The Corcovado Christ might be more famous, the Concordia Christ taller, but the Christ of Havana has a special mystical quality about it: its unquestionable crossbreeding; a face inured by surprises; a more blessing than protecting expression, watching over its city from a hillside point over the bay; all these features make this Christ one of the most beloved and essential inhabitants of Havana.
Erected on top of the small hill of Casablanca, this colossal statue carved from Carrara marble is strategically place at a point that offers the most spectacular view of the whole inlet: the entrance to the port, the old part of the city and the surrounding fortresses. It is favoured by a certain kind of lighting, luminosity and colour that would cheer up the most uninspired photographer.
Moreover, the climbing journey to reach this Christ’s feet includes a short sailing trip through the dark waters of the bay aboard the "lanchita" - a mini-ferry boat that links Old Havana with the municipalities of Casablanca and Regla. You can also get there by car, but it isn’t as interesting a journey; at least not as much if you want to immerse in the daily life of habaneros and do it the way most locals do.
A Cuban Christ
The Cristo de la Habana is like the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Saint Patron of Cubans: its cult is a more cultural than religious one. Those who visit the famous work of Cuban sculptress Jilma Madera do not go there to worship the Messiah, but rather to enjoy a spectacular panoramic view of Havana.
But the conception of Christ, standing tall at 50 metres above sea level, wasn’t entirely sinless: they say the sculptress was inspired on a lover to mould its face, as suggested by the lips, thicker than those of Jesus according to common Christian iconography.
Another difference is that the Christ of Havana does not welcome people with his arms open, like his peers in Brazil, Bolivia, Angola or Portugal. The Cuban one has his hand planted firmly on the heart and a stern look, as if challenging you to look away from him.
Crossing the Bay
In search of our Redeemer, I took the Avenida del Puerto (Port Avenue) towards the dock of Casablanca, sitting across the golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the San Isidro neighbourhood. For just $1.00 CUP (Cuban Pesos), equivalent to $0.05 CUC, that is, about 1p in pounds sterling, you can cross the bay in the folksy, paint-stripped powerboat that crosses the bay in about 10 minutes, full of Cubans who are coming or going to and from work, sometimes with a bike, laden with bags, sometimes cheerful and often tired. On peak hours the boat is crowded, but always safe.
If you stand close to a window, you can feel the fresh, salty sea breeze caressing your skin and take pictures of the old jetties, the cruiser terminal, the Regla Shrine, the port´s cranes, the crossed wakes of towboats, and ships of different draughts. And you can also watch a pelican diving into the sea to catch its meal.
The shuttle powerboats come and go every 30 minutes. Before entering the dock, you have to pass through a checkpoint for security reasons. Your shipmates are generally kind and some may offer to guide you al the way up but making the uphill journey towards the Christ is so easy and straightforward that once you get to Casablanca: anyone can show you the way up.
A Casablanca without Bogart nor Sam
Casablanca, a name that brings film memories to mind, is an old fishermen’s town, although its inhabitants no longer practice that ancient profession like they once used to. Along its coast there are many dockyards and, just in the place where those coming from Havana go ashore, you will find the train station of Tren de Hershey (Hershey Train), the only electric train still running in Cuba, which makes the journey to Matanzas city back and forth every day, another adventure I recommend.
The stairway to get to the statue sits across from a park, partially hidden by the houses and other buildings. You can also get there through a zig-zag road, with a nice breeze and partial views of the city. The stairway has its own charm for it enters a sort of favela -not a dangerous one at that I must stress - and you walk under the shade of leafy trees, something you will truly appreciate in hot weather. Carry water and wear comfortable shoes and clothes because the climb is short, but steep. Totally worth it though.
I myself always make the climb at twilight, because the lights falling on the old part of the city create magical, eerie and somewhat surreal views. Besides, at that time of day (or should I say night) you’ll find less craft and souvenir vendors there for the same old trade, so you can enjoy a feeling of retirement, peace and privacy; quite the spiritual experience one could say.
Don’t worry if it gets dark and the place looks isolated, you simply go back to square one and return to the city in the same powerboat (the last one departs at about 10:00 p.m.). Even better, behind the statue there is a road that leads to La Cabana Fortress, and you can make your way there in time to watch the Canonazo de las Nueve (Cannon Shooting Ceremony) that takes place at 9 p.m. every day., yet another symbol of Havana you shouldn´t miss.
But that will be another story to tell…I’ll save it for next time.