It was 4pm in the afternoon and the mild breeze gives a momentary respite from the warm Caribbean weather. All around me, locals blessed with bronze skin and athletic build walk leisurely pass 16th century colonial structures while 1950s vintage vehicles called ‘almendrons’ are pressing their horns in a bid to attract passengers.
This is is Havana, the capital city and the leading commercial center of the Cuban Republic. More than 2 million people call this city home and its sheer size of about 281 square miles, making it the third largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean region.
Ironically, its estranged relations with the United States, and the subsequent cancellation of commercial flights from the Central and North America to and from Havana has made it one of the least visited city in the region. Since its no-fly status, Havana has been shrouded in mystery, at least for the millions of Americans who had been barred from visiting it.
Recent developments however, are indicating friendlier relations between the US and Cuba, and soon more people would be able to explore Havana.
But what makes Havana, such a mesmerizing destination not only to Americans but to the rest of the world?
Well, for starters, Havana is lost in time. It has maintained its old world charm making it an irresistible haunt for history and architecture junkies.
Havana was founded by the Spaniards in the 16th century and throughout history, it served as a strategic location for Spain’s galleon trade.
If you step into modern-day Havana, you can still see remnants of the Spanish’ colonial years. This is especially true in the Old Town Havana, or Havana Vieja.
The 16th century Castillo de la Real Fuerza or Castle of the Royal Force, located at the west bank of the harbour is one of the most prominent structures in the old town. It is considered to be the oldest stone fort in the Americans and in 1982, it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Near the fort is the Plaza de Armas, another throwback to the 16th century. It is Havana’s oldest square and was given its name when the colonial government who was residing at the nearby castle, used the site for military exercises. In the center of the square, a marble status of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who led Cuba’s independence campaign int he 19th century, stands proud. Nowadays, the plaza plays host to a second-hand book market.
A few blocks away from the plaza is the 18th century Palacio de los Condes de Santovenia, which has been transformed into the opulent , 27-room, five-star Hotel Santa Isabel.
Also of note in Havana is Plaza Vieja, the 16th century open area, which used to be the sight of executions, processions and bullfights among others. Now it is one of the major tourist areas lined with restaurants and pubs.
Any visit to the Havana would not be complete without a visit to Parque Central along Paseo del Prado, usually the starting point for any tour of the city. Here you will find locals dancing salsa and playing board games, or just simply hanging out, even at mid-day.
Parque Central is sandwiched by important structures in Havana including the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso which was built as a tribute to Galicia immigrants to Cuba. It was built around the older Teatro Tacon and was made even more elegant and magnificent by adding stone and marble statues and sculptures by Giuseppi Moretti. The Grand Theatre now serves as the home of the Cuban ballet troupe.
Adjacent to the Grand Theatre is the 1920’s Capitol Building or El Capitolio. Measuring 691 by 300 ft, it served as the primary seat of government until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and was fashioned after the United States’ own Capitol Building. It is one of the relatively newer structures in Havana. Today, it is home to the Cuban Academy of sciences.
If you are after a more natural and realistic feel of Havana, you can stroll along El Malecon, a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall stretching for 8 kilometers from the mouth of the Havana harbor until the Vedado neighborhood. It is not the prettiest and safest place in Havana, but here, you will be able to see and converse with local Cubans in their natural habitat.
As with other historical cities, the best way to explore and discover Havana is by walking around its neighborhoods but if get tired, since Havana is a big city, you can just go around using the old American vintage cars called almendrons. They charge by CUC or cooks, the local currency, and you can either hire the car for yourself or wait for other passengers going the same direction as yours. It is pretty safe and it is the most convenient mode of transport around Havana.
For shorter distances, you can also take rickshaws driven by locals.
Without a doubt, Havana is one of the interesting and enigmatic places in the Caribbean. For so long, it has been a relatively unknown travel destination for many but with the reopening of commercial flights to and from Havana, the city could become the next major site everyone shouldn’t miss.
Trust me, it’s worth it.