I went to Cuba because I wanted to see it before it turned into Miami 2.0. It was a bit of an impulsive decision and I didn’t do any research so I was learning on the fly. These days Havana has a romantic image of faded glory. What I hadn’t appreciated was its critical role many centuries ago when ships and horses were the principal modes of transportation. The city was founded in 1515 as San Cristóbal de la Habana. The original site proved to be a disaster so the city was moved to the more geographically strategic location you will visit.
Its sheltered harbour was the perfect location for ships laden with the spoils of the Spanish conquistadores to take a break and group together before setting off for Spain in an armed convoy. Trade has always been linked with wealth and prosperity. Havana’s role in Spain’s exploitation allowed it to become the third largest city in the New World by the turn of the 18th century. The two bigger cities were Mexico City and Lima.
Havana is a useful reminder in how the world order is in constant flux and how power has shifted geographically over the course of history. Whether you care about the history or not, Habana Vieja is a delightful place to play tourist. Since it’s really old and the main transportation mode back then was by foot, you can easily walk the entire area. It’s a great way to get in touch with Cuba, observing both the architecture and the people.
There is a LOT of history in Havana. If you stay at the Hotel Parque Central, you will walk onto the Paseo de Marti as you start your day. It’s known locally as the Prado and is a tree-lined boulevard that slopes from the harbour to Parque Central. It was completed in 1852 and the paseo refers to the daily carriage rides made by the aristocratic families who built mansions along it. Look for the bronze lions, marble benches and brass gas lamps. At night you will feel as if you have been transported to 19th century Paris or Madrid.
Another place to check out is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, both for the art and the glamorous building within which it resides.
In Old Havana, the best street to head for is Calle Obispo. I found it by instinct but confirmed in my guidebook that it is a tourist mecca 🙂 Parts of Havana are being restored and this street is one of the recipients. Advertising and souvenirs are tough to find in communist Cuba but this street has some fledgling capitalists. I even found an open air market and bought some wooden jewelry from an enterprising young woman. Most intriguing are the old pharmacies that allow you to step into another century without a time machine.
Naturally there is a church 😉 The Catedral de San Cristobal is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the Americas. Of course there is also a Plaza de Armas. There seems to be one in EVERY Latin city. It’s a gorgeous viewpoint from which to experience Baroque colonial Havana.
There are a couple of worthwhile tourist destinations near the Plaza. Be prepared to be a
little fleeced as a tourist with impromptu tour guides expecting tips. Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a 16th century castle, complete with moat, and the oldest military construction in Havana. The Palacio de los Capitanes
Generales is a baroque palace built for Cuba’s old colonial rulers.
The final destination really worth checking out is the Plaza Vieja. I found it by walking down Calle Mercaderes keeping my distance from a guy with a snake wrapped around his neck who appeared to be charging tourists for photos with the snake. Capitalism takes many forms 😉 Apparently the original wealthy colonialists lived on the square partly to watch executions and bullfights from their windows but in the 21st century it is beautifully restored and much less threatening. During my visit, there were all sorts of colourful artistic dogs scattered around the plaza.
I had seen posters advertising the dogs but it was all in Spanish so I never really understood
the purpose. I could have asked someone but I liked the sense of mystery – the juxtaposition of something that looked very 21st century modern developed world city sitting in the middle of a colonial square reminiscent of a time when the conquistadores didn’t see anything wrong with their actions. A physical symbol of the complexity and fluidity of history, something you feel more acutely in Havana – just one of the many reasons you should visit 😉