Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro
Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro (Morro Castle) at the entrance to Havana Harbour. At the tip is Faro del Morro lighthouse, built in 1844.
On the opposite side of the channel is the more imposing Morro Castle (Castillo del Morro), which was constructed in 1597 and is partly hewn out of the living rock. It played and important part in the siege of 1762".--Baedeker 1908.
Part of Old Havana and its Fortification System UNESCO World Heritage site, inscribed in 1982.
At 7:30 in the morning on Thursday, we looked out of our cabin window to find Carnival Paradise gliding past Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The fortifications looming above the ship indicated we had entered Havana harbour! Cuba! It had been difficult for Americans to visit here since the imposition of the embargo in 1961. Now we would see at least Havana first hand.
The ship docked at Sierra Maestra Terminal San Francisco, the Havana Cruise Ship Terminal. The three adjacent passenger ship wharves had been built in 1910-1914 by the Havana Docks Company. In 1996, Muelle San Francisco was modernized as a contemporary cruise terminal. However, there are only two berths, which means only two cruise ships may dock at any one time, and ones of moderate size at that. (There are plans to upgrade the other two wharves. They could be seen to be in a state of disrepair.)
Out on deck there was a fabulous view along the waterfront and towards Castillo del Morro. Ferries were plying the harbour between the waterfront promenade, Casablanca and Regla. Passport control was reminiscent of the queue in St. Petersburg in 2016. (One position here abruptly shut down
Ferry pier in La Habana Vieja. Avenida del Puerto.
with people left waiting in line.) Once past the passport booth, we exchanged dollars for CUCs at the currency desk. The CUC (convertible peso) is the tourist money, though Cubans like to collect these as much as US dollars. Both can be used to buy foreign goods or on trips abroad if they are able to go. Downstairs, Carnival shore excursions were assembling. We found ours, "Havana's Top Ten", and boarded the motorcoach. Under the Cuba travel rules for Americans set by the US Department of State, American visitors had to participate in a "people to people" contact. Our shore excursion would include that experience.
As the motorcoach set out along Avenida del Puerto, our guide introduced himself. He had a university degree in computer science. But he, along with many other Cuban professionals, had turned to the tourism industry to earn more money. He said he could earn as much money in a day (that would include tips) as a guide as he would in a month in the information technology field. Speaking of IT, he also said that Cubans were very interested in what was going on in the world and in contemporary entertainment shows. They commonly
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The Curtain wall - La Cortina overlooks the channel leading to Havana harbour. Built in 1763-1774 in response the the British attack of 1762.
"To the S.E., flanking the ship channel, is the enormous fort known as the Cabaña".--Baedeker 1909
Part of Old Havana and its Fortification System UNESCO World Heritage site, inscribed in 1982.
get this through the "paqueta
". The guide further explained that someone with high-speed Internet access will download news sources and popular televisions shows and collect them on a shareable device. Individuals or groups will subscribed to the weekly paqueta and pass them along subscriber to subscriber. Residents of an apartment building might then watch the content on a communal flat screen TV perhaps purchased in Mexico or Panama. Cubans were so up to date, they were waiting for the final season of Game of Thrones.
By this time, we were driving along the Malecón, the famous promenade along the Bahía de La Habana. On the seawall side of the Malecón, people were strolling or fishing. On the inland side was an array of monuments, including ones to Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), a Venezuelan hero, Antonio Maceo (1845 –1896), a hero of Cuban independence, and the victims of the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine.
The skyline of El Vedado soon rose up. El Vedado is the "new" Havana, the residential and commercial area developed beginning in the 1920s and distinct from Habana Vieja. It is the location of the high-rise hotels of the 1950s and many old mansions
Sierra Maestra Terminal San Francisco
Sierra Maestra Terminal San Francisco.The Havana Cruise Ship Terminal.
Port of Havana terminals (El Puerto). Built in 1914 by the Port of Havana Docks Company as the Edificio de la Aduana and Muelles San Francisco, Machina and Santa Clara VIII. Restoration of the Machina and Santa Clara VIII wharves is planned. The Muelle San Francisco pictured is in use as the current Havana cruise terminal.
