Five years after it was named Wonder City of the World by the New7Wonders foundation (picked by popular vote among thousands of surveyed travellers), Havana has something new to celebrate and it wants to share it with the world.
Cuba's most excitingly complex and kaleidoscopic city is reaching the grand old age of 500 and it wants to mark the occasion with a big birthday celebration, encompassing everything from weekly and monthly special concerts under an open sky (free for all to attend) to structural repairs, green-fingered initiatives and a big clean-up mission to beautify Havana from head to toe.
500 years of exuberance, decadence, austerity, defiance and timeless romance
Even though an initial settlement of Havana was founded in 1515 in the island's southern coast, it wasn't until 16th November 1519 that the city officially celebrated its foundation as one of Cuba's first seven "villas" when it had relocated to the northern half of the island, where it has remained to this day.
But Havana, as splendidly beautiful, full of contrasts and impossibly varied as it is, hasn't always been Cuba's first city. Many people might not know this (unless they're Cuban) but Havana wasn't always the island's capital and it only gained prominence (and its actual capital status) around 40 years after its foundation, due to the strategic location of its port.
In light of its huge milestone birthday next year, the most famous of Cuban cities and tourist destinations is already readying to become its best version yet. The local government has put a plan in place (announced last June) to spruce up some areas of the city, beautify neglected neighbourhoods, improve and expand its green spaces, implement a better waste management system (amid growing concerns due to long-standing problems with garbage disposal) as well as enhance the living conditions of hundreds of its inhabitants through several structural repairs to decaying blocks of flats, especially in Old Havana, the historic heart of town. In this blog post, we look at some of the rejuvenating efforts, activities and events planned to mark Havana's 500th anniversary so that if you plan a Cuba holiday in 2019 you make sure not to skip the island's vibrant, buzzing and hopelessly romantic capital.
Havana - a riveting centuries-old history and even more fascinating beauty
500 years of blossoming beauty, struggles, victories, losses, and, of course, revolutions - not just Fidel Castro's one but many other uprisings before then, from pirate and corsair invasions to decades' long wars in colonial times when the island fought to free itself from the Spanish crown. Havana is a city of resilience, of perpetual romance, of countless mixed emotions (you might struggle to put them all into words) and of admirable resilience. Even in the face of its worst economic woes during the early 90s crisis, it endured, it upheld, it enchanted, it bewitched, it entranced.
Founded under the cooling shade of a ceiba tree in El Templete, the site where the first mass and town council meeting of Havana was held back on 16th November 1519, the city's full name was San Cristobal de La Habana, with San Cristobal being declared the city's patron saint (probably because said saint offers patronage for sailors; this was a coastal city after all) and Habana being the region's original aboriginal name. El Templete remains venerated by "habaneros" as that sacred, mystical place (some attribute magical properties to it and ask for wishes while circling the ceiba tree three times) where crowds gather as the Historian of the City celebrates the city's anniversary every year.
Badly weathered in some places, positively gleaming in others, perhaps the best word to describe Havana today, aesthetically-speaking is "shabby chic". Well, that's actually two words, but I think the shabby chic term was quite possibly inspired by this at times majestic at times tragic (but always proud) city, with its unique, well-aged mix of old and new, of vintage and avant-garde.
In terms of architecture, in Havana you'll come across pretty much every style there is, with the only exception perhaps of ultra-modern 21st century skyscrapers (though even this is soon to change with the building of Havana's tallest structure yet -coming in 2020). From Neoclassical to Gothic, Baroque, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Modernism and a strong presence and Eclecticism, Havana is a feast for the eyes for any architecture-loving individual. With many landmark buildings representing each style, it's easy to build a sightseeing itinerary around architectural points of interest in Havana, all intrinsically tied to the city's riveting history.
The build-up to a milestone birthday - city transformations
Cuba's seductive capital started its festive anniversary celebrations well ahead of time, more than a year prior, in fact, with the restoration of some 600 buildings and tourist attractions in the oldest part of town, better known as Old Havana, having begun as early as 2017.
