Havana Travel Blog

 › entry 5 of 7 › view all entries

Havana is the capital city, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city forms one of the 14 Cuban provinces, the province called "Ciudad de La Habana" (City of Havana).  With a city population of more than 2.3 million, and a metropolitan area population of over 3 million, Havana is the largest city in both Cuba and the Caribbean region, ninth in Latin America. The City is one of the smallest in terms of area of the Cuban provinces, but the most populated. It is located just over 144 kilometres (90 miles) south-southwest of Key West, Florida, situated on the northwest coast of Cuba, facing the Straits of Florida, and is surrounded by Havana Province to the south, east, and west.

Havana is one of the oldest cities founded by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. It was first established in 1515, and became the capital of Spanish Cuba in 1552. In the 16th century, the city was attacked and burnt several times by pirates, buccaneers and French corsairs; Jacques de Sores was the first French corsair that attacked the city. Like many colonial cities in coastal areas, the Spanish walled the city to protect it from attacks by pirates and foreign powers. The explotion and sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana's harbor in February 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish-American War. Old Havana and its fortifications are protected by UNESCO.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Havana became a flourishing and fashionable city.

Wealth and power was concentrated in the city, because of its dual role as Cuba's colonial capital, and as the focus of the Spanish colonial trading system. Havana soon boasted much monumental architecture and prosperity amongst the burgeoning middle-class, and this led to many lavish classical mansions being erected. At the time, Havana's theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age; during this period, Havana was known as the Paris of the Antilles. Nowadays, the capital is the center of the Cuban government, and various ministries are based in the city, as are the headquarters of businesses located in Vedado, such as Corporación Cimex. Like many capital cities, Havana generates a disproportionate amount of the island's industrial output and holds the lion's share of the island's service economy.

The current Havana area and its natural bay were first visited by Europeans during Sebastián de Ocampo’s circumnavigation of the island, in 1509.

Shortly thereafter, in 1510, the first Spanish colonists arrived from La Hispaniola and thus the Conquest of Cuba began.

Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1515 on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó. Between 1514 and 1519, the city had at least two different establishments. All attempts to found a city on Cuba's south coast failed. The city's location was adjacent to a superb harbor at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, and with easy access to the Gulf Stream, the main ocean current that navigators followed when traveling from the Americas to Europe. This location led to Havana’s early development as the principal port of Spain's New World colonies.

An early map of Cuba drawn in 1514 places the town at the mouth of the river Onicaxinal, also on the south coast of Cuba. Another establishment was La Chorrera, today in the neighbourhood of Puentes Grandes, next to the Almendares River. The final establishment, commemorated by El Templete, was the sixth town founded by the Spanish on the island, called San Cristobal de la Habana by Pánfilo de Narváez: the name combines San Cristóbal, patron saint of Havana, and Habana, of obscure origin, possibly derived from Habaguanex, an Indian chief who controlled that area, as mentioned by Diego Velasquez in his report to the king of Spain. A legend relates that Habana was the name of Habaguanex's beautiful daughter, but no known historical source corroborates this version.

Havana moved to its current location next to what was then called Puerto de Carenas (literally, "Careening Bay"), in 1519.

The quality of this natural bay, which now hosts Havana's harbor, warranted this change of location. Bartolomé de las Casas wrote:

...one of the ships, or both, had the need of careening, which is to renew or mend the parts that travel under the water, and to put tar and wax in them, and entered the port we now call Havana, and there they careened so the port was called de Carenas. This bay is very good and can host many ships, which I visited few years after the Discovery... few are in Spain, or elsewhere in the world, that are their equal...

Shortly after the founding of Cuba's first cities, the island served as little more than a base for the Conquista of other lands. Hernán Cortés organized his expedition to Mexico from here.

Havana Music
Cuba, during the first years of the Discovery, provided no immediate wealth to the conquistadores, as it was poor in gold, silver and precious stones, and many of its settlers moved to the more promising lands of Mexico and South America that were being discovered and colonized at the time. The legends of Eldorado and the Seven Cities of Gold attracted many adventurers from Spain, and also from the adjacent colonies, leaving Havana and the rest of Cuba largely unpopulated.

Havana was originally a trading port, and suffered regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs.

