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Havana rises from its ashes in the lead-up to its 500th anniversary

A freak tornado may have torn through the city just a couple of weeks ago, but Havana, resilient as ever is already dusting off the dust and picking up the pieces. Especially when it has so much to celebrate and get ready for later on this year, which marks the 500th foundation of the city, a milestone birthday they want to celebrate with full pomp and flair.

Havana rises from its ashes in the lead-up to its 500th anniversary

This year marks a huge milestone birthday for Havana, a celebration for which the city has been preparing since last year. As (bad) luck would have it a super rare freak tornado hit the Cuban capital at the end of last month and reversed much of the progress that had been achieved in terms of structural repairs and cosmetic fixes carried out ahead of this year’s mega anniversary celebration. In a previous blog post we told you all about the plans in place to pretty up Havana whilst also giving back to the local community (from the recovery of parks that had fallen into disarray to the building of new homes for “habaneros” in need and major repairs to old and crumbling buildings) but the tornado was a setback no one expected.

Nearly 200 people were injured and four died as the tornado ripped its way through the city, showing little mercy as it demolished around 600 homes that crumbled to the ground in a matter of minutes and partially damaging thousands of other residential and public buildings. The aftermath was heartbreaking in many neighbourhoods (especially in the municipalities of Regla and Luyano), so many habaneros had lost it all before the end of the new year’s first month.

But Havana is not a city to easily accept defeat and already enormous citywide efforts are being put in to recover most of what has been lost in record time. All so that come November the Cuban capital can celebrate in style with its citizens and with the many hundreds of visitors who won’t want to miss any of the partying action (hint-hint* for those who’ve been looking for the perfect excuse to book a Cuba holiday!). If you want to find out more about how Havana is gearing up to its November birthday, despite all setbacks and adversities, read on.

Havana – the phoenix that rises from its ashes time and time again

No hotels or tourism infrastructure in Havana were damaged during the tornado’s passing. Tourists in Havana weren’t affected by the natural disaster and power cuts caused by the downing of electricity posts lasted only a few hours, in fact, power was restored in the city in record time all things considered.

The worst affected areas were nowhere near tourism hotspots. The downtown municipality of Vedado managed to walk away unscathed despite its proximity to the sea and the Malecon area only experienced mild flooding. The same goes for the city’s historic centre in Old Havana and the elegant, hip and trendy neighbourhood of Miramar, home to many popular eateries and nightclubs.

In the wake of the tornado’s passing, habaneros showed what they’re made of and let their well-known solidarity shine by stepping in to help their neighbours in need with food, clothing and shelter. Cuban celebrities, from musicians and singers to actors, made generous donations while some of Havana’s hippest privately-owned restaurants (like the iconic La Guarida – the venue Madonna chose to celebrate her 58th birthday in Havana) distributed free food to homeless families.

Picking up the pieces after the tornado’s trail of devastation

We’ve already told you how in the face of adversity Cubans step up to help their fellow city dwellers and lend out a hand. But what is the government doing to help the people that become homeless literally overnight? Well, although some were quick to criticise the fact that the government was a bit slow to start addressing the predicaments of those who lost their homes, works are already underway to provide them with a new residence.

According to official government sources, out of the 7,761 damaged homes, a total of 771 (and counting) have already been completely repaired. That’s not a bad figure considering it’s only been two weeks since the incident.

On the other hand, official media has also revealed that government brigades are working full steam ahead to convert a series of buildings that used to serve as university accommodation into a block of flats to provide housing for 70 families. According to the same source (Agencia Nacional de Noticias) the flats would be ready in a matter of days so that the families can move in before the end of February.

Other moves by the government include the sale of building materials at low subsidised prices as well as the building of some 384 new homes, to be rebuilt on the site of the ones demolished as well as the relocation of 72 houses in new areas and the adaptation of buildings to provide a further 163 new family homes.

The rebuilding of a city… but not all of it

Meanwhile, Havana’s presiding governor, Reynaldo Garcia Zapata, said that streets in the worst affected municipalities have been fully cleared of debris and traffic has been completely restored in previously cut off roads. New LED lighting is being installed to replace downed lamp posts in the city’s main avenues. More works are in the pipeline to get the city birthday ready for November. The government also made an official announcement to state that the housing problems that some of those affected by the tornado were facing would be solved in their entirety before the end of the year.

Before the tornado struck some parts of Havana down (unfortunately the city´s most humble neighbourhoods) works were already underway citywide to beautify crumbling buildings, paint flaking facades and give a new lease of life to old, forgotten and unused historic buildings succumbing to oblivion. And it seems that, fortunately, those works were not undone by the tornado’s passing and the refreshed and revitalised attractions will be very much in place in time for the city’s milestone anniversary.