The first phase of these works kicked off in June and will end on 16th November 2018 to mark the city's 499th birthday. During this time a special tourism campaign will be promoting the city as "real y maravillosa" (a play on words on the term "lo real y maravilloso" - "the wondrously real" -from the magic realism literary genre made famous by Nobel-prize novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and pioneered by Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier). This clever moniker perfectly captures the city's ethereal essence, often verging on the surreal and is sure to inspire travellers seeking the unusual, the poetically sublime. Havana is all that, and so much more.
The campaign to rejuvenate and boost the city's appeal not only from an aesthetic perspective but more importantly, to enhance the quality of life of its citizens; has included a series of investments for repair and maintenance works which are being carried out in both public and private infrastructures throughout Havana.
The second phase of the campaign will span over 365 days and will run from 16th November to 19th November while the third and final phase has no ending date in sight and aims to extend and solidify the refurbishment works beyond the city's 500th-anniversary celebrations.
Havana is undoubtedly a beautiful, enchanting place with immense staying power (on your heart and soul) but just as it is entrancing, it is also sad, melancholy, tragic and thought-provoking in other ways. It faces a mountain of challenges to improve itself and the life of its inhabitants and that's exactly what it wants to do on the lead-up to its 500th birthday, so that it marks not just a milestone but a new era. In the words of the Historian of the City, Eusebio Leal:
"For us Havana's 500th anniversary isn't an achievement but an opportunity, a starting point. So, let's fight for Havana, accept the challenge and fight for our city."
According to Leal the time is ripe for Havana to evolve because:
"If [Havana] is the capital of Cuba, who has endured it all, and fears nothing and hopes for everything, its capital has to be its face, and it can't be a scarred, neglected face. I put my heart in every corner of Cuba, in every town, in every village, but my moral duty is to call on all of you 'habaneros' and fight for our Havana."
Giving back to the local community - a better Havana for its residents
Already the city's Public Health Service has benefited from some 4,500 renovation works, which have positively impacted 111 pharmacies, over 400 family clinics (the equivalent to GP surgeries) and 47 polyclinics. Similarly, 806 different projects have improved educational centres with 41 renewed sports centres (including six sports complexes).
When it comes to the hospitality sector a total of 358 commerce venues and gastronomy establishments have received a full makeover, including restaurants, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries and the famous Cuban "bodegas" which sell subsidised grocery products to citizens through ration books.
The local government's goal is to ultimately reach all 15 Havana municipalities and work hard on sensitising citizens on the need to be proactive and procure the city's cleanliness (littering remains a problem in some parts of Havana and although the government's lacking waste management service is to blame in most cases, citizens don't do much to help and have made the problem worse). Educating citizens will go a long way in keeping all of the city (and not just the tourist bits) as pristine as other colonial gems like Cienfuegos.
Works are also being carried out to rehabilitate the lighthouse at the Morro Fortress (Castillo del Morro) while mental health hospice "La Edad de Oro" is receiving much-needed attention as is the Rafael de Mendive school in Old Havana, housed inside a magnificent colonial building that had been neglected. The latter is located in the scenic Prado promenade and is steeped in history.
To top it all off, 80 new houses will provide shelter to families in need while ongoing works are dedicated to restoring old blocks of flats in extreme danger of collapsing.
Improving waste management services and enhancing green spaces
Recognising a need for improving the city's overall cleanliness, not just from a beautifying point of view but from a hygiene perspective, with the dumping of waste posing a real health risk in some areas of the city, a programme is in place to improve waste management services with more frequent rubbish collections and a plan of action that includes increasing awareness about safe garbage disposal.
The vice president of the provincial government, Tatiana Vera recognised that the timely collection of solid waste from commerces, work centres and the wider population remains an unresolved problem that many citizens passionately complain about. To tackle it she revealed that the government's central administration from the Economy and Planning Ministry (Ministerio de Economia y Planificacion) would be investing so that in 2019, 2020 and extending all the way until 2030 the city has a more effective waste management system.
Addressing the garbage collection issue, the city needs an additional 12,000 containers (which is why in some places there are heaps of rubbish) of which 7,000 are being domestically produced with the rest being imported. That should go some way towards palliating the problem and the next piece in the puzzle will be the addition of new trucks and more regular garbage pick-ups.
