“Way back in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Along the way he bumped into the Caribbean’s largest island, the island the Spanish would come to call Cuba. I’m not saying Columbus was a bad navigator, but Cuba was so big he thought it was a peninsula of South America. He was so busy looking for gold and killing the native Taino people that he didn’t actually sail around Cuba until his next visit in 1494.

The view from the beach bar.
My visit to Cuba, some 521 years after Columbus, was primarily to the beach resort area of Varadero, a family vacation region specially designated by the Cuban government as a tourist zone.  While much of my time there was spent sitting on the beach, or more precisely in the beach bar, drinking mojitos and reading, I did take a day, with a driver and guide, to head into historic Havana.

First established on the south coast of Cuba in 1515, Habana, as the Cubans call it, was relocated at least twice before it found is resting place in 1519 at the Puerto de Carenas, a beautiful natural harbour on the northwest end of the island of Cuba. Since then the harbour of Havana has lead it to be coveted by pirates, buccaneers, French corsairs and the British Navy. All this attention lead the Spanish to fortify the city with not one, but two massive battalions, one on the west side of the harbour entry and the other, after the British attacks of the Seven Years War in 1792, on the east side of the harbour, the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña.

My day in Havana started with the 160 kilometre drive along the coast of northwest Cuba, skirting the edge of Bahia de Matanzas (Matanzas Bay), following the shoreline of the Caribbean through La Habana del Esta, under the harbour tunnel and into El Vedado, the bustling downtown neighbourhood in the city of Havana.

Hotel National de Cuba
After almost two hours on the road, our first stop was the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This beautiful, elegant lady of a hotel, situated on the location of the old Santa Clara battery is the pride of Havana. Built in 1930, its luxury and splendor have attracted the rich and famous to its terrace overlooking the sea for over 80 years. The guns of the old fort are on display in the gardens of the hotel. We took the opportunity to have coffee, to rest up before touring the city.

Havana Libre; prior to 1958 it was The Havana Hilton.
The Hotel Nacional, like the Havana Hilton and all other private buildings, was nationalized by Castro when he seized power in 1958. Since there there has been very little new construction in the city and what there is was highly subsidized and constructed by the Russians. In recent years there have been special situations, like Varadero, where the Cuban government has allowed private industry to build and run installations such as resorts.

Our next stop was a cigar factory. The whole tobacco thing began with the native Taino people of Cuba. They grew this noxious crop long before the Spanish arrived and once subjugated, the Tainos taught the Spanish how to nurture the crop and how to make cigars. This cigar factory, deep in a back street of El Vedada, was jammed with tourists all listening to the vendors tell how tobacco was grown and how cigars were made.

Revolution Square
I don’t smoke, not even cigars and my only reason for this stop was to fill the demand from friends and family. Since I was somewhat less than interested in the crowds and stories my driver suggested we go over to Old Havana (Havana Vieja), where he knew someone who could simply sell me the required cigars. After a quick detour through Revolution Square, celebrating the 1958 revolution, we headed to the harbour.

Old Havana is the original city, the place where ships came in to exchange goods from all over the New World, readying them for transit to Spain and the rest of Europe. At the heart of Old Havana is “Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana” (Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception), in short, the Havana Cathedral.

Havana Cathedral
This baroque cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Construction on the cathedral began in 1748 on the site of an earlier church and was final completed in 1777. The cathedral is set in the former Plaza de La Ciénaga or Swamp Plaza, so named because it was where runoff from the city collected. In fact this drainage feature was so significant that the cathedral was built asymmetrically; one of the towers is wider than the other. This intentional design feature meant the water that tended to accumulate on the plaza could run off through the streets without obstruction by the cathedral.

Cabaña fort
Much of Old Havana was closed to me due to street construction, cobblestones and my wheelchair. It just wasn’t going to work. So we acquired cigars, looked at the cathedral, and headed back to the Hotel Nacional for lunch.

After a wonderfully typical Cuban lunch at the hotel, we drove through the Havana Harbour Tunnel to the Cabaña fort. While the fortress may have been built when Napoleon was on the rise, the modern military establishment is well emplanted. The area around the old fort is housing for retired military. There is a military college and a modern military hospital.

Russian Missiles from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963.
The ultimate reflection of the modernity of Cuba’s strategic placement, just 90 miles from Florida, is the display of Russian armaments, including the infamous Cuban missiles of 1963 fame.  As a child of this era, a child of the Cold War, it was chilling to see the reality of these weapons. As a tourist of the new millennium, it was fascinating to contemplate how far we had come, that these now obsolete weapons could simply be displayed in the open for all to see, like the cannons of the old Cabaña fort. I makes me hope that we can perhaps step down from our world’s combative precipice to a place where weapons such as these make no sense.

Local Transportation
This was our last stop in Havana. Our return to Varadero, along the coast road, was just long enough for me to take a few pictures of local transportation and then nap for rest of the drive. Warm weather, a full stomach and two Mojitos did the trick.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesring Rick, you could become a travel agent with your gift for descciption or a travel writer.