Overview and History
Come and see five decades of decay and neglect fueled by men in green preaching for la Revolucion. Havana is a breathing contradiction, poor by European standards but rich in resources; happy and cheerful folks making the best of the crumbling infrastructure and basic shortages. Once opulent, now a shadow that doesn't have much longer to go before it all falls apart. These images were taken a few months after the twentieth century's longest-ruling dictator, Fidel Castro, stepped down. Here is a place where there are still no mobile phones, and where about half of the cars date from before 1960. Strangely beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, Havana is something that everyone should see.
Facts: Havana is the capital of Cuba, the heartbeat of its fourteen provinces, and the largest city in the Caribbean. With 2.1 million people, the pace of life is a lot faster here than in the rest of Cuba, so get ready to stay up late and drink some rum.
Panfilo de Narvaez gets the credit for founding the first settlement here in 1514, although Sebastian de Ocampo first charted the island in 1509. Anyway, colonists were hard on their heels. (Or keels as the case may be.)
Spanish navigators fell in love with Cuba because it was so close to the Gulf Stream, an ocean current that could zip them back across the Atlantic to Europe at the drop of a conquistador's helmet.
King Philip II of Spain gave Havana the title of City in 1592 whereupon it could officially become the gateway to the new world and its abundant streams of wealth. The original Havana was located on the southern coast of Cuba, but it moved several times (for reasons of mosquito infestations, the story goes) and ended up in a neat bay on the northern coast, with the Almendares river running through it.
The Spanish built forts and battlements to protect against devilish French, Dutch and English navies which were attacking the city in their own hunt for the fountain of youth, or at least untold riches. French pirates burned Havana to the ground in 1539 and the English stopped in for a raid in the 1620's, easily laughing off the Castillo del Morro's defenses. Huge fortresses at the entrance to the bay loom as testament to the ferocity of sea battles circa 17th century.
As everyone knows, if you want to have a country, first you need a perimeter that you can defend. Ask Alexander Hamilton, the architect of the United States, who cut his chops as a shipping clerk in the West Indies... the coast guard was no joke back in the colonial times.
The Spanish response to these black market marauders most foul was to decree that all merchant ships must travel together in a flotilla, which could more easily be protected by the Spanish Armada, and thus avoid a treacherous end in the watery deeps.
Because of this decree, ships accumulated in the port of Havana waiting for fair weather and a large enough group to travel. For months they would wait in harbor while the supplies of gold, silver, alpaca wool, mahogany, leather and cocoa piled up. Tobacco and cane sugar made their debut in Europe as hitch hikers on the load. Imagine the debauchery Havana must have experienced in those decadent dangerous days! Literally thousands of ships would be assembled in the harbor by the end of summer, waiting to take off across the high seas of the Atlantic.
In any case, Havana soon became the main Spanish port in the Caribbean so let's keep going, as did Hernan Cortes when he used Cuba as a stepping stone for his conquest of Mexico. Legends of El Dorado and the seven cities of gold attracted more conquistadores, but since Cuba itself had none of these mineral deposits, it remained largely undeveloped until later.
For a brief stint Havana was occupied by British forces which were busily battling the Spanish, during the Seven Years' War declared in 1762. However, in a crafty maneuver the Spanish traded Cuba for Florida, showing impressive intuitive savvy considering the budding American Revolution.
Besides a minor epidemic or two in the seventeenth century, Havana expanded rapidly from then on. Her population hit 80,000, third only to Lima and Mexico City, as of the 1750's. Known as the most heavily fortified city in the Americas, it continued building everything a nation needs, from warships to cathedrals.
The wealth streaming through Havana brought cultural influences right alongside. Havana was referred to as the Paris of the Antilles in the nineteenth century, proudly displaying theaters and museums, and as of 1837 it became only the fifth country in the world to have a railroad.
Spanish colonial control pretty much ended with the Spanish-American war when the United States invaded Cuba after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine.
Cuba became a gambling vacation paradise for swanky gangsters and movie stars alike in the 20th century, exceeding even Las Vegas in revenues. Unfortunately for American high rollers, a revolution came along in 1959 and Fidel Castro declared Cuba to be a communist state.
Next up, missile crisis! Cold War tensions, Russian nuclear-armed missiles ninety miles off the coast of Florida, and Kennedy on the phone with Kruschev talking about whether or not to destroy life on earth as we know it.
Fidel Castro has only just stepped down as the country's leader, and the United States continues its embargo on Cuba today, astonished that the little country has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent loss of subsidies. Cuba has made up the difference in their budget by promoting tourism to the world, and if these panoramas don't explain why, you've got your eyes closed.
Cuba's main airport is Jose Marti International (HAV). It's about fifteen km from Havana, an easy drive or bus ride.
Transportation to and from the airport is by taxi or minibus. Bus service from the airport to your hotel can cost anywhere between $8 and $25.
Cuba has great taxi service, as well as the option to rent a van, car or motorcycle. What you need to do here is hop into one of the Coco taxis, they're the bright yellow three wheelers that rip around the city like crazed bears on honey day.
Also keep an eye out for the amazing old Chevies and Cadillacs still on the road. Rolling or functioning they may not be, but on the road they are.
Do you like bargaining? You can always grab an illegal car service driver to get around. These are dudes with their own car who pick people up and take them around, for no set price. Take your chances on getting ripped off or finding an amazing local guide.
People and Culture
Cuba is cool. People are friendly and the ones who might rip you off are pretty obvious about it. Don't be flashy with your cashy, as usual, or wander around the restaurant drunk with your wallet on the table, you know what I mean?
It's Latino culture, where men rule and Patron is in charge. The man, not the tequila. Don't be surprised if you go for lunch and there are no prices on the menu. The women serve, the men handle the cash and the receipt is oral.
Cuba is kind of busted out. Lots of run down cars, buildings and graffiti. It's absolutely fascinating and you should visit before they rebuild everything newly whitewashed, pinkwashed, pastel washed, etc..
For example of the setting:
Things to do & Recommendations
Go to the Hangout Crossroads smack dab in the center of the action.
Have you heard of a cuban sandwich? Cubano? They're everywhere, it will be easy. You take roast pork and also ham, grill it on a submarine roll of some sort with pickles, cheese and garlic.
They are so delicious and greasy AND cheap, I don't know what to do. I get dizzy just thinking about it. If you haven't had one yet, you'd better get one before The End. Try to imagine the perfection of bacon, plus a choir of angels, floating on an ocean of melted god. In your stomach.
Text by Steve Smith.