Turning her attention to the importance of recovering green spaces, Vera said that there was a programme already in place to improve the parks and mini-parks found in the city's urban areas. Bigger parks will not be forgotten as she added that the plan would include green areas in suburban districts, highlighting some like Parque Lenin, Parque Metropolitano and Monte Barreto.
Repairing heritage buildings
The Office of the Historian of the City, recognised with a Gubbio award for its outstanding efforts in protecting and preserving structures of heritage value, is behind all of the repair works presently being carried out in Old Havana and in some others parts of the city too.
A specialised team from the Office has started to work on the rescuing archaeological remains that back up and illustrate the history of the city's foundation with plans to create a new museum complex that is expected to open on 18th November 2019 to mark the city's 500th birthday.
Previously, the successful restoration of the Segundo Cabo palace was hailed as an outstanding job, preserving all original features intact and showcasing the beauty of what's considered to be one of Cuba's finest baroque buildings from the late 18th century.
More and improved LED lighting has been added to some streets while the government has invested in equipment for the maintenance of children's parks.
But the activities planned in the old historic centre and beyond to celebrate Havana's 500th anniversary have expanded into a series of recreational offers and special events, which takes us to our next section.
And all to the sound of music, in true Havana style
Like I was saying, it's not all brick and mortar, starting this autumn the city has officially begun celebrating its anniversary with a lot music and a lot of dancing, in true Havana spirit.
Music is taking over public spaces with the Cuban Institute of Music lining up a series of concerts taking place every second, third and fourth Saturday of the month. With the frequent performance of local bands and singers, the musical party-style vibe of the anniversary celebrations will continue every month until the actual big birthday bash next year.
If you happen to be planning a Cuba holiday between now and November next year there'll be plenty of opportunities for you to catch the live (and completely free) music action everywhere in Havana. If you already thought Havana was lively and music emanated from every street, you've seen nothing yet!
New Havana hotels and tourist attractions opening in 2019 to commemorate its 500th anniversary
Havana is to refresh its at times worn-out facade with the addition of two new hotels scheduled to open in 2019 - the new Hotel Prado y Malecon and the as-of-yet unnamed skyscaper in the heart of downtown I mentioned earlier (which will be towering over the Habana Libre Hotel in its vicinity and will even top Havana's tallest buildings: the FOCSA and the Jose Marti Memorial at the Revolution Square). Both new hotel properties will be located in the Vedado neighbourhood, the trendiest part of the capital, home to the coolest bars, hippest jazz joints and hottest nightclubs.
There's a third hotel currently built in Havana but no completion date has been given so far. The new Regis Havana (the official name hasn't been revealed yet) on the corner of Prado and Colon will be a boutique property in the heart of Paseo del Prado, next to an elegant perfume shop and facing the old and legendary Fausto Theatre.
And there's a fourth property the international media hasn't caught up on and the national media has done little to disclose. I'm talking about the new Hotel Corona currently being built on Zulueta street, right next door to the Museum of the Revolution and just steps away from El Capitolio. Out of the four mentioned here this one is at the earliest stages of construction so I would be surprised if it opened in time for the celebration of the city's half millennia. Still, the plaque on its exterior has the official logo that reads: "Obras por el 500 Aniversario de la Habana" so maybe it will be ready in time. The hotel is being created on the grounds of a grand building that used to house a tobacco factory and smoke shop.
Two tourist attractions that the local government has firmly confirmed will be opening in time for the 500th anniversary will be the Cuatro Caminos market (which had been closed off for nearly a decade) now converted into a modern shopping centre whilst keeping some original features of heritage value like the big clocks and the Central Railway Station (Estacion Central de Ferrocarriles), a National Monument of great historical value.
Renewed, primped and polished - the Havana of tomorrow
Currently in the midst of a long beautifying process (which will be extending beyond its 500th anniversary), visiting Havana in 2019 will make for an extra special holiday. The city will be at its most radiantly beautiful and joyous next year, especially in the months and weeks preceding its big November 2019 bash. Is that enough to persuade you to head there next year? I'm already making plans.