Cuba’s capital is marking its 500th year, with the actual date of the milestone being November 16. But, as Cuba Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero notes, festivities run throughout 2019. “It is no longer [just] November 16,” he says. “It is every day.”
Cubans, Habaneros and otherwise, are proud that the city which began life as La Villa de San Cristóbal de La Habana is reaching the 500-year mark: 500 years of a sometimes-turbulent history that has seen Havana host Spanish conquistadores, buccaneers, Mafia bigwigs, famed musicians and others.
You certainly won’t be at a loss for things to do in Havana. There will be ongoing celebrations, including music and dance festivals in a dance-and-music-mad country that has given the world such cultural expressions as salsa.
Sports also figures prominently, and October will see the Gran Fondo (roughly translated as “Big Ride”) Cuba Cycling Tour. In addition, October 20 and 21 will have famed Cuban baseball players competing in a setting where baseball is king.
November 14 will have the last of 500 chosen couples (since last November) tie the knot, part of what’s dubbed Weddings 500. November 14 will also see Dinner 500, with famed restaurants offering special prices.
Havana Night will take place November 15. As part of the festivities, much of Old Havana will be featuring cultural events, Cuban cuisine, a concert of romantic songs dedicated to Havana and more.
The following day will see, amongst other things, the Political-Cultural Gala for the 500th Anniversary of the Founding of La Villa de San Cristóbal de La Habana, an event taking place in front of Old Havana’s landmark Capitol building, El Capitolio.
Celebrations will continue beyond the anniversary date. For instance, December 5 will feature a concert marking 50 years of the popular Cuban band Los Van Van.
Much Ado and Much to Do
Do you like rum? So do Cubans, something underscored at the Havana Club Museum of Rum. The Old Havana attraction traces the history of rum on an island where some dub it “the happy son of sugarcane.” Exhibits detailing the likes of the fermentation, distillation, filtration, ageing and blending processes await, with tours ending in a bar recalling the Havana of yesteryear.
Everyone who visits Old Havana should stop by famed watering hole La Bodeguita del Medio, a favourite haunt of longtime Havana resident Ernest Hemingway. The bar’s Rayler Navarro Cepero is “super, super proud” of the 500th. “All tourists should come to Havana and visit La Bodeguita del Medio,” he says, noting those following in Hemingway’s thirsty footsteps will find Cuban drinks and music.
It would be a shame to leave Havana without riding in one of its iconic 1950s American vehicles. Gran Car’s restored vehicles are found in popular tourist spots, with visitors able to hire a driver and car. “More than 60,000 old American cars are still proudly running in Cuba,” says Eloy Govea of the Cuba Tourist Board. “There’s a distinctive charm to travel in one.”
You needn’t worry that a stay in Cuba’s capital means a cookie-cutter hotel. The Hotel Nacional de Cuba has seen the good, the bad and the truly ugly. Those who have checked in include world leaders like Winston Churchill, whose fondness for cigars would have helped him appreciate Cuba; prominent entertainers and athletes. Less savoury figures were Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who gathered there with other mobsters for the “Havana Conference” in December 1946, a summit believed to have inspired a scene in The Godfather, Part II. A hotel bar is coated with pictures of famous and infamous patrons.
Old Havana’s Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is a stone’s throw from the El Floridita bar, synonymous with daiquiris, a preferred Hemingway drink. The hotel’s Constante bar was named after an owner of El Floridita, who has also been credited with inventing the daiquiri.
Dreaming of lighting up a stogie in a setting that enthusiastically welcomes smokers? Old Havana’s Hotel Conde de Villanueva is themed after cigars, and its Javier Guanche Jorge says it cheerfully bucks global nonsmoking trends. Visitors can light up everywhere except the hotel restaurant. Guest rooms are named after tobacco plantations. Guanche Jorge cautions visitors against requesting a nonsmoking room. “Maybe in five years, but now it’s not possible.”
Restoration of Old Havana
Tour guide Yadelys Garriga Cruz notes Old Havana has undergone a huge amount of restoration that has wowed locals, visitors and UNESCO, which gave it World Heritage Site status in 1982. “This is the place everybody wants to live now,” she says of an area that has over 3,100 structures, 144 of them dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
“When it comes to impressive Old Havana restoration works, there is a lot to choose from: from the Morro Castle (a massive hilltop fort overlooking Old Havana) to the Bacardi Building (once the distiller’s headquarters) to Cathedral Square,” says the Tourist Board’s Govea.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of Havana is the Capitolio, often compared to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The massive structure witnessed “lots of the key political events of the turbulent Cuba of the 1930s and beyond,” says Govea. “Visiting the Capitolio and walking through its magnificent corridors is one of the experiences not to miss.”
Kempinski spokeswoman Claudia Fernandez says she’s “very much excited” about the 500 celebrations. “This is a wonderful time to visit Havana.”
Navarro Cepero, however, says there’s a somewhat poignant side to the celebrations, stating it’s unfortunate a literary giant who loved the Cuban capital didn’t live long enough for the festivities. “Hemingway would have loved this,” he says.
Getting There with CAL
Cayman Airways offers nonstop flights from Grand Cayman to Havana, Cuba, three times a week. To book your visit, contact us at 1-800-422-9626 (toll-free in the U.S.) or 345-949-2311, or go to caymanairways.com.
Author: Ian Stalker