Havana’s extraordinary history is reflected in the crumbling grandeur of Havana Vieja, the city’s Old Town. The current city was founded in 1519, making it one of the oldest European cities in the Americas. Two earlier attempts saw the city relocated twice before being built on the deep natural harbour of La Habana Bay. Seen from the air, the sweep of the bay is majestic.
As the Spanish conquest of the Americas gathered pace, and vast shipments of gold and silver began to make their way back to Madrid, Havana’s location on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico made it the most important port in Spain’s empire. Treasure ships would gather in Havana before running the pirate gauntlet when sailing to Europe.
Throughout the city you can see massive fortifications built to protect Havana and, over the entrance to the harbour, are the impressive fortifications of Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. These kept pirates at bay but didn’t stop the British capturing Havana in 1762 (swapped for Spanish-controlled Florida a year later).
Everywhere we went in Havana was fascinating, whether the dilapidated but fiercely energetic Havana Centro where we stayed, or the more upmarket and ‘middle-class’ Vedado. But Havana’s Vieja area is special.
Renovations to parts of the 16th Century heart of Cuba’s enigmatic capital, have returned some of the city’s most historic buildings to their former glory. This has been a labour of love for Havana’s official historian who oversees restoration efforts – especially given the shortage of cash for such a massive undertaking. The result really did remind me of Cartagena in Colombia.
The four main plazas in Havana Vieja are surrounded by magnificent Spanish colonial buildings, and linked by busy streets crammed with ornate houses with iron balconies, boutique hotels, shops and restaurants with tables on the streets. It’s a compact area of tightly packed streets that can easily absorb several days of wandering without ever feeling you’ve seen it all.
Timeless scenes are played out day-and-night in these fascinating streets. Neighbours chatting, fruit and vegetable carts on street corners, hole-in-the-wall rum shops, pan duro y pan fresco sold from bicycles, bits of pig hanging from hooks, money lowered in baskets from balconies to buy things from street vendors, chess games in doorways and domestic life glimpsed through un-shuttered windows.
Daily life in Havana Vieja is pure theatre, the sights and sounds of the streets are a delight to experience. More than its history, more than its architecture, this is what makes Havana special and makes people fall in love with the city. It’s this way of life that people worry is threatened by the impending influx of tourists and money; but I suspect Cubans and Cuban culture are more durable than that.
Where we stayed in Havana:
Joel y Yadilis
Industria 120 altos e/ Trocadero y Colon.
Tel. (537) 863 0565 / Movil 05 2835769