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For the last couple of weeks I have shared many photos of glorious sunsets and sunrises in Varadero. I’ve saturated my social media channels with photographs of the pristine beaches of Varadero. Moreover, my previous post provided a general history of Varadero as a resort destination. But the time has come for me to leave the beach for a while and present you with the real Cuba. And for that, what better way than to visit its capital, Havana. Let’s enjoy its history, walk its streets, meet the people, try their cuisine and get lost in its narrow streets.
Christopher Columbus embarked on his first voyage in 1492, thinking he was going to find Asia. Instead, he found the Bahamas which also led him to Cuba. However, the current Havana area and its natural bay were first visited by Europeans during Sebastián de Ocampo’s circumnavigation of the island. Shortly afterwards, in 1510, the first Spanish colonists arrived from Hispaniola and began the conquest of Cuba.
Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1515 or 1514, on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó, or more likely on the banks of the Mayabeque River close to Playa Mayabeque. All attempts to found a city on Cuba’s south coast failed, however an early map of Cuba drawn in 1514 places the town at the mouth of this river.
Havana was the sixth town founded by the Spanish on the island, called San Cristóbal de la Habana by Pánfilo de Narváez: the name is of obscure origin, possibly derived from Habaguanex, a native American chief who controlled that area. Shortly after the founding of Cuba’s first cities, the island served as little more than a base for the Conquista of other lands. Hernán Cortés organized his expedition to Mexico from the island. Cuba, during the first years of the Discovery, provided no immediate wealth to the conquistadores, as it was poor in gold, silver and precious stones, and many of its settlers moved to the more promising lands of Mexico and South America that were being discovered and colonized at the time.
Havana expanded greatly in the 17th century. New buildings were constructed from the most abundant materials of the island, mainly wood, combining various Iberian architectural styles, as well as borrowing profusely from Canarian characteristics. During this period the city also built civic monuments and religious constructions. The convent of St Augustin, El Morro Castle, the chapel of the Humilladero, the fountain of Dorotea de la Luna in La Chorrera, the church of the Holy Angel, the hospital of San Lazaro, the monastery of Santa Teresa and the convent of San Felipe Neri were all completed in this era.
By the middle of the 18th century Havana had more than seventy thousand inhabitants, and was the third-largest city in the Americas, ranking behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and New York. As trade between Caribbean and North American states increased in the early 19th century, Havana became a flourishing and fashionable city. Havana’s theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age, and prosperity among the burgeoning middle-class led to expensive new classical mansions being erected. During this period Havana became known as the Paris of the Caribbean.
At the end of the 19th century, Havana witnessed the last moments of Spanish colonialism in America, which ended definitively when the United States warship Maine was sunk in its port, giving that country the pretext to invade the island. The 20th century began with Havana, and therefore Cuba, under occupation by the USA. During this time Havana was the Mecca and the playground for the rich and famous. Cuba became known as the ‘Paradise of all the Islands.” Ernest Hemingway wrote his best novels when he was in Cuba, he often expressed “Cuba filled him with juices,” making Hemingway another victim to this Caribbean paradise.
After the revolution of 1959, the new regime promised to improve social services, public housing, and official buildings; nevertheless, shortages that affected Cuba after Castro’s abrupt expropriation of all private property and industry under a strong communist model backed by the Soviet Union followed by the U.S. embargo, hit Havana especially hard. As a result, today much of Havana is in a dilapidated state. Even so, there’s no doubt that Havana’s magnetism and mysterious lure will seduce you.
A perfect spot to contemplate the Havana skyline is the Castillo del Morro. This castle served as a fortress to protect the entrance to the bay and before its construction this site served primarily as a lookout point. Construction began in 1589, building the walls circa 1602 and the chapel in 1604. The interior lighthouse dates to 1845. In 1630, to protect the entrance to the bay, a copper chain was laid between the Punta and Morro fortress to hamper the passage of ships. It was in 1762 when the British took the city and besieged the castle for 44 days.
Built in 1929 as the Senate and House of Representatives (and said to be a replica of Washington DC’s Capitol), this colossal building is recognizable by its dome which dominates the city’s skyline. Inside stands the largest indoor bronze statue in the world representing Pallas Athena. Nowadays, the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (the National Museum of Natural History) has its venue within the building and has the largest natural history collection in the country.
In the surrounding areas of the Capitol, there are a few attractions worth visiting, among them, the Partagás cigar factory, the Parque Central (Central Park), and the Teatro Nacional (National Theathre) with its baroque façade.
