that housed the U.S. Embassy from 1923 until the mission moved to its current digs in 1953.
In a quarter already teeming with travelers, Kerry became yet another tourist attraction as surprised people swarmed the group to take pictures. Neck-tied security agents kept everyone at a safe distance. Locals waved down from wrought-iron balconies, and the secretary waved back.
"We're walking through the plaza here, and suddenly I see a bunch of people moving and there's Kerry," said Junia Perez, a doctor. "Look, it gave me goosebumps! I'm excited because I never thought I would see him so close."
Kerry also stopped in Plaza San Francisco to chat with Julio Alvarez, who offered the secretary a free ride in his shiny black 1959 Chevrolet Impala taxi. Kerry laughed and said maybe another time, but sat behind the wheel awhile and mused about possibly driving the classic car the next time he's in town.
Rafael Lezcano was among those who snapped cellphone photos.
"It's an honor for us Cubans," Lezcano said, "that he comes like this to walk through our streets."
While American tourism to the island is still illegal under the U.S. embargo, those who come on authorized cultural, educational, journalistic and other types of trips are now allowed to bring back limited amounts of tobacco and alcohol under rules eased by President Obama.
After Kerry visited a shop in a boutique hotel, an aide was seen carrying out bags of what appeared to be three bottles of rum, cigar boxes and a humidor.