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Photos of Havana
Havana has an old soul. It’s reminiscent of an old gentleman who loves his cigar and rum, who’s suave and dashing, and have plenty of stories to tell. It’s charming and charismatic – and no lady can resist it. Despite 50 years of withering neglect, it’s still achingly handsome. Prepare to get seduced.
Havana, the capital city of Cuba, is awash with faded grandeur, seemingly stuck in a 1950s time warp. American-made classic cars line the city’s cobbled streets, colossal churches loom over Art Deco buildings, while locals line up for their rations in crumbling, 18th century buildings. Salsa music emanates from modern clubs, Afro-Cuban groups dance to the beats of the rumba. Shop vendors hawk their ware on potholed streets, dominoes sit at tables perched on the kerb, and families watch TV in their living rooms with windows wide open.
In Centro Habana, almost every street seems to have an intriguing story to tell, whether one of colonial heritage, economic hardship or revolutionary change – and sometimes all of these, wrapped up in just one block. While some of the Spanish historical buildings in Habana Vieja (Old Town) have been restored to their original glory, most buildings in Havana are slowly decaying. Since the Cuban revolution, Havana has fallen into a state of disrepair and it’s still evident today especially in the residential areas.
Since Obama announced plans to resurrect diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, many people (including myself) have flocked here with the hopes of seeing it before it changes forever. But after my recent trip, it’s clear to me that Old Cuba isn’t going anywhere just yet. The world has underestimated the Cubans’ resilience and their strong sense of identity. Even though Havana is jammed with tourists, it is no sanitized tourist trap, and the city buzzes with a chaotic sense of life and a raw sense of the past.
To give you a glimpse of this unique city, I’ve picked out 50 of my favourites for a Havana Photo Blog.
HABANA VIEJA (OLD TOWN)
For most visitors, this is the core of the city and the heart of its old soul. Havana’s UNESCO listed Habana Vieja or Old Town resembles an open air museum, with many of the city’s most impressive historical sights on display. Cobbled squares, colossal churches, colonial mansions, sixteenth-century fortresses and architecture still stand strong here, giving a glimpse into Havana’s heydays as a major Spanish settlement.
The huge restoration project of this area that began some 25 years ago is visibly still underway today. I was told the restoration work will be finished by 2019, in time for Havana’s 500th anniversary. There are now one or two whole streets almost completely lined by newly renovated buildings (particularly Plaza Vieja) – giving an idea of how the Old Town will probably look in four years’ time.
This is the real Havana, one that encapsulates the spirt of the city. It’s a shame that many visitors head straight to Habana Vieja and barely venture to this part of the town, even though it’s just a block away. There’s nowhere in the city that feels more alive. This is where the locals live and work, shop, party and let loose. On the surface, Centro Habana may be shabby and gritty, full of broken sewage systems, potholed roads and piles of rubbish, yet it has a character all of its own. Its eighteenth-century neighbourhoods throb with life, with crumbling buildings crammed amidst ration stores and vibrant markets, and bicitaxis blasting their sound system along with street vendors hawking their ware.
The Malecón is a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for 8 km (5 miles) along the coast of the city, from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana, along Centro Habana, and ending in the Vedado neighborhood. This coastal drive is one of the city’s most soulful thoroughfares. It’s long been a favorite meeting place for musicians, lovers, philosophers, traveling minstrels, fishing folks and wistful Florida-gazers.
Across the bay from the old town looms the hilltop fort of Parque Morro-Cabaña. Here you’ll find the best panoramic view of the city and the malecon. The two fortresses here dominate the view across the channel into the harbour, and mark key events and periods in the city’s history. Beyond the forts is the enormous statue of Christ, El Cristo de La Habana, one of the last public works completed before Cuba was taken over by Fidel Castro and his revolutionary government. Another sight worth visiting here is Che Guevara’s home, where he lived in after the revolution.
This leafy and calm residential area lies towards the end of the Malecón, bordered by the Centro Habana and Miramar districts. Vedado is the most modern part of the city, developed in the first half of the 20th century, during the Republic period. It’s worth visiting to take a look at some of the Art Deco edifices, built by the same American mafias who gave Miami its look. This is also where you’ll find the famous Jose Marti Memorial, and across the road from it, the Che Guevara Memorial.
CALLEJÓN DEL HAMEL
For a taste of Afro-Cuban culture, head on to Callejon del Hamel, an alleyway far in Centro Habana. It may be packed with tourists these days, but it’s still the most authentic place to admire local art, talk to Afro Cubans about their Santeria religion (inherited from their West African ancestors) and experience the live rumba music that kicks off here every Sunday at around noon. It’s an eclectic place splashed with street murals, psychedelic art shops, and statues of orishas (Santería deities).
THE CITY FROM ABOVE
For views of Havana from above, head to the Bacardi building in Centro Habana or check out Camara Oscura in Habana Vieja. Hotel Sevilla and Habana Libre hotel also offer panoramic views in their rooftop cafes. (The photos below were shot from the top floor of the Bacardi building – you just need to tip the security guard 1CUC to enter.)
AMERICAN CLASSIC CARS
Everywhere you go in Havana (and the rest of Cuba), you’ll see these American classic cars from the 1950s, also known as Yank Tanks. They are an essential inclusion in any Havana photo blog. There are around 60,000 of them still roaming the island’s roads today. So why do so many American cars remain on Cuban roads? Since the trade embargo, they were the only cars that Cubans could legally own. Until 2014, the government prohibited the purchase of new cars. These days even though Cubans are allowed to buy imported cars, most of them can’t afford the hefty price tag of US$40,000, 100 times of an average Cuban annual salary. Tourists aren’t allowed to drive any of the private classic cars, but you can hire one with a driver for approximately 30CUC an hour.
Disclosure: This trip was made possible by G Adventures. I traveled with G Adventures on their Central Cuba Adventure trip as part of their Wanderers in Residence program. I have a long withstanding partnership with them and I travel with them regularly (having been on eight trips with them). They are a company whose values I respect and admire, that’s why I always recommend them to other travelers. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.