Havana - The culturally rich but impoverished capital city of Cuba
Havana, the capital city of Cuba, one of worlds last surviving communist regimes has a long rich history associated with it. It was established at its present location, a natural harbor in 1519 and was a part of the Spanish Colonial Empire. Havana was declared the capital of Cuba in 1607. Spain lost Havana to the British in the Seven Day war of 1762 at this time many British traders flocked to Havana to sell their wares. However, eleven months later the British exchanged Havana for Florida.
After this time Havana became an important maritime hub and the epicenter of trade for sugar, tobacco, rum and coffee. Havana’s prosperity was brought about by trade of these products which were produced by Cuba’s plantation economy with the use of Western African slave labor. Cuba struggled for Independence from Spain throughout the nineteenth century and Havana was in the thick of the action as it was the birth place of the leader of the independence movement Jose Marti. Events in 1898 led to the Spanish American War and the Spaniards lost Cuba and the Americans became increasingly involved in Cuba. This involvement peaked in the 1950’s when prohibition in America brought the American jet set out to Cuba and especially Havana in droves. Classic 1950s American cars Chevrolets and Oldsmobile’s cruised the streets of Havana and continue to do so till date albeit alongside the Russian made Ladas and Volgas.
All this ended in 1959 when Fidel Castro arrived in Havana and seized power to establish a communist regime in Cuba. This regime improved the lot of the people somewhat especially in the fields of education and medicine. However, the collapse of communism in the USSR in the early 1990s and the long standing trade embargo with the US resulted in shortages of food and essential commodities. This is slowly changing as the US dollar in recent times has been declared legal tender and elements of a market economy have been introduced. Tourism from countries other than the US has flourished and Cuban artists and musicians especially from the Buena Vista Social club have achieved world wide acclaim all this is helping Havana regain its status as a vibrant, lively and culturally rich city.
Climate and the best time to visit
Hot and humid are the terms best used to describe Havana’s weather, July and August are the months when the locals go in vacation usually to the tranquil beaches of the Playa de Este to escape the sultry weather. The rainy season is typically between May and October with the Hurricane season being between June and October. December and January are the main months for tourist arrivals from Europe and Canada. Temperatures hover around 30 C (86F) during the summer months however can fall below 10C (50F) in January.
Restrictions on American Tourists
Americans can travel to Cuba but it is illegal for them to spend money there. Moreover due to the trade embargo imposed by the US treasury department US companies cannot conduct business in Cuba and US issued credit cards or insurances are not valid in Cuba. Most Americans travel to Cuba from a third country mainly Mexico City, The Bahamas and Canada. There is a restriction on the amount Americans can spend in Cuba and they have an import allowance for only $100 for bringing back Cuban goods. Americans require a license to visit Cuba and on return to the USA they face intense scrutiny by the US Customs and Border Patrol. Unlicensed travel to Cuba invites heavy fines and penalties; This in a perverse way, increases the allure of steamy Havana which could be likened to a forbidden fruit for the Americans.
Getting to Havana
Havana’s Jose Marti airport is the main airport with three terminals. Terminal 1 for domestic flights and flights from the Caribbean, Terminal 2 serves chartered flights from USA and Terminal 3 serves flights from other parts of the world. Cuba has its own airline –Cubana but once again due to the embargo Americans are barred from flying on Cubana. Customs and Immigration clearance involves long queues as the officials tend to scrutinize all documents and luggage.
Train connections exist between Havana and Santiago de Cuba and a few other cities however the train service has fallen into disrepair and not an advisable mode of transport.
Again due to the US embargo hardly any cruise ships call on Havana so going by sea to Havana is not a viable option.
Cuba has an excellent intercity bus service called Busse Viazul . Most buses are spacious and air-conditioned and dollar fares are charged for all passengers.
Havana travel within the city
By far the best way to explore Havana is by hiring a rental car. Havana and the rest of Cuba are served by extensive roads and a network of Petrol stations. Traffic can be chaotic within city limits due to the bicycle riders veering in and out of traffic. It is mandatory for state run vehicles to pick up hitchhikers.
Tourists must only use the state run taxis. However there are also private taxis which are usually old American Chevy’s of the 1950s. Though it is illegal for tourists to use them their use can result in substantial savings. Three wheel coco taxis and cicio taxis as well as bicycle rickshaws or pedicabs are other options available to the tourist in Havana. Taxi Collectivos are metered taxis which are meant for the local populace to travel in and are not meant for tourists.
Havana’s local bus service has a strange contraption called El Camello in its midst .A crude adaptation of the popular bendy bus which operates in Western countries, El Camellos is a bus which is pulled along by a semi truck and is often crowded. Exact peso change is required for the fare.
Havana has several prominent neighborhoods, Old Havana (Havana Vieja) the Havana of the salsa beats and all the tourist activity with colonial houses and baroque churches, Havana Centro which tends to be quieter and Vedado which is the most verdant section of the capital while Malecon is the popular seaside promenade. There is much to see and do in this eclectic and intellectually stimulating capital city, which so captured the imagination of authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and luminaries from the celluloid and political worlds such as Ava Gardner and Winston Churchill.
Jose Marti National Library (Revolution Square)
Jose Marti is the father of the Cuban nation and is known as the padre de la patria. This museum houses memorabilia including a lock of his hair and the shackle he wore when he was imprisoned by the Spanish. It also includes volumes of his writings and maps, engravings and a photo from the time he spent in the USA as a newspaper columnist for a Cuban revolutionary newspaper.