The first attack and burning of the city was by the French corsair Jacques de Sores in 1555. The pirate took Havana easily, plundering the city and burning much of it to the ground. De Sores left without obtaining the enormous wealth he was hoping to find in Havana. Such attacks convinced the Spanish Crown to fund the construction of the first fortresses in the main cities — not only to counteract the pirates and corsairs, but also to exert more control over commerce with the West Indies, and to limit the extensive contrabando (black market) that had arisen due to the trade restrictions imposed by the Casa de Contratación of Seville (the crown-controlled trading house that held a monopoly on New World trade). To counteract pirate attacks on galleon convoys headed for Spain while loaded with New World treasures, the Spanish crown decided to protect its ships by concentrating them in one large fleet, that would traverse the Atlantic Ocean as a group. A single merchant fleet could more easily be protected by the Spanish Armada.
Following a royal decree in 1561, all ships headed for Spain were required to assemble this fleet in the Havana Bay. Ships arrived from May through August, waiting for the best weather conditions, and together, the fleet departed Havana for Spain by September.

This naturally boosted commerce and development of the adjacent city of Havana (a humble villa at the time). Goods traded in Havana included gold, silver, alpaca wool from the Andes, emeralds from Colombia, mahoganies from Cuba and Guatemala, leather from the Guajira, spices, sticks of dye from Campeche, corn, manioc, and cocoa.

Ships from all over the New World carried products first to Havana, in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. The thousands of ships gathered in the city's bay also fueled Havana's agriculture and manufacture, since they had to be supplied with food, water, and other products needed to traverse the ocean. In 1563, the Capitán General (the Spanish Governor of the island) moved his residence from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, by reason of that city's newly gained wealth and importance, thus unofficially sanctioning its status as capital of the island. On December 20, 1592, King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City. Later on, the city would be officially designated as "Key to the New World and antemural of the West Indies" by the Spanish crown. In the meantime, efforts to build or improve the defensive infrastructures of the city continued.
The San Salvador de la Punta castle guarded the west entrance of the bay, while the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro guarded the eastern entrance. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza defended the city's center, and doubled as the Governor's residence until a more comfortable palace was built. Two other defensive towers, La Chorrera and San Lázaro were also built in this period.

Havana expanded greatly in the 17th century. New buildings were constructed from the most abundant materials of the island, mainly wood, combining various Iberian architectural styles, as well as borrowing profusely from Canarian characteristics. During this period the city also built civic monuments and religious constructions. The convent of St Augustin, El Morro Castle, the chapel of the Humilladero, the fountain of Dorotea de la Luna in La Chorrera, the church of the Holy Angel, the hospital of San Lazaro, the monastery of Santa Teresa and the convent of San Felipe Neri were all completed in this era.

In 1649 a fatal epidemic brought from Cartagena in Colombia, affected a third of the population of Havana. On November 30, 1665, Queen Mariana of Austria, widow of King Philip IV of Spain, ratified the heraldic shield of Cuba, which took as its symbolic motifs the first three castles of Havana: the Real Fuerza, the Tres Santos Reyes Magos del Morro and San Salvador de la Punta. The shield also displayed a symbolic golden key to represent the title "Key to the Gulf". On 1674, the works for the City Walls were started, as part of the fortification efforts. They would be completed on 1740.

By the middle of the 18th century Havana had more than seventy thousand inhabitants, and was the third largest city in the Americas, ranking behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and New York.

The prosperity of Havana brought continued international attention, and the city was unexpectedly seized by the Royal Navy. The episode began on June 6, 1762, when at dawn, an impressive British fleet, containing more than 50 ships and 14,000 men, sailed into Cuban waters, by August the British had Havana under siege. The city was subsequently governed by Sir George Keppel on behalf of Great Britain. The British seized the city as part of the Seven Years' War, they immediately opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies, causing a rapid transformation of Cuban society. Food, horses and other goods flooded into the city, and thousands of slaves from West Africa were transported to the island to work on the under manned sugar plantations. Though Havana, which had become the third largest city in the new world, was to enter an era of sustained development and closening ties with North America, the British occupation was not to last. Pressure from London by sugar merchants fearing a decline in sugar prices forced a series of negotiations with the Spanish over colonial territories.
Less than a year after Havana was seized, the Peace of Paris was signed by the three warring powers thus ending the Seven Years' War. The treaty gave Britain Florida in exchange for Cuba on the recommendation of the French, who advised that declining the offer could result in Spain losing Mexico and much of the South American mainland to the British.

After regaining the city, the Spanish transformed Havana into the most heavily fortified city in the Americas. Construction began on what was to become the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, the biggest Spanish fortification in the New World. The work extended for eleven years and was enormously costly, but on completion the fort was considered an unassailable bastion and essential to Havana's defence.

