Colon Cemetery in Havana.

Colon Cemetery: Havana’s Work of Art

When I saw our itinerary for our “people-to-people” cultural tour of Cuba (one of the only legal ways to visit Cuba as an American), the one event out of all that I was the least excited about was the visit to a cemetery. To me, visiting cemeteries are rather morbid and oftentimes depressing. Unless of course you are at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, who wants to see a bunch of grave stones while you are happily enjoying a vacation?

Our morning visit to the famous Colon Cemetery or Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón as it is called in Spanish, proved that not only was I completely wrong but that cemeteries can be actually quite a beautiful place loaded with gorgeous architecture, flowers, history and art. If you have to be buried, then there isn’t a more beautiful place than the Colon Cemetery in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.

Founded in 1871 as the prosperous Spanish colony began expanding its architectural works into new posh neighborhoods and theaters, train stations, markets, hotels and parks, the Colon Cemetery was built on top of the existing Espada Cemetery and named after Christopher Columbus, the Spaniard who “discovered” Cuba. The Colon Cemetery was based on a project designed by Calixto Aureliano de Loire y Cardoso, a Spanish architect who lived in Cuba. Sadly, he died only two years after starting the project and was one of the first people buried in the cemetery.

Colon Cemetery in Havana.

The beautiful church at Colon Cemetery in Havana.

The Colon Cemetery is known as the third most important cemeteries in the world based on its glorious architecture and history. In Latin America, it is the second most important cemetery after La Recoleta in Buenos Aires that I have also seen. Both are equally beautiful yet in drastically different ways.

The Malecón Havana Cuba

Along the Malecón: Facing the Sea

Construction of Havana’s iconic Malecón began in 1901. This famous five-mile long promenade and sea wall was built primarily to protect Havana from the crashing waves and weathering from the sea. The Malecón is one of the most popular places to be in Havana and it is a wonderful place to take a walk or run, catch the sunset or hang out with friends and family. Sadly, like most of Cuba the Malecón is showing her age. The sea walls are rapidly deteriorating and decaying with big chunks falling into the water and other parts turning a brownish-green. Yet the promenade itself remains in good condition. On hot summer nights the Malecón becomes a lively “living room” for Cubans as they all head outside to escape the heat and their tight living arrangements. Live music is played, couples walk arm and arm and teenagers swarm in groups. Meanwhile, retro 1950s American cars cruise along the Malecón enjoying the refreshing ocean breeze. It is the place to see and be seen as the sea crashes against the shore.

Here are some pictures of the seaside of the Malecón.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro overlooks Havana Bay.

Cuban worker

Saving Old Havana’s Beautiful Past

Back in the 1950s before the Cuban Revolution and Castro’s transformation to an authoritative Communist state, Cuba was at her glory. The 50s were filled with money, mafia and decadence as some of the world’s wealthiest Americans came to Havana’s playground to enjoy her nightlife, music, gambling, prostitution and rum. During this time period, Havana’s architecture was also at her best with magnificent colonial mansions, casinos and clubs for the wealthy few Cubans who amassed their riches over the years in the sugar and tobacco trade.

All of Cuba’s glory and decadence came to an end after the Cuban Revolution. The casinos and clubs were closed down for good, fully furnished beautiful mansions and villas  were left as the elite Cubans were forced into exile, and any kind of new building in Cuba pretty much stopped except for ugly, Soviet-looking apartment buildings and equally unattractive new tourist hotels.

Slowly over time, the beauty and grandeur of Cuba faded away as Havana’s historic buildings began to decay and deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, lack of funds, an aggressive climate and non-existent governmental programs to preserve Cuba’s architectural heritage.

It is often said that Cuba is so amazing because she is frozen in time- to before the Cuban Revolution over 50 years ago. Yet architecturally she is not in good condition and much of Cuba’s architectural treasure is threatened.

Building renovation in Old Havana Cuba

Walking down the street in Old Havana it is not uncommon to see streets like this one.

