My trip to Havana, Cuba, with my sons was a dream come true. After the American Embassy in Havana was reopened in 2015, I became eager to visit Cuba before full-blown capitalism starts decimating it’s socialist landscape. My wish came to pass in 2019 and am glad Havana is off my travel bucket list.
Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean with people of European, African, Asian and Amerindian descent. It is divided into 15 provinces with Havana as the Capital city and leading commercial port.
Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1442, Cuba was inhabited by various Mesoamerican people. It became a Spanish colony after the advent of Columbus. In 1742, Great Britain occupied Havana for a year and returned it back to Spain in exchange for Florida. In 1898, the US military ruled it for 3 and a half years after which Cuba gained formal independence in 1902.
Following its independence, there was significant economic growth to the point Cuba had the largest middle class in the world. Havana became the “Paris of the Caribbean.” It became a major playground for tourists, the elite of Hollywood, the Who’s who in the world, people in power and of course the Mafia. Everyone wanted a piece of the mojito action.
One surprising fact is during this era, Havana was producing more revenue than Las Vegas. Construction was going on at a rapid pace until the radical Cuban Revolution of 1959 spearheaded by Fidel Castro. It brought the spinning wheels of prosperity to a brutal halt. Cuba became a socialist state ruled by a Communist party. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on 3 January 1961, and imposed a trade embargo on 3 February 1961. Cuba, once a magnet of immigration, became a producer of mass emigration. Today, 15% of Cuba’s population live abroad.
Havana is a vibrant, beautiful city with wonderful architecture, hospitable people and great food. The entire town is lined with heritage buildings, candy colored vintage American classic cars, nice cozy public squares, restaurants, bars and tons of fun activities. It is better to take a walking tour of Old Havana in order to experience friendly locals playing salsa music and going about their daily life. Although many things tickled my fancy in Havana, I will share the ones that I found captivating.
One thing that stands out in Havana is the array of colorful, eclectic, historical buildings and several cobblestoned streets strewn all over the city. A brilliant, colorful landscape of immense proportion with character and architectural pow-wow.
One strip of colors I found appealing was Paseo del Prado – a beautiful old boulevard with colorful Spanish and European architecture. It is the modern part of Old Havana. The good thing about it is there are no shops on this strip and the Pedestrian walk is in the middle of the road.
I found the pink and green building on this block very appealing. It is called Gallery Carmen Montilla and was rebuilt in the first half of the 18th century for a merchant of the city.
American Classic Cars
I have never seen a Jurassic Park of 1950’s American Classic cars like I saw in Havana. More like an overcrowded bazaar of colorful vintage cars! Such a pretty site to behold. It transports you to the “Great Gatsby” and “Grease” era. As far as am concerned, it was the best Welcome to Havana gift I received!
Am sure you are wondering what is with Cuba and luxurious American Classics? History has it that under Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, wealthy Americans imported 125,000 of these cars from Detroit to Cuba (a favorite holiday destination back then).
When Fidel Castro took over in 1959, they were forced to abandon them. These cars are very expensive to buy in Cuba and they are maintained by local mechanics. Most of them are have restored engines. I got chills and they were multiplying to the point of almost losing control the first time I laid my eyes on them.
These cars are a MUST whenever you step foot in Havana. You can rent them with a driver for a day especially for a tour of the city. My sons and I went on a tour in the one in the picture. Our Tour guide – Gabriel of Cuban Connection Tour did an extraordinary job of showing us around the city. I recommend Gabriel or Reuben if you are interested in touring Havana.
I cannot resist sharing the little I gathered about the red Lada car in the picture above. After the auto-import ban by the USA, the Soviet Union produced Lada was Cuba’s top car choice in the 1970s. It was a sign of status to own one back then. Russia even built a Lada plant in Cuba. People were given a Lada for their achievement. What I found surprising is till date, these cars are still so expensive in Cuba. An old 70’s Lada model goes for around $30,000. Incredible.
The aroma of Cuban cigars perpetually occupies the air in the city. They are known as the best cigars in the world. Since 1527, Cuba has been growing Tobacco and producing cigars. It is under government regulation and supervision in order to maintain a certain standard. They are very particular about ensuring every cigar leaving the factory is properly rolled and produced with the best quality. I was told there is a one-hundred step procedure they have to follow to produce a single cigar.
I came across this Cuban lady in the picture dressed in her traditional grab and smoking a cigar. An intriguing reminder of the strength and daring nature of Cuban women.
El Cristo de La Habana
El Cristo de La Habana is a 20 meters high marble statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Havana Bay. Although not as huge as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janiero, this stature with lifelike features is still a fascinating story to write home about. It can be seen from many parts of Havana. The statue was sculpted in Rome, blessed by the Pope and inaugurated by Cardinal Betancourt in Havana on December 25, 1958.
