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.
Beautiful thanks for sharing and waking up in the morning for us;)
You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed!
Beautiful images 🙂 Looks like everything is frozen in time…
Thanks! Yes that is why I loved Havana so much. Everything is pretty much frozen in time. 🙂
You’re teaching me so much about Cuba Nicole, and making me really want to visit. I like to get up early and experience places before all the crowds too, it was the only way I could get a decent photo of the leaning tower in Pisa 🙂
Thanks! So glad you are enjoying the posts Sas. Cuba truly is fascinating and I learned so much since I was on the people-to-people tour. Much more to come!
Thanks for your trip around Old Havana. What a grand place it must have been in its heyday. However, it wasn’t so grand for all the slaves that worked the sugar fields that made these people rich enough to live in these opulent mansions you speak of. I’ll be looking forward to seeing more of your posts on Cuba, a most fascinating country.
As for me, my take on the theme you were inspired by isn’t near so grand. However, I was out looking for photographs reflecting the Halloween theme last October and came across this interesting Threshold. You’re welcome to come and see what my take on this week’s theme is:
Thanks Cris! Yes the world was and continues to be a brutal unfair place. Much of the beauty of the world was built by slaves. It is tragic and yes Cuba’s past was one built on slaves that the Spanish brought in to work the sugar and tobacco plantations.I will hop over now and check out your post! Thanks for the comment and more to come on Cuba.
🙂 I appreciate your comments.
You got some great unpeopled shots….my images from nearly a decade ago are quite populated…but it all looks so recognisable to me
Thanks! That was the benefit of getting to Old Havana early. I read in my book that no one was there at sunrise and they were right! I was there other times and my photos aren’t as great! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
Nice shots. I’m a little surprised to see the plazas so empty.
Thanks! The plaza was empty since it was 7 am. By 8 am it was slowly waking up and by mid-morning it was packed!
It is always such a treat for me when I open your Weekly Photo Challenges. I’ve learned so much about the history of Cuba from you. Thanks, Nicole.
Thanks so much! So glad you enjoy the posts! 🙂 I love yours too! 🙂
Just love those pictures of old Havana. Especially like their music.
Thanks so much! 🙂
this is great. I love the photo of the sunrise! so magical!
Thank you! 🙂
Great shots Nicole. We went there on a day trip from Varadero. We were lucky since the crowds were thin… but it is always much nicer when you have it to yourself 🙂
Thanks for the comment! It was great being there in the morning with no one and also seeing it in the afternoon when it was full of life. 🙂
I included a link of your post on my blog:
I hope you don’t mind. It’s so that other people can see how fun joining challenges is and how engaging and interactive it can be.
Have a good day! 🙂
Thanks for the link! I like your post as well! Great pictures!
Wonderful post! Beautiful images!
A wonderful gallery Nicole! Look forward to more.
What a lovely place. Looks like it could be taken directly from one of Louis de Bernieres books 🙂
I have so enjoyed your photos of Cuba and am amazed by how much that is similar caught our eye.
I can’t believe we captured a picture of the same two old ladies! Did you see it?
It looks so much like a little mini Spain there. I love it and would love to go. Subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in travel!
Thanks so much! I will check your blog out!
Great pics, I need to visit Cuba!
Thanks! Yes now is the time to go to Cuba!
So glad you got up early and got all of these amazing pictures! Being a native of Miami I always felt I got enough of a taste of Cuba living here, I would have never considered it as I place I would want to visit. However, your pictures show that it is rich in history and a place worth visiting and discovering. Thank you!
I bet Cuba is completely different and it would be definitely worthy of a trip. No place like it i’ve been to!
What a wonderful way to start your day! That cathedral is spectacular. 🙂
Now this is a place I would dearly love to visit, Nicole. The decaying grandeur is so photogenic. 🙂
Yes Cuba is fabulous! 🙂
Loved your photos and commentary! Had the rare privilege of visiting Cuba last July and most of our time was spent in Havana. BTW, I have an original ink sketch that I purchased at the Taller Experimental Grafica that I remember was near the San Cristobal Cathedral. You have it featured in a couple of your photos. A lot of artists were creating beautiful Cuban art that could be purchased right there. The ink sketch is prominently featured on my stairway upstairs along with several other small Cuban paintings. For any of your viewers who decide to go to Havana this is a “must see” along with the Plaza de Cathedral.
Thank you very much! That is wonderful that you have that piece of art. It is a wonderful reminder of your trip!