Building renovation in Old Havana Cuba

Buildings in Old Havana

A Brief Look at Old Havana’s Glorious Architecture

One of the great things about being on a cultural tour of Cuba was all the interesting stuff we learned about the arts, culture, history and people of this fascinating place. Our first morning in Havana started bright and early with a lecture by highly esteemed Cuban architect Isabel Rigol, PhD. Isabel came well prepared with a slide show and five hundred years of Cuban architectural history to enlighten our group over the next hour and a half presentation.

Much of Havana’s architecture is influenced by her four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule. Havana was settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1511 who basically wiped out the entire indigenous population and established seven villas or towns across the island. Havana was the most important place to build a grand city due to her strategic location overlooking the narrow channel entering into the Bay of Havana. An impressive fortress was built on each side of the channel offering protection from invading ships.

 Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro with the lighthouse.

Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro with the lighthouse. This castle was erected between 1589 and 1630 to protect the entrance to the harbor.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, religious constructions were very important as the Spaniards grew Catholicism. Impressive cathedrals were built throughout the city following the popular Baroque architecture of the times. Homes were built simply with steeped roofs made of clay shingles, however, the inside of these homes had incredible moorish ceilings made from precious timber and reflected Cuban’s Andalusian roots.

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

A Look inside Catedral de San Cristóbal in Old Havana

Inside the center of Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana lies the achingly beautiful Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana which is perhaps the grandest church in Havana.  Built by Jesuits, this masterpiece of Italian Baroque architecture was completed in 1777 at a time when Cuba’s Catholics saw a growing need for new churches to build the religion.

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

The glorious Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana at sunrise.

I first saw the Catedral de San Cristóbal during our afternoon tour of Old Havana. The beautiful Baroque facade designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini was what first captured my eyes.  The afternoon sun had a way of beautifully bouncing off each unique angle in a magical way.  Although the Plaza de la Catedral was quite crowded with tourists, the inside of the cathedral was peaceful and serene.

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana


Plaza de la Catedral Havana

Sunrise in Old Havana’s Plaza de la Catedral

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.

Plaza de la Catedral Havana

Sunrise over Old Havana

Cuban worker

Perspective: A look at Havana’s architectural past

After a recent trip to Cuba, I discovered that Cuban life is all a matter of perspective.  As I mentioned in my last post “A Taste of Cuba“, the country is perhaps one of the most fascinating places I’ve been given its eclectic mix of history, culture and politics. What makes Cuba so incredibly interesting is that almost everything has been magically frozen in time since the Cuban Revolution over half a century ago.

One of the most prevalent examples of this reality can be seen in Cuba’s architecture. Once gorgeous buildings and mansions of a rather decadent era are today in various states of decay as time leaves her mark. Some have been beautifully restored to their previous grandeur while others are slowly but surely being regentrified. For me, it is all a matter of perspective as to whether there still remains beauty in the peeling paint, the crumbling facades and the deteriorating walls of Cuba’s phenomenal past.

Here is an old Spanish Colonial mansion found in Old Havana and typical of the 18th century, in the process of restoration. Let’s take a look and judge for yourself.

Cuban door

The remains of a once glorious past.

staircase cuban architecture

The stairs to the top.

Barrio Hollywood

Exploring Tucson’s Barrios: Hollywood

During my past two visits to Tucson at the end of November and December, I checked out several of downtown Tucson’s historic barrios (neighborhoods). I have been visiting Tucson for over 20 years and it was my first time to venture into Tucson’s historic past. Currently there are 34 National Register Historic Districts in Tucson and 6 more that are pending.  I soon discovered that each barrio was unique and had its own flavor. The architecture also was quite diverse with some homes dating back to the 1860s when Tucson began as the city it is today.

Screen Shot of Downtown Tucson's Barrios from The Downtown Tucson Partnership.

Screen Shot of Downtown Tucson’s Barrios from The Downtown Tucson Partnership.