Plaza De La Revolucion
The Square of Revolution and the monument of Jose Marti are a special pride of the Cuban people. The monument in white is José Julián Martí Pérez (1853-1895), one of the most important politicians and ideologue in Cuban history. Sometimes called the Apostle or Father of Cuban Revolution, he displayed his talent for revolutionary politics and writing at an early age. He was a true hero and patriot.
Opposite La Revolucion is the Ministry of The Interior.
Ministry of the Interior is a government department in charge of interior affairs. It’s famous for the huge portrait of Che Guevara plastered on the exterior of the building. The original picture was taken by Alberto Korda in 1960. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a Cuban revolutionary leader, physician, author, diplomat and military theorist who became a left-wing Cuban hero. He is revered in Cuba.
Havana Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Cristobal de la Habana. It’s Baroque architectural style is considered one of the best in Cuba. Christopher Columbus’ remains rested in this Cathedral from 1795 to 1895 till his remains moved to Spain.
The intricate details in Spanish architecture is on display inside the Havana Cathedral.
Old Havana is a blend of juxtaposed sorts. Pristine, spectacular architecture on one hand and rickety, dirty buildings with side roads on the other. There are wide, nice looking squares and narrow streets with potholes and fractured pavements. I enjoyed seeing the small mom and pop shops and restaurants. I marveled at walking and observing Old Havana from a tourist’s lens.
This particular building made me stop and ponder about life – no condition is permanent. A vivid depiction of past glory. There are quite a number of buildings like this in Old Havana. Fortunately, a lot of restoration is taking place throughout the city.
A very run-down Kindergarten in Old Havana. I peeped in to see students in class. This is an exception as other schools I saw in pictures are nothing like this. Education is free in Cuba. From Kindergarten to University level. Everybody goes to the same school. No private schools whatsoever. Their educational standard is quite high.
Another side of Old Havana is Calle Obispo. It is a shopping district lined with colonial buildings, eateries, cafes, shops and entertainment. This is a melting pot for Cubans and Tourists.
Plaza Vieja also called “Old Square” is a heterogeneous architectural mix of a square and art nouveau buildings. Located in Old Havana, it belonged to some of Cuba’s Spanish aristocracy and affluent residents during the colonial era. In the last 150 years, it has been an open-air market, a park, an amphitheater and an underground parking garage built by President Batista. It was restored in the 1980s after Old Havana was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Malecón is Cuba’s famous sea-side gathering place for locals and visitors as the sun sets at dusk. It is a social hub used for all sorts of activities. This iconic spot was used to film the car race one of the Fast and Furious movies.
Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine (Havana)
This important edifice was built in 1925 and sits on the Malecón boulevard in honor of the American sailors that died in the explosion of USS Maine in 1898. The ship had anchored in Havana for three weeks prior to the calamity. It was at the request of Fitzhugh Lee (The American Consul at the time) to protect American citizens and their properties in Cuba. This tragic incident spurred the ten-week Spanish–American War of 1898. The end result was the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which allowed the US temporary control of Cuba as it relinquished ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine islands. Alfredo Zayas (Cuban President), inaugurated this monument in 1925 with the presence of North Americans officers from the Army and Navy.
El Barrio Chino” or Chinatown
“El Barrio Chino” or Chinatown is the only Chinatown I have ever seen without a Chinese population. It was once the largest non-Spanish community in Latin America. Chinese laborers were brought into Cuba in 1857 to work on the Sugarcane fields after England’s abolition of slavery in 1833. They intermarried with the local population of Cubans and Africans. They were forbidden by Miscegenation laws to marry Spanish women. The Cuban-Chinese developed a strong community. There were more than 40,000 by 1871. Following the revolution in the 1950’s most of the Chinese population left Cuba and migrated abroad. Today, there are just a handful of Chinese people in Havana.
Hotel Los Frailes
Hotel Los Frailes is in Old Havana. It is close to the Basilica and Monastery of St Francis of Assisi in the nearby Plaza de San Francisco. What is so unique about this place is all members of staff are required to dress as Franciscan friars. Imagine the irony of guests drinking mojitos served by monks or stumbling on a staff dressed as a monk but smoking a cigar during his or her break. The rooms have are laid out in the style of monastic cells.
In all, we went, saw and will say although Havana was frozen in time to a great extent, you can see the signs of it thawing rapidly. It is a very expensive city with an exchange rate of one US dollar to one Cuban dollar.
The undeniable penetration of capitalism into Socialist Cuba is gradual. I believe it is a matter of time before we see an inevitable explosion of western influence.
The mood of the locals reflected content as they smoke their cigar, drink rum, dance to energetic salsa and make the most of every single day. There is only one phone company and it is owned by the government. Internet is very expensive but available. Cuba has top-notch healthcare. Medical tourism is one the rise here. Their doctors are the best in the Caribbean and respected in many parts of the world although they earn a salary of around $40 a month in Cuba.
I can go on and on but have to close the curtain on this trip right here.
Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Havana. I look forward to visiting Cuba in the near future but the next time around, I will explore the beaches and country side.