"Part of the old San Francisco wharf, the Sierra Maestra Terminal was built between 1910 and 1914. By 1996, a cruise terminal had been built along the dock, allowing for the city to be included on Caribbean routes".
and newer apartment buildings. In truth, nothing here is really "new". It appeared that there has been no new construction since the Revolution of 1959, and much deterioration. Modern apartment blocks appear war torn, with windows blown out (presumably by hurricanes) and walls crumbling. Yet people are living in them. Cubans have been creative with the old mansions. Many of those are in disrepair as well, but residents have erected tarps and other shelter materials to create makeshift dwellings attached to the walls of the mansions. The problem with repairing the existing structures is the complete lack of availability of concrete in Cuba along with other common building materials. The notable hotels of El Vedado, Hotel Nacional, Habana Libre (the former Havana Hilton), Riviera and Capri, most dating from the 1950s, were a different story. Cuba has leased them to Spanish hotel companies who are restoring the hotels and bringing them up to contemporary standards.
Our first stop was at the Colón Cemetery (Necrópolis de Colón), a large city cemetery. The cemetery was begun in the 1880s on the outskirts of the city, but is now an integral part of it. Privately owned family plots are still allowed. The
First look at the Classic Cars of Havana
This one appears to be a 1949 Pontiac with modifications. Avenida del Puerto.
cemetery is one of those with towering monuments and looming crypts telling stories of past Habañeros. Notable is the Monumento a los Bomberos, the Firefighter's Monument. The monument commemorates the Havana fire of May 1890 in which 30 lives, including 25 firefighters, were lost. The interesting Capilla Central (main chapel) was built in 1886 in a Romanesque-Byzantine style.
Next we made our way to the Hotel Capri and its Salon Rojo. The Salon Rojo was once the casino of the hotel. Now it is a restaurant and music venue. Here we had the opportunity to experience some Cuban music. In Con Acento Cubano, the Conjunto Arsenio Rodríguez played son
and other Afro-Cuban styles while the tour group enjoyed lunch. A pair of Cuban dancers also took to the floor. (This was a far cry from Ricky Riccardo's Cuban band!) Conjunto Arsenio Rodríguez appeared to be an ensemble paying tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez (1911-1970), a Cuban musician who pioneered many of today's popular forms. I purchased one of the band's CDs as a souvenir. Lunch was a Jamón serrano, Lechon Asado (Cuban Roast Pork), French fries and vegetables.
From the Capri, it was back to Habana Vieja, by way
Fuente de Neptuno
Fuente de Neptuno - Neptune Fountain. Installed in 1836 to supply ships with water. Avenida del Puerto.
of the large Plaza de la Revolución. In the centre is the Monumento a José Martí. The monument was built in 1953-1958, before the Revolution, when the square was known as Plaza Cívica. Also here are the iconic metal sculptures of revolutionaries Che Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959).
Next on the itinerary was our People to People experience. We went to the Proyecto Sociocultural Quisicuaba
, a community centre, where we met the Rapping Grannies (Abuelitas Raperas). They were a delightful group of 70 to 90 year old Afro-Cuban ladies who performed their own rap songs in Spanish! Quisicuaba also had an adjacent collection they termed their museum. It contained a collection of photos of pre-revolutionary Havana along with all sorts of ceramics and decorative pieces. We supposed the decorative pieces had been rescued from various mansions as they fell into disrepair. (I was reminded of Winston Smith in 1984 collecting relics of the past era.)
Parque Central was our next stop. The center of attention in the park is a statue of José Martí, the "Apostle of Cuban Independence", installed in 1905. All around the park are a well-known Havana sight--the American cars from the 1950s. Drivers eagerly
Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta
Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta.
"The Prado ends at the Castillo de la Punta, constructed in 1659 to command the entrance to the harbour and now used as barracks".--Baedeker 1909.
