From your base at Accommodation Havana, it is hard to convey the beauty, wonder, sensuality, and alluring rhythm of Havana. It’s hard to imagine a city with such verve, a city at once so tremendously vibrant and at the same time laid-back — that is until you’ve taken a lazy stroll along the Malecón, gotten lost in the time warp of La Habana Vieja’s Spanish colonial cobblestone streets. Or taken a ride in a 1940 Dodge taxi through crumbling Centro Habana, danced salsa until dawn after catching the Tropicana floor show, or witnessed Afro-Cuban religious rituals on the street.
Havana, last of the cities founded in Cuba by the Spanish had become by 1550 the most famous on the island, a position that it has continued to hold. Havana was established at its present location in 1519 by the Spanish and became one of the Caribbean’s main centres for shipbuilding. Its location made of the city a perfect gathering point for the annual treasure fleets bound for Spain from Mexico and Peru: Havana became the front door to the vast Spanish colonial empire, and in 1607 it also became the capital of Cuba.
In 1762, during the Seven Years’ War, England seized Havana and held on to it for 11 months, then exchanging it for Florida. Newly recovered Havana then turned into a strongly fortified city; it was also allowed to trade freely, developing and growing steadily through the 18th and 19th centuries. The city was physically untouched by the devastating wars of independence in the second half of the 18th century, making Havana easily the finest surviving Spanish complex in the Americas.
Despite its turbulent history, the city suffered little damage in the country’s wars and revolutions and stands today much as it was built 100 years ago or more. It is today a sprawling metropolis of 2 million inhabitants, its old centre retaining an attractive mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards.
During the 50’s large hotel-casinos, nightclubs, tourist resorts, tunnels and highways were constructed in a whirlwind of activity. Neon, glitter, the mambo, and sex became the hallmarks of a thriving tourist business. The flash, ample flesh, and entertainment venues in Havana were the most visible manifestations of the gathering storm. The tacky gambling emporiums, racetracks, and back-door sex show brought in the tourists and created a veneer of prosperity, but the actual force behind the maelstrom was bicoastal in nature.
It is a historical fact – and also a subject of considerable folklore in Cuba and the United States – that the Havana Mob comprised some of the most notorious underworld figures of their day. These American Mobsters, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano had always dreamed of one day controlling their country, a place where they could provide gambling, narcotics, alcohol, prostitution and other forms of vice free from government or law enforcement intrusion.The money that flowed from huge hotel-casinos was used to construct nightclubs that attracted major performers, Cuban, American and European. Havana became home to the most organic and exotic entertainment era in the history of organised crime and the allure of organised gambling, along with fabulous nightclub floor shows and beautiful women, brought an influx of money into the city.
The legacy of these years has entered the realm of legend. In modern-day Havana, the remnants are everywhere. Gone are the gambling casinos, but many of the old hotels, like the Riviera, Capri and the Habana Libre, are still in existence. Some are ragged and faded, others shining monuments to the past. It is impossible to understand the present-day stand-off between the governments of Cuba and the United States without first knowing the details of this era.
Slowly, though, the world is learning that Cuba is more than a coveted property in a high-stakes game of Risk. Wider exposure to Cuban culture (especially its music and dance), the island’s colonial treasures, and the Cuban people has given rise to a love affair that transcends international politics.
Havana froze in time in the wake of the 1959 Revolution. Decades of economic crisis and shortages have left much of Havana in severe decay and decomposition. The significant exception to this rule is La Habana Vieja, where parts have been meticulously restored to much of its colonial glory, using a percentage of tourism receipts from the Old City hotels. For the last several years the government of Cuba has been involved in efforts to restore to the historic centre its character of a colonial city, which has been compromised by rapid urbanisation. The fortress of La Fuerza is restored, as have the palaces of the Segundo Cabo and Los Capitanes Generales. The pattern of early urban setting still exists with its four large squares: Plaza de La Cathedral, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Las Armas. There is also a notable complex of 17th- to 19th-century buildings.
The centrally located Casa Compostela is in the heart of Habana Vieja so that you can explore to your hearts content!