Where time has stopped: Havana

The capital city of Cuba, Havana (or La Habana as it is called in Spanish) is a city that bears the signs of a troubled history, although at times prosperous, and of the influence of different cultures.

It was founded in 1519 by the Spanish colonizers and it quickly gained importance as one of the largest ports and main centers for ship-building in the Caribbean.

The downtown area on Havana, Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which is also where the original city was first located, was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List together with its fortification system, in 1982.

The history of Havana is way too long and complex to be described here, I will therefore limit myself to describe my feelings for this wonderful place.

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Havana as seen from the bell tower of Basilica San Francisco de Asis

The inscription in the World Heritage List is justified by the integrity and authenticity of Old Havana and the fortifications: the architecture, the monuments, the nearly perfect grid layout, the general atmosphere of the place. All these factors make it feel like time has stopped at some point in the past, when Havana was a glorious city, although it is now decadent with lots of empty and abandoned buildings everywhere. This contradiction is absolutely fascinating.

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Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

A walk around the streets of Habana Vieja will captivate any visitor. The place is vibrant, music is played everywhere (and often very loud), people spend a lot of time on the streets, playing chess or domino, dancing or just sitting on a step and smoking a badass cigar, kids play soccer and locals visit the ubiquitous PCC (Communist Party of Cuba) offices. The atmosphere is just addictive. It is too easy to start chatting with someone who invites you to dance with them on the street.

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Children playing football on the streets of Old Havana.

But it’s not only about the vibrant atmosphere, Old Havana has also a lot of very interesting sights to visit. The plazas (Plaza Vieja is so pretty!), the churches, the Capitolio, Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes, the paladares (privately owned restaurants) and the bars.

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Walls are rarely left empty. They are often painted with lots of colours, pictures of written text. Or any combination of them.
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Everyday life. A little corner shop and a man sitting on a step under a wall painted with socialist propaganda.
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El Capitolio, the seat of government until 1959. It is now home to the Academy of Sciences.
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El Floridita, the bar famous for its daiquiri, which Hemingway used to visit on a regular basis.
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One of the many PCC (Communist Party of Cuba) offices in Cuba. This one has this beautiful graffiti, depicting important historical moments and figures, on its wall.

Another distinctive sign of Havana is the unfailing presence of the classic american cars that are featured in any photo of Cuba. The conditions of some of these cars are unbelievable, they look like they were made yesterday.

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Typical night scene of Old Havana. A beautiful classic Chevy parked in front of some house, with little street lights.
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Just a building that struck me for its intricate decorations.
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Parque Central with José Martí’s statue and The National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana.

The fortifications are located on the east bank of Havana Bay, across the entrance Channel, which they dominate, and can be reached by a short taxi ride from Old Havana or by public bus. On the west of the Old Havana is found Havana Centro, with the small Chinatown (where no Chinese people live anymore) and Vedado, where most of the fancy government-run hotels are located.

It is also worth to spend some time exploring Vedado as there are located the Colon Cemetery and the huge Plaza de la Revolucion, famous for the faces of Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos (heroes of the Cuban Revolution) engraved on the facades of the building surrounding the square and the monument to José Martí.

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Ernesto Che Guevara’s portrait at Plaza de la Revolución.
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Camilo Cienfuegos’ portrait at Plaza de la Revolución and the always present classic cars.

Time needed to enjoy Havana.

This isn’t an easy question to answer. I spent a total of 4 days in Havana and I’m not sure it was enough. It definitely was more than enough time to visit everything I wanted to see and I even managed to spend half a day on the beach at Santa Maria (one of the so-called Playas del Este), but it wasn’t enough to fully enjoy the atmosphere of the city. I felt like I was leaving too early and there were more aspects of the city to be experienced.

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Playa Santa Maria del Mar, a nice getaway from Havana.

Keep also in mind that, especially in high season, there are a lot of tourists and the lines for everything can be painstakingly long. The queue at places like the Museum of the Revolution, the exchange bureau, the Etecsa Telepunto (the internet office), but even getting a drink at popular bars such as La Bodeguita del Medio o El Floridita, or buying ground coffee at Café El Escorial (a must for coffee lovers), can easily take well over an hour, if not two.

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