Carmen Montilla House (Old Havana)
Carmen Montilla, a Venezuelan artist aided the restoration of this house which is a fine exponent of Cuban Architecture and contains a ceramic mural by a Cuban artist Alfredo Sosabravo. It has a permanent exhibit of works by Latin American artists.
Revolution Square (Vedado)
Known before the revolution simply as Civic square it was the location for much of the action during the revolution when political congregations took place here. It is surrounded by the buildings that house several of Cuba’s political bodies’ .The iconic image of Che Guevara adorns the Interior Ministry Building.
Cristobal Colon Cemtery (Vedado)
Not merely a burial ground this cemetery founded in 1868 has many of Cuba’s brightest lights buried here including Cuban novelist Cirilo Villaverde and Alejo Carpentier . The monuments are elaborately carved and ornate. The cemetery itself is located behind an gigantic archway.
Catedral de La Habana La Habana (Vieja)
Work on Havana’s famous church was begun by the Jesuits in 1748 but they were expelled by the Spanish King Carlos III in 1767. The church is an imposing edifice with asymmetrical towers. The bell in the thicker tower is made of bronze. At the end of the Calle Empedrado where the Cathedral is situated, a flea market of arts and crafts is held from Monday to Saturday.
Copellia Ice cream parlour (Vedado off the Malecon)
A veritable Cuban institution this ice cream parlor and park was established by the revolutionaries to combat the ice cream parlors which prior to 1959 were discriminatory. It is a state run establishment serving as many as 25000 customers daily. Initially its menu featured many flavors but food shortages in the early 1990s made one flavor a day the norm.
Museo del Ron
A visit to the Museum of Rum is enlightening to see the process of how the famous Havana Club rum is brewed. A cocktail bar and dancing lessons are added attractions of the museum.
National Theater of Cuba (Vedado)
Thrown open to the Public forty eight years ago the National Theater showcases Cuba’s considerable musical, artistic and theatrical talent. The Theater has a coffee bar called Café Cantante which features live music.
Capitolio (Havana Centro)
Washington’s domed Capitol provided inspiration for Havana’s Capitolio located in Havana Centro. It has statues which depict Work and Virtue and bas relief’s which provide a glimpse into Cuba’s turbulent history. The huge main hall is called the Salon de los Pasos Peridos ( Hall of lost steps).
Museo De Revolucion (Museum of Revolution) Havana Centro
The site of an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Fulgencio Batista in 1957 the Museum chronicles the successful Cuban revolution of 1959.It used to be the Palacio Presidencial and its interior was decorated by Tiffanys the famous New York jeweler. Now it has photographs and evidence including blood stained uniforms as well as a SAU-1 tank used by Castro in the Battle of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 as exhibits to illustrate pages of Cuban history.
Havana has a plethora of other Museums such as Associan Cultural Yoruba de Cuba, Casa Oswaldo Guayasamin , Museo de la Cuidad and the Hemingway Museum are some of them. Most of the attractions in Havana have a nominal $2 or $ 3 entrance fee.
John Lenon Park (Vedado)
The only park built to commemorate a western musician. There is a statue of the famous ‘Beatle’ in the park and the spectacles adorning the statue are periodically stolen and replaced.
Carnival and Festivals
Havana boasts of several top notch salsa clubs and also has a yearly Carnival with street fairs and music performances. Carnival is held in July and it is worth visiting Havana then to experience the sheer vibrancy of the Cuban people. Apart from Carnival several other festivals are held in Havana throughout the year. The Havana International Book Fair is an important literary event held at El Morro . Premio Casa de les Americas is another literary event held yearly to honor Latin American authors. Festival International de Musical de Benny More, a famous Cuban musician accredited with increasing the popularity of Cuban music the world over. This festival is held in September. Tecnotur Trade Fair held in June is geared for the tourism industry. The Cigar Festival is a recent addition to the events and gives one a chance to visit Cigar factories of brands such as Partagas and learn about the art of cigar making. The Latin American New Cinema Festival is held in December every year.
Music the way of life in Havana
A must see for the Tourist in Havana is the world famous Tropicana Cabaret show held in lush surroundings at Marianao just south of Miramar. It boasts of gorgeous dancers from the many local Havana dance clubs and the Cabaret is held from Tuesday to Sundays after the cabaret ends the club converts into a disco. Club Ipanema in Hotel Copacabana is another hot dance club with a $5 cover charge Zorro a y el Cuervo on La Rampa is a tiny jazz club near the Hotel Habana Libre. Along the Malecon the locals like to congregate and often dance and party so it is easy to join the festive atmosphere that prevails in the city.
Hotels and Bars
Havana has several iconic Bars and Hotel. Many are left over from the 1950 when the Americans came to Havana in search of a good time. Habana Libre on La Rampa is a favorite with journalists, it has great views and a lively rooftop discotheque called Turquino. Hotel Nacional in Vedado has played host to Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardener and Winston Churchill. One must sample the famous Cuban cocktail Mojito in its bar while taking in a live performance. Hotel Inglaterra in Havana Vieja had Graham Greene as an illustrious guest; it has a buzzing café –Gran Café de Louvre. La Bodeguita Del Medio is a bar which Ernest Hemingway used to frequent, one should sample a Mojito here as well.