Part of the Old Havana and its Fortification System UNESCO World Heritage site. Inscribed in 1892.
show off their gleaming creations or offer to chauffeur visitors around in them to the sights. There are all manner of makes and models to be seen here and throughout Havana. Some have nameplates, other do not and it must be guessed what they are. Some are "Frankencars", where parts of different American makes have been pieced together to create something new. Keeping these cars running are the Cuban mechanics known as "magos
" (wizards). Due to lack of availability of American automobile parts, under the hood most have been kept going with Russian engines and mechanical parts.
Near the park are many notable buildings, including Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, El Floridita bar and restaurant (said to have originated the daiquiri), and Edificio Bacardi, the former Bacardi Rum headquarters. Nearby is El Capitolio, the Capitol building. Built in 1926-1929, it is modeled after the United State Capitol and like the latter, has an imposing dome. It has not been used as a meeting place for the Cuban legislature since 1959, but there are long term plans to return legislative functions back here. The dome was under scaffolding and the Capitolio is undergoing long term restoration. From that,
Francisco De Miranda
Estatua de Francisco De Miranda. Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) was a Venezuelan who participated in the American Revolution (Florida and the Chesapeake Bay), the French Revolution and the Spanish American wars of independence.
we learned another Cuban expression: "We know when something has started, but we don't know when it will end". It is unknown when the restoration will be completed.
At this point, it was time to cross the harbour entrance channel via a tunnel and visit Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an awaited highlight of our visit to Havana. The drive up to the fort passed La Cabaña de Che Guevara. El Che had lived here at the time he he was in charge of the trials and executions of Batista supporters at the Fortzleza. (The guide was reluctant to discuss this part of Cuban history.) It is now the Centro Cultural de Che, a community center. Also just outside the fort was the Exhibición Militar, an open air exhibit of Cuban aircraft, missiles and other weapons.
On to the fort. Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña was built in 1763-1774 in response the the British attack of 1762. It was designed by the Spanish military engineer Silvestre Abarca (1707-1784) and rises atop the cliffs above the harbour entrance. In 1859 the fort was armed with 120 cannons and bronze
Skyline of El Vedado, behind the Malecón, considered the newer part of Havana. The commercial and residential area, to the west of Old Havana, developed in the 1920s to 1950s. It was the area where large American owned hotels were built in the late 1950s. The twin towers are the Hotel Nacional.
howitzers. We had a bit of time to explore the ramparts and enjoy a magnificent of view of Havana. The fort is also the locale for souvenir shopping. The former barracks houses various shops. I purchased a set of claves
from a woodcarving shop. Claves
are two circular wooden sticks used as a percussion instrument in Afro-Cuban music. A large attraction was the cigar shop. A cigar maker was giving a demonstration of rolling tobacco into a cigar. Here one could buy Cuban cigars and coffee.
It was now late afternoon and our tour concluded with a visit to Plaza de la Catedral. Havana Catedral, dating to 1724, was here. We did not go inside as a Mass was in progress. Our guide described the historical buildings around the plaza and then gave us a bit of free time to explore. Down one street was La Bodeguita del Medio, said to be the home of the mojito. Susan and I enjoyed some ice cream at Fonda al Pirata, just off the square. As we strolled, a number of restaurant representatives entreated us to dine at their private establishments. (Privately operated restaurants were a relatively new feature of Havana.) We
Fishermen along the seafront Malecón, La Habana, Cuba.
would have loved to have dined at one of them, but, alas, our shore excursion required us soon to be back to the coach and back to the ship.
Before reboarding the ship, we were required to re-exchange our CUC Cuban pesos for dollars. As we boarded, a number of passengers were disembarking, most dressed to go clubbing. I imagine they were planning to visit Havana nightspots or perhaps visit family or friends. The were going to have to be back before the ship sailed at 11:00 p.m. At dinner aboard ship, Carnival Paradise did feature a salute to Cuban cuisine. I ordered Ropas Viejas
and preceded the main course with Gazpacho Andalouse. After dinner, Susan and I strolled the deck to see the lights of Habana Vieja.
Back at home, I was prompted to read both Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana
and the biography Young Castro, The Making of a Revolutionary
. The former is set in the Havana of the Bastista era, but there are familiar sites mentioned. The latter is an interesting look at the early Castro and his educational and political background
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