Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

Along the Prado

Perhaps Havana’s most beloved streets is Paseo de Martí or simply known as the Prado, a beautiful, long promenade that divides Old Havana from Central Havana and is the place to see and be seen. Back in the days of Cuba’s glory before the revolution, the Prado was the place for Havana’s wealthy elite to take a stroll, have a cup of coffee or relax along this long tree-lined promenade.

Today, the Prado still continues to have her charm and is the place where the young enjoy skating, biking, hanging out or playing music. There are also lots of beautiful buildings and hotels around the Prado where you can sit out on a verandah and watch the world go by.

On a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon I took a walk down the Prado to take some photos. Here is what I found.

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

Beautiful marble benches and wrought-iron street lights line the promenade making it a lovely place to stroll.

Paseo del Prado, Havana Cuba

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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.

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Havana Cuba cars

The Cars of Havana

The first thing everyone notices immediately when they land in Havana are the vintage, pre-revolutionary American cars. 1950s Chevys, Fords and Oldsmobiles are everywhere. In fact, there is an estimated 60,000 vintage cars in Cuba. But seeing them everywhere in Havana felt like stepping into a scene of “Midnight in Paris”. It was surreal. It was like stepping back in time.

Havana Cuba cars

In its heyday before the Cuban revolution, Cuba was a huge importer of American cars. All this came to an end when the US embargo struck Cuba allowing nothing from American soil to be imported into the island, including spare parts to fix and maintain the cars.

Desperate to find parts to maintain their beloved vehicles, Cubans began refurbishing parts from the former Soviet Union and also used their creativity to care for their beloved cars, often sacred in the family. Some Cubans have made their own replacement parts or have even used common household items to keep their vintage cars running. 

Havana Cuba cars

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The Malecón Havana Cuba

Along the Malecón: Facing the Sea

This is the second post in a two-part series on Havana’s Malecón. To read the first post in this series, click here

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. As I mentioned in my earlier post, 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.

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The Malecón Havana

A Testament of the Cuban Revolution: Along the Malecón

The most well-known spot in Havana is the famous Malecón, a five-mile long esplanade, street and seawall which stretches along the coast in Havana connecting the mouth of the Havana Harbor in Habana Vieja, passing through Centro Habana and ending in the more upscale Vedado neighborhood. Known by locals as the “big sofa” or the “living room” the Malecón is a testament of el Triunfo de la Revolución (the triumph of the revolution as Cubans say) and is awash with the sheer irony of the Cuban revolution.

The Malecón Havana

The start of the Malecón in Old Havana

Built at the start of the 20th century, the main purpose of the Malecón was to protect Havana from the ocean waters pounding against her shore. As the Malecón was developed, glorious 19th and 20th century structures were built and lined the Avenida de Maceo (the street along the Malecón). Over time as the effects of el triunfo de la revolución slammed into Cuba, the Malecón became run-down, weathered and in a huge state of deterioration and decay. It is a tragedy to see how these buildings, which Cubans still live in, look today.

Yet the Malecón continues to be the most popular promenade in all Havana where teenagers, lovers, families and friends spend their evenings hanging out along one of the world’s most dilapidated “back porch”.  A sunset ride along the Malecón inside a 1950s convertible is the way to see it all in style! Sadly, it rained the one night we had our cars booked so I had to do it the old-fashioned way: Cheap taxi and walk.

Take a ride with me along the Malecón, Havana’s biggest living room and see how the days of the Cuban revolution have weathered this once spectacular place.

The Malecón Havana

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Old Havana

Rum Tasting in Havana

One of Cuba’s most famous products is her delicious rum. In a country that became wealthy from its sugar, it is no wonder that rum is as notorious to Cuba as is cigars. By the 1850s Cuba was the number one sugar cane producer in the world and around this time Cubans discovered that the thick molasses, a by-product from sugar, could be used to make rum. Like Cuba, the history of rum has a long tumultuous past and no family was more important during the pre and post-revolutionary days than the infamous Bacardi clan.

