Havana, Cuba, was founded in 1515 by Diego Velásquez de Cuéllar, in a location not too distant from the center of today’s Havana. I suspect that this relocation (of 1519) was made to take full advantage of the beautiful natural bay that defines today’s city. In no time, Havana was recognized as an invaluable trading port, and almost every Spanish ship in the New World would load and unload there before journeying back to Spain or venturing further into the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean.
Regla, a town of around 45,000, is located at the bottom of Havana Harbor. The man sitting on part of an old pier (pictured above) looks across to the docks of Old Havana and a newly-arrived cruise ship (visible on the far right).
Regla is best known as the home of the Virgin of Regla, whom legend claims was carved by Saint Augustine in the early 5th Century. She became a patron of sailors and, in 1714, was proclaimed the patron of Havana Bay.
Here is a view looking in the opposite direction, from Havana towards Regla. As of yet, no American cruise ships may visit Havana. However, at least four other countries offer regular cruise stops there: Thomson Cruises (Germany), Olsen Cruise Lines (Norway), Noble Caledonia (Britain), and Cuba Cruise (Canada).
Old Havana, the original port, is a bowl-shaped promontory of about one-and-one-half square miles. Its shorter east-west axis takes us from the Avenida del Puerto (which defines the curve of the bowl and runs near the water’s edge) to the Parque Central (centered between the streets of Monserrate and the Paseo del Prado). Its longer north-south axis runs from the Straits of Florida and the old castles guarding the Harbor entrance down to the central railroad station and some commercial docks.
In the above photograph, the Avenida del Puerto is on the far left; Havana Harbor is on the right. This elegant pedestrian esplanade, the Alameda de Paula, was laid out in 1777. Additions and improvements over the next eighty years transformed it into one of the more beautiful pedestrian promenades, an urban gem which attracted several mansions of the wealthy on the Avenida’s inland edge.
Because of its location at the west end of that shorter east-west axis that defines Old Havana, the Paseo de Marti, had once been named Alameda de Extramuros, or the mall beyond the walls (of the early city). The Paseo has enjoyed several names, and most locals prefer to call it by one of its earlier names, Paseo del Prado (or El Prado). It was first laid out in 1772 by the Marqués de la Torre, known as Havana’s first city planner (he also laid out the Alameda de Paula). A century later, it received new paving, lighting and benches and became a magnet for the city’s growing middle class. By the early twentieth century, Havana’s upper class flanked it with their residences.
Here we are looking west down Calle Zanja at its intersection with Avenida de Italia. The Avenida de Italia begins here and runs north to the Malecón. Before the Revolution, it was one of Havana’s great shopping streets–the locus for high-end department stores. This particular intersection with Calle Zanja marks the beginning of Havana’s Chinatown, El Barrio Chino.
One of the urban features of the larger, more elegant streets of Havana are its arcades or porticoes, which provide pedestrians comfortable, shaded walkways between the streets and the buildings flanking them.
The large street in the above photograph is Calle Zanja. The narrow street beyond the green, pagoda-styled gateway is Calle Cuchillo, cutting through the dense urban cluster of buildings like its namesake, the knife. Chinese restaurants and shops proliferate down Calle Cuchillo, although not to the extent that they did before Castro came to power. Chinese first came to Cuba in the late 1840s as contract labor following the decline of the transatlantic slave trade. By the 1920s, Havana’s Barrio Chino had become the largest Chinatown in Latin America, only to lose much of its population after 1960 through emigration to the United States.
The word, zanja, of Calle Zanja, by the way means “ditch.” This is because the road was part of an old aqueduct system which brought water into the city of Havana from the Almendares River to the west.
This Dragon Gate forms a distant edge to the Barrio Chino and is unrelated to any historical development of Havana’s Chinatown. It is a concession to tourism by the Cuban government as it sought new means of economic support after Russian patronage dried up with the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R.
The materials and design of this Gate were provided by the People’s Republic of China after Fidel Castro’s official visit there in 1995.
In contrast to the major avenues seen so far, the narrowness of this street typifies the scale of much of Habana Vieja as well as neighboring Centro Habana. As to the presence of the rooster, it shows that the “country” is never too far removed, even from this capital city. I would guess that it has been left, tethered, at the shuttered gate to a pharmacy, possibly for future purposes of cock fighting or maybe even some Santería ritual.
Just off the Plaza Vieja is this exposed bit of archaeology, an ancient stone channel called the Zanja Real (Royal Canal). It was part of the first aqueduct constructed to bring water into Havana from the Almendares River to the west. It functioned for approximately 250 years until it was superseded by a more modern aqueduct in 1835.