After checking out El Presidio barrio, the oldest neighborhood in Tucson, we walked southwest to Barrio Hollywood, an equally fascinating place. The barrio was settled around 1920 by mostly Mexican families and today the neighborhood is filled with vibrant, colorful buildings and family-owned restaurants.

Here are some of my favorite homes and buildings I saw. I loved the brightly hued colors of the doors, windows and stucco. It reminded me so much of homes I’d seen while traveling in Guatemala and Honduras. While some were renovated and fully repaired, other homes were in disarray and needed some repair. Again, I enjoyed the crumbling colors of paint on some of the buildings. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine what it looked like when it was built.


Millennium Park Chicago

Chicago’s Millenium Park: A Masterpiece of Urban Architecture

There is no city in the Midwest like Chicago. Chicago shines with her hearty down-to-earth values while dazzles as one of the premier urban cities in America. Home to over 9.5 million souls in the metropolitan area, Chicago has an electric vibe like no other Midwestern city in what some refer to as “flyover land“, and is always on the cutting edge of architectural innovation and beauty.

During a long weekend in Chicago, I was able to rediscover her soul as well as foresee her future, all at Chicago’s ultramodern masterpiece Millennium Park. Built to celebrate the millennium, the park was opened in July of 2004 as an urban oasis in the heart of the city. Squeezed into a piece of land between Lake Michigan and Chicago’s business district known as “The Loop“, Millennium Park truly personifies what Chicago is all about:   Modern, gorgeous, innovative and fun.

A stroll through this fabulous park will prove how far Chicago has come to being a world-class, international city. Come take a stroll with me through some of my favorite views.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

The centerpiece of Millennium Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Illinois TRAVEL BY REGION TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY United States Weekly Photo Challenges

The Colorful Curves of Jama Masjid

Within the chaotic narrow streets of Old Delhi lies the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid, whose enormous courtyard has the capacity to hold 25,000 devotees.  Built between 1644 and 1658, this sensational mosque was the last extravagnance commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, whose love for his wife resulted in the world-famous Taj Mahal in Agra and zest for beauty and power built the Red Fort of New Delhi.

The Jama Masjid’s spectacular beauty resides in her masterful architecture of various curving archways, gates, minarets, towers and decorative carvings. Jama Masjid’s brilliant red-hued sandstone juxtaposed against white marble is equally as impressive especially on a sunny, bright day. It took over 6,000 workers, mostly slaves, to build the mosque and today it remains one of India’s crown jewels and an important place of worship.

Jama Masjid

Notre Dame Gargoyles Paris, France

Protectors of the City of Light: The Gargoyles of Notre Dame

No trip to Paris would ever be complete without a visit to the beloved Cathédrale de Notre-Dame.  Built between 1163 and 1345 the Notre Dame has withstood centuries of history and is one of the most iconic cathedrals in the world. Not only is the Notre Dame a pure masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, it has also remained the city’s heart and soul for centuries of dynamic struggle and change.


Paris in Pictures: Arc de Triomphe

One cannot go to Paris without taking a stroll by all her beloved monuments.  There are so many spectacular things to see ranging from the metallic Eiffel Tower, to the numerous classic sculptures and fountains which line the parks, the gorgeously ornate churches and buildings, and of course the pièce de résistance, the Arc de Triomphe.

Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 as a symbol of triumph and victory of his army, the Arc de Triomphe is perhaps one of Paris’ most important monuments.  Many armies have walked beneath the arch after claiming victory. Inside the arch are hundreds of names of the generals who fought and died in Napoleon’s wars. There is also The Tomb of the Unknown Solider which is illuminated by an eternal fire.  All this at the center of an enormous Parisien-style roundabout in which twelve grand boulevards come together creates a magnificent place albeit a traffic jam as well. But it is definitely worth a visit as its 284 stairs up to the top of the arch afford a spectacular view of Paris’ at her best.