With cold and long winters, Cuba is a popular beach destination for many Canadians. While the island’s beaches are quite spectacular, it’s the capital of Havana that will charm you. Who knows, you might even leave your heart here.
I’ve been to Cuba five times now, and have had the opportunity to visit Havana three times. Each time was an interesting experience and we discovered something new.
Pirates, treasure and conquistadors of Havana
Cuba’s history is long and filled with European influences, which are especially evident in Havana. Here you will find centuries-old buildings that date back to the days when the Spanish conquistadors ruled with iron fists and gold was king.
The history of Havana begins in 1515, when the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar arrived on its shores. The island then became the base for Spanish explorations and expeditions of the new world. Havana didn’t become an official capital till the beginning of the 17th century.
As a trading port that saw numerous riches pass through it, Havana suffered the same affliction as any other place that deals with treasures and riches – pirates. Yup, pirates and buccaneers frequently attacked and plundered the city, even burning it to the ground. This forced Spain to build fortifications to protect its investment. You can still visit the fort, still quite impressive as it overlooks the harbour.
Havana’s history and architecture is influenced by many different factors. All form the heart of what the city is today.
I imagine when the Spanish were settling Cuba, they did things with purpose. Flush with gold and the riches discovered in the new world, opulence was the name of the game. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t show it off? So they built opulent mansions, with intricate designs and styles mirroring those in the old world.
As beautiful as those buildings once were, many fell into ruin due to decades of neglect and disrepair. Homes, once stately and ornate, became decrepit and on a verge of obscurity. If you look past the crumbling portions, boarded up windows or hollow shells and faded colours, you can almost imagine the wealthy residents that lived there in another time.
Before the revolution in the late 1950s, Cuba was a playground for rich and famous Americans. The two countries shared decades-old trade and economical ties that strongly influenced both cultures, and created mass movement between both countries.
Celebrities, socialites, mobsters and the like came here in search of fun. Probably one of the most famous Americans that has left a mark in Havana is Ernest Hemingway, who lived in here during the 1930s. Hemingway drank his way through the various watering holes in the city, leaving behind a trail of bars and restaurants where you too can visit and enjoy.
The history of Havana, however, isn’t all about gold and glory. The events of the last century played a crucial role in what happened to these glorious structures in more ways than one.
Among the very old and once glamorous, are the structures of another time. These Soviet era atrocities (in my mind) rise above the horizon like the concrete monsters they are, built with little imagination and zero creativity. Those who made this city proud and glorious in previous centuries must surely be weeping in despair, their desire to awe with wealth and power, long abandoned and forgotten. To the people who live in them, they offer a shelter which matters more than esthetics.
Hope for the future
There is something hauntingly beautiful about Havana, with the glory that once was and maybe once again could be. The Cuban government has done a great job of rebuilding the Old Havana, meticulously restoring buildings and whole blocks, bringing out the lost beauty once again.
It’s a process that won’t be completed overnight, but it’s a great start. Every visit brings something new to discover. Many of the refurbished buildings are turned into galleries, hotels and cafes. Tourists have always come here, but I hope this will bring even more. Thanks to the restoration projects, you can feel like you’ve traveled through time. It’s easy to imagine what can be and what once was.
Regardless of how I feel and what I think of Cuba’s modern history, or its political system, I wanted to focus on the beauty this city once flaunted and is working hard to bring back.
As you stroll though the city, you can marvel at the vintage cars that predate many of the locals who own them. It’s a constant reminder of the past, both distant and more recent. There are contrasts everywhere. There is still a lot of work to be done here, but what you find is totally worth the trip.
The Cuban people are very warm and welcoming, and are happy to share their stories. It’s easy to focus on the negative, but what shines through is the human resilience and determination that pushed through the good and the bad.
Camila Cabello – Havana
“Havana, ooh na-na (ay, ay)
Half of my heart is in Havana, ooh-na-na (ay, ay)
He took me back to East Atlanta, na-na-na (uh huh)
Oh, but my heart is in Havana (ay)
My heart is in Havana (ay)
Havana, ooh na-na”
Have you ever been to Cuba and Havana? Let me know!