Framed by majestic-looking early 19th-century buildings, the park named after José Martí dates back to 1903. It is a large park surrounded by some of Old Havana’s finest restaurants and hotels, including the hotels Sevilla, Plaza and Inglaterra. There are many exotic trees and royal palms in a well-landscaped garden environment. Well lit and quite safe, many people come to sit and relax with friends, while enjoying a drink and listening to the music that drifts over from the local clubs and nearby theater. It is also the place to get a local taxi (maximum price to different places in Havana is $5 dollars CAD or $4 US for one taxi).
Cross the street directly in front of the park and you will see Hotel Inglaterra. Opened in 1895, this hotel is Cuba’s oldest and boasts an illustrious guest list. Back in its heyday, the hotel ensconced the likes of Anna Pavlova, José Martí, and Winston Churchill among others. Although it has a neo-classical appearance, the hotel displays a strong Mudéjar influence; visitors may also notice the beautiful Andalusian mosaics.
In the years prior to Cuba’s separation from Spain, this venerable hotel was a central gathering spot for liberal-minded activists, and General Antonio Maceo established his headquarters here to plan out the framework for the Cuban wars of independence. Today, tourists that come here for the cheap lodging and rich ambiance. The guest rooms are modest, but the sumptuous lobby is steeped in an air of nostalgia. History buffs may want to sink into a leather armchair here or perch at the alfresco café with a cool drink and ponder the hotel’s role as a stage for change.
In the district of Vedado, you’ll find the huge expanse of the Plaza of the Revolution and the Memorial José Martí – with its 142 meters high, where leaders concentrated masses special days the first of January (commemorating the triumph of the Revolution) or May Day (Labor Day). On the sides of the square are the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the façade of one of these enduring image of “Che” and his famous phrase “Hasta la victoria siempre” (“Until Victory, Always”).
Plaza de San Francisco (San Francisco squared) was conceived in 1628, with the aim of supplying water to the ships trading with the metropolis. For many years it also served to stockpile the goods arriving from the harbor. Chronicles of the time say that the square had a busy commercial life. The people, in humble carts or afoot, sold and bought a variety of goods. It’s important to know that through this place the Spanish immigrants arrived to Cuba. Among the houses built around the plaza, as was already usual, the house of the Arostegui family, residence of the Captain Generals until the completion of the City Hall at the end of the 18th century, was erected.
Just a few blocks away you will find yourself in the Plaza de Armas. These days the Plaza de Armas is the main touristic square of Havana. The origin of its name is derived from its previous military use, since from the end of the 16th century most military ceremonies and the events took place at the square. On this square you will find two important buildings, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (the Presidential Palace until 1920, and today Havana’s City Museum), and El Templete, a monument that pays homage to the place where the town of San Cristóbal de la Habana was celebrated in 1519. The monument consists of bust of Christopher Columbus and three canvases painted by Jean Baptiste Vermay. It is a Neoclassic building, typical example of colonial architecture.
Plaza de la Catedral is one of the five main squares in Old Havana and the site of the Cathedral of Havana from which it takes its name. Originally a swamp, it was later drained and used as a naval dockyard. Following the construction of the Cathedral in 1727, it became the site of some of the city’s grandest mansions. It is the site of the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) and a number of restaurants.
If you want to escape the Havana heat and relax, take a stroll to the corner of Obispo and Mercaderos Street to get to hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway lived. Take the elevator to the top floor and you’ll find yourself in the Roof Garden restaurant. It’s a beautiful vantage point to listen to good music, enjoying a delicious mojito, not the mention that you get a nice view of Old Havana from the here.
Another bar worth visiting is La Bodeguita del Medio, which is located on Empedrado street between Cuba and San Ignacio. Here’s where you can sit down and enjoy a mojito. After all, it claims to being the birthplace of the cocktail, prepared in the bar since its opening in 1942.
If you like to walk and enjoy the fresh sea breeze, the Malecón is the place. This is the boardwalk that stretches for 5 kilometers where the waves break soaking sidewalks and anyone who walks by. During the day you can see people fishing and others selling their crafts, while at night the place is overrun with couples, individuals, or bands unleashing their art with the typical sounds of the Caribbean.
Cuba is the kind of place that encourages you to reconsider your life. It makes you suddenly value things you might otherwise take for granted – soft toilet paper, tomatoes in the summer, strong water pressure in the shower, a health-care system that is quick to respond, and the freedom to travel.
Since big changes are about to take place in Cuba — as you will see — I urge you to visit Havana, and travel back in time as soon as you can. Knowing the real Cuba will change your outlook on life forever.
A special thanks to Sunquest Vacations for providing me with an all-paid tour to Havana. For information on their packages visit Sunquest Vacations.