In 1862 Facundo Bacardi Massó (1813 – 1886) an immigrant from Spain, founded one of Cuba’s largest, most successful family-owned businesses of all time: The Bacardi Rum Company. Don Facundo and his Bacardi rum would become the most well-known rum in all of Cuba, and was maintained by four succeeding Bacardi generations until the company was seized and nationalized by the Castro government on October 14, 1960.

Old HAvana

Walking around Old Havana, you are bound to run into many places that serve rum.

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Hamel's Alley

Exploring Central Havana’s Hamel’s Alley

On afternoon I decided it was time to explore a different part of Havana that I had yet to see, Centro Habana or Central Havana. I’d see enough of beautiful Old Havana and thought it was time to see the real Havana that has been untouched. Central Havana is the most densely populated part of town and unlike Old Havana, nothing has been restored. I hailed a coco-taxi (a three-wheeled scooter) right from my hotel in Vedado and enjoyed a fun ride down the Malecón to my first destination in Central Havana, a special place called El Callejón de Hamel or in english, Hamel’s Alley. I was in for quite a wonderful surprise!

Taking a Coco Taxi in Havana

Taking a Coco-taxi in Havana. (A three-wheeled scooter with a cover and room for two in back).

Centro Habana Cuba

Heading into Centro Habana (Central Havana), a more densely populated and rundown part of town with ramshackle buildings and potholed streets.

Centro Habana Cuba

I paid my fare which was much cheaper than a traditional taxi and wondered why I hadn’t tried a coco taxi earlier. It certainly was a fun way to see Havana! The neighborhood was dramatically different from the other parts of Havana I’d seen. Much more rustic, rundown with buildings in various states of disrepair. Yet it also felt more Cuban. More like the real thing.

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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.

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Plaza des Armas

Castro’s Cuba

So far most of my posts on Cuba have been beaming with positivity about how much I fell in love with this fascinating place. The welcoming warm people, the beautiful decaying buildings and old mansions, the sounds of salsa and son, the warm tropical breezes, the fragrant air, the mouth-quenching mojitos and the extraordinary history of this unique island, all have captivated my soul. As a world traveler, for me Cuba offered something different. A forbidden place with a tumultuous past that has been frozen in time.

Old Havana

Peeking into the courtyard of a glorious mansion in Old Havana.

Yet like all places, there is much more to the story and not everything about Cuba is rosy and clear. I briefly touched upon Cuba’s painful past and long fight for freedom in my post “A Look into Cuba’s Tumultous Pastbut I was not quite ready to tackle the controversial and complicated topic of Fidel Castro. Quite frankly, I wanted to complete other posts on all the wonderful things I saw in Cuba: The arts, architecture, music, culture and people.

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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

 

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Street Photography Havana

Street Life in Old Havana

Havana is a phenomenal place for street photography. The once elegant mansions in various states of decay and renovation, the colorful people and attire, and the never-ending photo opportunities could leave you snapping shots all day long.

In fact, there are few places (besides Paris and Antigua, Guatemala) that I’ve found so incredibly photogenic as I did in Old Havana. I could have spent days there just walking the winding streets and taking pictures of every day life. To catch of glimpse of the colors, sounds and feel of Old Havana, check out this collection of street shots below. I hope you enjoy!

Street Photography Havana

 

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Food in Havana

The Ins and Outs of Dining in Cuba

Cuba has never been known for its cuisine and we were warned to expect lots of beans and rice, and unexciting meals during our week-long trip to Cuba. I found it surprising that Cuban food in Cuba would be so bad as I have eaten at a local Cuban restaurant here in Minneapolis countless times and have always loved the flavor of my meals. I decided to remain optimistic and see for myself without passing judgment.

I was unexpectedly surprised that not only was most of the food I ate in Cuba delicious, like Cuba itself cuisine was in the midst of a revolution.

Food in Havana

A delicious meal we had a a gastronomical school in Havana where servers, cooks and staff are honing their skills.

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