One of the downfalls of taking an organized tour to Cuba (the only legal way for Americans to go) is that unfortunately there is not a lot of free time. Per the restrictions imposed by the US Treasury Department, Americans must spend the entire day doing people-to-people meetings. If you don’t attend one of the meetings, the US tour operator can loose their license. Our meetings began at 9 am and typically didn’t end until after dinner around 9 or 10 pm. Therefore, the only way to branch off on your own meant either early in the morning, during an occasional afternoon break or after dinner.
We had toured spectacular Old Havana on our first full day in Cuba after a morning presentation by a top Cuban architect, however, by the time we arrived it was mobbed. I got tons of photos but knew that I’d have to go back and explore on my own. I had read in my guide book that the best time of day in Old Havana is sunrise. A time when the hordes of camera-clad tourists are still in bed after a late night drinking rum and dancing salsa. A time when only the locals are out and about slowly starting their day.
I hailed a cab from my hotel, The Meliá Cohiba in Vedado and was in Old Havana at the Plaza de Catedrale by 7 am. When I arrived, there was not a soul there except me. Imagine my utter delight to have the entire square to myself. Indeed it was a delicious reward for dragging my tired body out of bed at 6:30 am on vacation.
Old Havana or Havana Vieja was founded by the Spanish in 1519 surrounding the natural harbor of the Bay of Havana, a strategic location to build a fort to protect the city from invaders. Old Havana is the historical heart of Havana with a majority of its lovely buildings built favoring Spanish Colonial, Moorish, Baroque and Neoclassical styles popular with the Spanish rule. Sadly much of the grandeur has faded into ruins yet in 1982 UNESCO declared Havana Vieja as a World Heritage Site and restoration has slowly began. In fact over one-third of Old Havana has been restored but funds are slow to find to finance the rest. Today as you meander around its windy, narrow streets you can see the restoration work in progress and it is fascinating.
Plaza de la Catedral is one of five historic main squares in Old Havana. The centerpiece of the square is the gorgeous Catedral de San Cristobal which was completed in 1777 by Jesuits. It is the most relevant Baroque landmark in Havana and is very Italian in style since it was built by an Italian priest.
The narrow serpentine streets surrounding the Plaza de la Catedral are the home of some of the city’s grandest mansions. These opulent homes were built around the 18th century, a time when Cuba was a very prosperous colony thanks to her growing sugar trade.
Once inside the beautiful courtyard of the Plaza de la Catedral lies the sensational Catedral de San Cristobal. The cathedral’s Baroque facade with its gorgeous stained glass windows is stunning especially as the morning light casts a glowing spell across the top of the church and slowly meanders down.
The cathedral’s bells are said to have been cast with gold and silver mixed into bronze. I wasn’t there to hear them ring but I’m sure the sound echoes across the entire plaza. During the peak tourist times, Cubans dressed in traditional attire hang out near the cathedral hoping to make a buck if you take a photo with them.
I left just in time to get back to the hotel to start our day of people to people meetings. By 8 am, Old Havana had woken up and was starting to fill with life. I left with a smile across my face for my fortune of having the plaza all to myself that morning. I could not think of a better way to start my second full day in Cuba.
Stay tuned….I have much more Cuba left to share and I can hardly wait!
This post was inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge Threshold.