Exploring Cuba

Exploring and Living in Cuba

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The province of Havana is the smallest but most populated of all of Cuba's provinces with the city of Havana being the country's main hub of activity. In 1982 the city's historic center was declared a World heritage site by UNESCO.

Almost a quarter of Cuba’s 10 million people live in Havana or La Habana —Cuba’s capital city in the province with the same name.  It lies about 93 miles south of Key West, Florida. It is the largest city in the Caribbean and one of the oldest in the Americas. Havana is the most important city in the country and is its political and cultural center and main tourist destination.  It is situated at the mouth of a deep bay and natural harbor.  Before the revolution Havana was considered the most beautiful and impressive city in the Caribbean. 

         Despite being run-down, it is still a fascinating city and has some of the best 16th century Spanish colonial architecture in the world.  As you will see in the section on entertainment, there is a wide range of activities in and around the Havana area—plenty to do to keep busy: restaurants, bars, movies, night clubs, parks, a wealth of historic museums and so much more.

         Havana covers about 290 square miles and is divided into 15 districts or municipalities. Some are on the ocean and others far from the center of the city.    It is easy to get lost or confused because many of the city's main avenues have two names.  Be aware that the residents use the old, pre-revolution names. Addresses are usually given as locations with street numbers being used once in a while. Most of Havana is laid out on a grid pattern like other Cuban cities.

         The city's real charm is in its architecture, promenades and wide streets especially those in its historic Old Havana.

The center of the city is divided into several sections, three of which are the most interesting.  Havana Vieja or Old Havana, is a diamond shaped area in the historical heart of the city.  It remains a monument to the past with its narrow cobblestone streets, old aristocratic mansions, plazas and magnificent buildings.  In Havana Vieja a total of 1,853 buildings of different styles can be found, constructed during five centuries: 144 belong to the XVI and XVII, 200 to the XVIII, 463 to the XIX  and  902 to the XX.

         For over 350 years it was the entire city. This part of the city is laid out on a grid pattern in the typical Spanish colonial style and has some fine examples of colonial architecture.  It is located at the west side of the entrance to the harbor and has its center on the shore of Havana Bay.  There are also numerous hotels, museums, bars and restaurants here which overflow with Cuban rhythm and flavor.  The best way to explore this area is on foot since there is so much to see.

         Old Havana, whose restored section made up just a couple of uncrowded blocks in 2000, has mushroomed, as those breathtaking old buildings have been refurbished. The picturesque quarter is now jammed with tourists who descend on it from tour buses.

On the seaside end is the Malecón or seashore promenade sometimes called Avenida Maceo. It runs for three miles along the coast from the Castillo de la Punta at the north end of Havana Vieja to the Almendares River at the west end of Vedado district continuing through the Miramar District and eventually becoming the highway to Mariel. 

         It is the most scenic area in the city and dotted with seaside restaurants, bars, monuments, office buildings, parks and tall hotels.  The sea battered and pot-holed Malecón is a great place for a strolling and viewing breathtaking sunsets or just sitting on the seawall watching the locals sunbathe, swim, fish off the rocks or flirt with the many attractive women who pass-by.  During the day it is the gathering place for families, young lovers and jineteros (street hustlers).

For more information about Old Havana and maps see: http://habanavieja.com

 

Central Havana, or ‘Centro’, is laid out in a near perfect grid in the area between the Paseo del Prado to the east and the neighborhood of Vedado to the west.  This area is considered to be the heart of the city.  The Malecón runs along the north boundary of this district.  There architecture in this area is very impressive.  El Capitolio or the capitol building, is modeled after the Capitol in Washington, D.C. .  It was inaugurated in 1929 and today is a museum, convention and exposition center. There is a small Chinatown or El Barrio Chino, but nothing like the ones in San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles.  The remnants of Cuba's once thriving Chinese community live in this part of the city.

         Vedado, to the west, is Havana’s main commercial and residential center.  There are mostly hotels, old mansions and apartments located in this part of the city. There are some art deco buildings like the ones found in Miami. The University of Havana, and a couple of museums are among the attractions found there. 

         La Rampa, the name for Calle 23 from Calle L to the sea in Vedado, is the five block area and the vibrant nerve center of Havana.  It begins at around the halfway point on the Malecón and ends at the Havana Libre Hotel.  The Hotel Capri, Hotel Riviera and Hotel Nacional are high-rise hotels that originally catered to Americans in the pre-Castro days.  Travel agencies, restaurants, cabarets, stores and theaters are found within this district. One of the cities most popular meeting places is the famous Coppelia Ice Cream Parlour and Park.

         The exclusive suburb of Miramar, west of Vedado on the west bank of the Almendares River, gives us a glimpse of life before the revolution with its tree-lined avenues, mansions and villas.   This is where the richest of Havana's residents lived before the revolution.  Now, most of the mansions are embassies, offices and schools.   The main drag of this formerly glitzy upper class area is appropriately called Fifth Avenue. The Acuario Nacional or National Aquarium (Avenida 1 No 6002 at calle 60) is found in this neighborhood.   It contains saltwater fish and performing dolphins. The Convention Center and Tropicana Nightclub are also found here along with numerous good restaurants.

         To the west of Miramar are a string of seemingly endless suburbs.  On Havana's outskirts there are many places of interest.  About eight miles west of Havana on the coast is the Hemingway Marina.  It is Cuba’s largest marina and has space for over 400 yachts.  There are restaurants — including the famous Papas, a hotel, supermarket and shopping center in this complex. The marina is the site of the annual Ernest Hemingway Fishing Tournament held each May.  Scuba diving, water skiing and jet skiing are also available at the marina.

         About 7 miles east of Havana is the suburb and little town of San Francisco de Paula, where the Museo Hemingway or Hemingway Museum, is found. It contains many of the late writer's relics. Cojímar, about 6 miles east of Havana, is a picturesque little fishing village famous for being the setting of Hemingway’s classic novel, The Old Man and the Sea.  This village has a laid-back Caribbean atmosphere and a seafront promenade.  Go to La Terraza restaurant to check out the Hemingway memorabilia.  It was a favorite local hangout of his, and the seafood is delicious.

         Playas del Este, Havana’s eastern beaches, offer something for beach lovers.  There are a series of fourteen beaches strung along miles of beautiful coastline.  Bacuranao is the first beach east of Havana.  Santa María del Mar is the longest of these beaches and is as popular with tourists as is Guanabo with the locals.  Other good beaches are Mégano and Boca CiegaJibacoa is last of these beaches and is located about fifty miles east of Havana and halfway between the city of Havana and Varadero. It offers good snorkeling because of the numerous reefs offshore and is less expensive than most of the other resorts in the area. All these beaches have accommodations and food as well as fine white sand, crystal clear blue water and recreational facilities. These nearby beaches can be reached by bus.

         If readers wish to know more about Havana they should read Christopher Baker's Havana Handbook.  This fine work is the companion guide to Mr. Baker's classic, Cuba Handbook.

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Information herein is authorized through the courtesy of Christopher Howard, author of the best selling Cuba information source, Living and Investing in the New Cuba. Please be aware that all information herein is protected by COPYRIGHT © and misuse of it will carry a penalty by law.