Welcome to Havana

Flying into Havana after dark, I was struck by how dimly lit the city was. Touching down, it was the darkest airstrip I’d ever landed on. For such a big and important city, the airport felt provincial — a hint at the economic struggles that plague this island just 90 miles south of Florida, with a population of 11 million that’s both shrinking and aging.

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The Malecón, a five-mile-long embankment built a century ago to keep out waves, is an iconic feature of Havana. Tough as it feels, storms do overwhelm it, and the adjacent district endures regular floods. Between storms, the stark Malecón — with no landscaping and six lanes of traffic separating it from any buildings — is a beloved concrete promenade. It’s a popular place to go — to fish, hang out with a lover, strum your guitar, and make the scene. Every tourist should spend part of an evening strolling Havana’s waterfront strip.

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Havana’s fort features barren rooms, a few humble and boring exhibits, and grand views of the strategic harbor — so easy to protect with a few cannons. A skinny stretch of water leads past a mighty fortress to the easy-to-defend harbor. Havana was the obvious spot for those Spanish conquistadors to establish a safe and thriving port to serve the needs of colonial trading ships. To sail to Europe safe from pirates, ships from throughout the Caribbean would gather here into a huge convoy for the twice-annual crossing of the Atlantic. Sipping the local Bucanero beer in a stone building constructed after pirates burned the original wooden town (back in the 16th century), I was reminded that Havana’s heritage is hard-fought and goes way, way back.

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Havana, with about 2 million people, has a stubborn and neglected little skyline facing its Malecón promenade and the open sea.

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As expected, Havana traffic was sparse, and many of the cars were American classics from the 1950s. Once Cuba and the USA became enemies back in 1960, the American embargo locked the country into a 1950s time warp. Before the Revolution, Havana was a playground of the rich and famous. A few vestiges of those Sinatra and Hemingway days survive — like the stately Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

Comments

12 Replies to “Welcome to Havana”

  1. Hi Rick. I’m a big fan of your European travel guides and Cuba is No 1 on my bucket list. Are you going to be writing a travel guide on Cuba?

  2. Hey Rick ;

    Any time frame when we can plan a trip to Cuba ( legally ) in 2016 ??

    Thanks – Gene Kraemer

  3. I’ve had the pleasure of great Rick Steves tours in Europe! SO when can we tour Cuba? I can be packed fairly quickly–one bag!

  4. I’ve used Rick Steve’s books since the mid 90s , love the show and have happily used his luggage for years. I am married to the daughter of Cuban Exiles and understand the pull of travel to such an interesting place but while the Castro Brothers are still in charge it would seem that a dollar spent there is a dollar in their pockets and prolonging the time until the Cuban people are liberated. Despite the Hollywood types and ignorant hipsters with the Che tshirts we should never forget the Castro brothers are evil and the atrocities they have committed is long and well documented. I agree that diplomacy and engagement is key to ending conflicts and bringing real change but have mixed feeling when I hear americans so quick to embrace travel to Cuba seemingly ignoring the pain and suffering the Castro brothers have inflicted on millions of Cubans

  5. I am tired to hear “Let’s go to Cuba before Americans got there and transform it” . This exactly what Cubans need a transformation. Nobody think about the Cuban people when they are giving the dollars $ to the Castro’s brothers

  6. The city and airport runways are much better lit than when I started regularly going to Cuba in 1998. Also, you will find Havana to be quite different from the rest of Cuba. VERY different.

  7. Interesting blog entries by one of our favorite travel guys. We are going to Cuba in early March and are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to know the country that our country has prohibited us from legally visiting for over 50 years. We couldn’t help but notice too that this trip, just 90 miles from our shores, is BY FAR the most expensive we’ve ever taken on a cost/day basis. Someone is making BIG money on trips for Americans. We speak Spanish and feel very good about being able to speak to Cubans in their own language. Since only about 20% of living Cubans were born before the revolution most only know life under the Castros. We look forward to meeting them all.

  8. Hi Steve, I am going to Cuba, on the 26th of February, and I have been hearing allot of suggestions concerning the exchange/conversion of money. Do you have any recommendation on what I should do? Should I exchange just a few USD at the airport and rest at a bank. I keep hearing of people who will exchange at a better rate if exchanging only $100 bills. Please help.

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