It was provided with a large number of cannons forged in Barcelona. Other fortifications were constructed, as well: the castle of Atarés defended the Shipyard in the inner bay, while the castle of El Príncipe guarded the city from the west. Several cannon batteries located along the bay's canal (among them the San Nazario and Doce Apóstoles batteries) ensured that no place in the harbor remained undefended.

The Havana cathedral was constructed in 1748 as a Jesuit church, and converted in 1777 into the Parroquial Mayor church, after the Suppression of the Jesuits in Spanish territory in 1767. In 1788, it formally became a Cathedral. Between 1789 and 1790 Cuba was apportioned into an individual diocese by the Roman Catholic Church.

On January 15, 1796, the remains of Christopher Columbus were transported to the island from Santo Domingo. They rested here until 1898, when they were transferred to Seville's Cathedral, after Spain's loss of Cuba.

Havana's shipyard (named El Arsenal) was extremely active, thanks to the lumber resources available in the vicinity of the city. The Santísima Trinidad was the largest warship of her time. Launched in 1769, she was about 62 meters long, had three decks and 120 cannons. She was later upgraded to as many as 144 cannons and four decks. She sank following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This ship cost 40.000 pesos fuertes of the time, which gives an idea of the importance of the Arsenal, by comparing its cost to the 26 million pesos fuertes and 109 ships produced during the Arsenal's existence.

As trade between Caribbean and North American states increased in the early 19th century, Havana became a flourishing and fashionable city. Havana's theaters featured the most distinguished actors of the age, and prosperity amongst the burgeoning middle-class led to expensive new classical mansions being erected. During this period Havana became known as the Paris of the Antilles.

The 19th century opened with the arrival in Havana of Alexander von Humboldt, who was impressed by the vitality of the port. In 1837, the first railroad was constructed, a 51 km stretch between Havana and Bejucal, which was used for transporting sugar from the valley of Guines to the harbor. With this, Cuba became the fifth country in the world to have a railroad, and the first Spanish-speaking country.

Throughout the century, Havana was enriched by the construction of additional cultural facilities, such as the theater Tacon, one of the most luxurious in the world, the Artistic and Literary Liceo (Lyceum) and the theater Coliseo. In 1863, the city walls were knocked down so that the metropolis could be enlarged. At the end of the century, the well-off classes moved to the quarter of El Vedado. Later, they emigrated towards Miramar, and today, evermore to the west, they have settled in Siboney. At the end of the 19th century, Havana witnessed the final moments of Spanish colonialism in America, which ended definitively when the United States warship Maine was sunk in its port, giving that country the pretext to invade the island. The 20th century began with Havana, and therefore Cuba, under occupation by the USA.
In 1906 the Bank of Nova Scotia opened the first branch in Havana. By 1931 it had three branches in Havana.

Republican period and Post-revolution

Under American influence, the city grew and prospered. Numerous luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were constructed in the 1930s to serve Havana's burgeoning tourist industry. Santo Trafficante, Jr. took the roulette wheel at the Sans-Souci, Meyer Lansky directed the Riviera, and Lucky Luciano, the National Casino. At that time Havana became an exotic capital of gambling and corruption where gangsters and stars were known to mix socially.

A gallery of black and white portraits from the era still adorns the walls of the bar of the National Hotel, including pictures of Frank Sinatra with Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. In 1958 about 300,000 American tourists visited the city. One of the most well-known to the world was the American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who quoted "in terms of beauty, only Venice and Paris surpassed Havana", Hemingway wrote several of his famous novels there and lived the last 22 years of his life.

After the revolution of 1959 "efforts" were made to improve social services, public housing and official buildings. Nevertheless, shortages that affected Cuba following Castro's nationalization (without pay to its former owners) of all private property and businesses on the island and along with this declaring private property illegal followed by the U.S. embargo hit Havana especially hard; much of the city is crumbling without sufficient resources to preserve the old buildings from the effects of the tropical climate, government abandonment, and occasional hurricanes.

Following a severe economic downturn after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the billions of dollars they gave the Cuban government, the government has increasingly turned to tourism for financial support. Most of this new tourism comes from Canada and Europe. A major effort has gone into rebuilding Old Havana for tourist purposes and a number of streets and squares have been rehabilitated.

dianajnz says:
Sounds like a great trip. Thanks for locating Cuba, and Havannah in history. How sad to see such a beautiful city go to ruin.
Posted on: Jun 08, 2009
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Havana Music
Havana Resaturante
Havana Praça
Havana Street
Havana Cars
photo by: mario26