Preparations for Havana’s 500th birthday – picking up from where we left off

In a previous blog piece we told you all about Havana’s primping to welcome its 500th birthday in style, and since then the city is fully immersed in the second phase of its revitalising campaign, which kicked off on 19th November and will end on 19th November, right on the city’s 500th anniversary.

The prettying of Havana mission that kicked off last November wasn’t just about boosting tourism in the Cuban capital and showing it off to the world in the best light. Yes, it was partly about it, you might even say mostly, but as the Historian of the City, Eusebio Leal, wanted to emphasise; it’s all about the greater good, about carrying out actions that will ultimately give back to the local community, and tourism is a great contributor to local economy with more “habaneros” (the Spanish term for Havana’s residents) than ever catering to tourists through privately owned businesses, from restaurants to bakeries, cafes and even nightclubs.

It is ultimately habaneros, who Leal called on to lead the fight for a renewed, rebirthed Havana:

“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.”

To this end, public health in the city has benefited from around 4,500 structural renovation works carried out across hospitals and clinics, to which we now add the current refurbishment of the Hijas de Galicia maternity hospital which was badly damaged by the tornado and had to temporarily close down (works are going full steam ahead with this one which has already partly reopened to the public). Likewise, some 806 different projects are improving educational centres citywide with the renewal of six sports complexes and 41 sports centres.

So what’s in it for the traveller? What’s in store for the eager tourist keen to make the most of their Cuba holiday experience in Havana? Plenty, you’ll see, just keep on reading.

Cleaner, greener spaces

Havana’s problem with waste disposal was a snowball getting out of control in many parts of the city and the government is finally tackling the issue in a significant way with the deployment of more resources to provide better waste management services as well as measures to educate the population on keeping the city clean and properly disposing of household waste.

Parks are also being paid special attention to mark Havana’s 500th birthday with more, renewed and improved green spaces in the city’s urban areas. Notwithstanding the fact that those in Havana’s most touristy areas will receive the most upgrades and cosmetic works, bigger parks in the outskirts will not be forgotten, with special attention to the legendary Parque Lenin (home to Havana’s biggest most famous theme park, also recently refurbished thanks to Chinese investment), the Parque Metropolitano (a.k.a. the impressive El Bosque de la Habana) and the Monte Barreto eco-park (next to the Four Points by Sheraton Havana).

New dining and wining Havana experiences citywide

As it turns out, the local government in Havana is putting a lot of hard work into reviving the hospitality sector and making old state-run facilities fun and exciting again (after having earned a long-standing reputation for being stale and uninspiring). With this goal in mind, it has been revealed that a total of 358 government-owned shops and restaurants have received a full makeover and the list includes traditional old-style butcher shops, the famous Cuban “bodegas” of yesteryear (which still sell food to locals through ration books) brought back to the 21st century (hipsters and millennials will love these), fish markets, bakeries and restaurants.

New reborn Havana attractions

There are two old and neglected attractions that will be reopening later this year in Havana to mark its 500th anniversary. The government has confirmed that the legendary Cuatro Caminos street market (closed off for nearly a decade now after falling into complete disarray) will be reopened following an extensive overhaul to modernise and transform it while keeping its original historic features intact, including the old big clocks on the shopping gallery’s facade.

Another attraction opening to tourists for the first time ever is the completely refurbished and repaired Central Railway Station (Estacion Central de Ferrocarriles) in Havana, a beautiful timepiece declared a National Monument.

Both attractions will reopen in November this year to coincide with the city’s milestone birthday celebration.

New Havana hotels opening in 2019

There are as many as 12 new hotels in the pipeline for Havana, but so far official sources have only confirmed the opening of at least two new hotels this year. The first of these will be the new Prado y Malecon hotel (no word on who will manage it yet), expected to open later this year (possibly in time for November?) and a new 42-storey skyscraper that upon completion will become not just the city’s tallest hotel but its tallest building ever, towering over the iconic Habana Libre hotel next door.

There are other hotels currently under construction in Havana, including the new boutique Regis Havana and Hotel Corona next to El Capitolio building. Who knows, maybe either of those two could open this year too, or in true Cuban style, the government could surprise us with another as-of-yet-unnamed hotel opening. After all, they did say that Havana’s 500th anniversary celebrations would be full of surprises! Whatever happens, at Cuba Holidays we’ll keep you in the loop, so check this space in a couple of month’s time.

Susana Corona

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