This scene reveals the densely-packed urban conditions to be found in Centro Habana, an essentially working-class neighborhood between Habana Vieja and Vedado to its west. All that’s missing in this photograph is the normal congestion of people and cars on the street. That’s simply because this photograph was taken much too early in the morning.
In Centro Habana, buildings from several blocks away seem to be packed one on top of another. So, when the Carmelite Order placed a twenty-five foot high statue of the Virgin Mary on top of its bell tower, it insured her dominance over much of the district.
The density of Centro Habana leads to narrow sidewalks and storefronts fighting for whatever space is left.
Because of Centro Habana’s density and development prior to the automobile, its sidewalks are narrow and often serve as vestibules to the storefronts.
But then, if we walk north, we find all the breathing space we could want on the Malecón, a broad, seaside avenue of eight lanes running west from the port all the way to the Almendares River, which it goes under via a tunnel and then become Avenida Quinta in the neighborhood called Miramar. The Malecón consists of a seawall, a broad pedestrian promenade, and a major automobile highway. Its construction began in 1901, a mere decade after the automobile came into existence, and as two of my final three photographs so clearly reveal, it often serves as the gathering place for most of Havana’s population.
As we travel further to the west, the density of Centro Habana gives way to a section of the city offering much more room to breathe. The streets are wider; most are lined with trees. The houses are usually separate, detached, villa-like; scattered among them are tall apartment and office buildings, clearly of skyscraper construction, even if not on the scale of a North American city. Most were built in the 20th-century.
The word, vedado, means “forbidden,” and in the 17th-century this area belonged to the military and was closed to civilians. In 1858, with military restrictions lifted, a road grid running from the north-west to the south-east was laid out in order to take advantage of the sea breezes. Here is where the affluent citizens would build their villas in the first half of the twentieth-century, during what is known as the Republic of Cuba–the period between 1902 and 1959.
The Avenida Paseo is one of several broad, tree-lined boulevards in Vedado, this with a generous pedestrian promenade. Luxuriously-scaled mansions can be found defining its edges.
Also in the Vedado, but laid out at an even larger scale and on an axis completely separate from that of the Vedado street grid, is the Plaza de la Revolución. It was first proposed in the 1920s by the French landscape architect/urbanist, Jean Claude Forestier, but not completed until the mid-1950s. It was to be the new government center, the Plaza Cívica (until the name was changed in 1959). The separate axis is explained by Forestier’s intention to have avenues fan out from it to various sections of the city, on the order of Paris’ Place de l’Étoile.
The vast scale of the Plaza seems even more uncomfortable in this very early morning photograph in which the only humans present are a few guardian soldiers. We are looking at the Ministry of the Interior with its mural of steel outlining the head of Che Guevara, copied from the famous photograph by Alberto Korda. The building dates from the mid-1950s, the mural from 1995.
Greenery, parks and more space, enable Vedado to locate a food kiosk in a park with the added luxury of outside table seating or to set a building far enough back from the road for a car to pull in.
Here’s a bit of urban furniture, a bus stop in Vedado. Public transportation by bus–in Cuban slang, Gua Gua— is quite inexpensive.
For tourists, the Coco Taxi is certainly less expensive than the regular Cubataxi automobiles. If painted yellow, the Coco Taxi is for tourists; if black, it is for Cuban locals.
The Bici Taxi is the cheapest form of public transportation. It is designated solely for locals, but drivers will pick up tourists as long as no police are nearby.
Another inexpensive way to get around Havana is by riding in an almendron, a slang term for an old car, but also for specific cars that originate in Centro Habana (Paseo del Prado & Calle Neptuno) and operate solely on a fixed route into various outlying neighborhoods. These people are waiting at a pick-up point to travel to Miramar and points further west. The Cuban term for hitchhiking which also applies here, is Coger Botella, “catch a bottle.”
Another bit of urban furniture, the Havana version of a public phone booth…
…and yet one more: Because there is more space in the Vedado and western neighborhoods (also wider sidewalks), street signs consist of cast concrete plinths on each corner of an intersection.
How is this for a gorgeous piece of street art? An abstract expressionist wall segment with an old call box collaged into it.
We return to the Malecón with evening settling in on the city and witness what most any Cuban takes for granted: that the Malecón is “Havana’s outdoor lounge.”
It may even be, as has also been stated, “the world’s longest sofa.”