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