As a visitor to Havana or la Habana as it is known locally, you instantly become aware that this is a very large and pulsating place. With some two million inhabitants it is by far the largest city in the Caribbean. Its mix of colonial and modern architecture makes it also very likely the most beautiful.
Like so many Canadians, I had been to Cuba several times but always to get away from winter and enjoy the beautiful sands of the beaches. Now it was time to discover what so many Europeans and Americans (yes, Havana is full of US citizens who can now legally travel to Cuba for cultural and educational purposes) already have discovered.
Even though I know it’s a large centre, I was surprised by Havana’s size. It’s a thriving metropolis and even though much of the buildings are in poor repair you can still feel Havana’s importance. As a city, it looks like what you might have pictured a mix of Spain in the 1900s mixed with Miami’s looks in 1960s. Then add 50 years of weather and a few decades of neglect.
Today a lot of the results of that neglect are being reversed especially in the older section. The beautiful buildings of Habana Vieja – (old Havana) dense and colonial – are being refurbished. Along the Malecon – a grand avenue right along the sea – building and street restoration is bringing the gorgeous thoroughfare back to life. Havana is certainly not ‘in good repair’ but it’s coming along.
Built from the harbour out – four areas
From the first days of European presence in the New World, Havana has been a strategic harbour and vital trading centre. The city has grown much as North American cities have – the “downtown” area is the historical city by the water. Today Habana Vieja and is the very urban home to many families as well as to shopping streets, cafés, the city’s historic cathedral, prominent hotels and the lovely Parque Centrale. And a lot more.
Heading west from Parque Centrale and the Capitolio building – the pre-revolutionary seat of government – you enter Centro Habana – a packed and charmingly run down square of narrow streets and homes. This area is incredibly alive and there’s never a dull or quiet moment. Not surprising – there’s something like 150,000 people in the four square kilometers of Centro. It sure is real and no one would call it ‘touristy.’
The next section of the city, Vedado, is where we begin to see the upscale side of Havana. The streets of Vedado are lined with formerly grand homes, now mostly divided into apartments. The action in Vedado runs up 23rd avenue, which is called “La Rampa” along the slope up from the waterfront and the Hotel Nacional – the grand and still glorious landmark hotel that was the place to be in the city during the glamour days of the 30s, 40s and 50s. La Rampa is alive with moviegoers, jazz clubbers and strolling Cubans of all persuasions.
The Malecon connects Habana Vieja, Centro and Vedado. The seawall along the water side of that coastal road is a scene in itself. Packed with teens, older folks, individuals of many sexual persuasions and anyone else you can think of, the Malecon is the place to walk, hang out and just be in Havana.
At the end of the Malecon’s run you encounter a tunnel and a bridge or two that takes you across the Rio Almendares into Miramar. Miramar was, and still is, luxury living at its finest. Most of the grand homes along 5th Avenue, the extension of the Malecon route, are today diplomatic buildings for the embassies of the world and their staffs. There’s also a smattering of foreign companies in the mix. Amid all this, there are restaurants, markets, bars an unused amusement park and other burgeoning aspects of Havana life. Miramar runs about 50 blocks due west and every street is packed with discoveries.
North of Vedado and Miramar are many other districts, primarily residential that offer their own array of sights, but so far I have only occasionally explored beyond the four waterfront areas. Perhaps it’s time for my next visit!