Havana celebrates 500 years, and then?
This year, Havana is celebrating its 500th anniversary. It is said of the capital, founded in 1519, that it is the nevralgic center of Cuba. In a country better known for its all-inclusive beach/hotel packages, tourists sometimes spent a day visiting Havana, but if they chose Cuba, it is mainly for its low-cost, all-inclusive beach-front hotels. Yet, Havana is worth the detour; reported in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest city in Cuba and its historic center, Habana Vieja, are full of pastel-colored colonial apartments and magnificent wood paneling. But now, 500 years later, has modernity made its entrance? Did this colorful city changed drastically? We went to take a closer look. As part of the 500th festivities, the Cuban government wanted to embellish the city and also make it more attractive to the tourists. The changes are noticeable: cleaner streets, maintained parks, lampposts installed on the public walks… For the passing visitor, these changes go unnoticed, since Havana has nothing to do with the other world capitals of the world.
Havana is not Barcelona and it is true that it takes a specific approach to capture all its subtlety. The charm of Havana and also, what makes it so unique, is precisely that this city seems to be stopped in time. She may celebrate her 500th birthday this year, she seems to have, exactly, half a century! At destination, we forget the modern world, we forget our urban life and we adopt the lifestyle “old-fashioned” that prevails in Havana.
A bit of modernity
Havana is a bustling city, where music is omnipresent and, while visiting it, we live at its pace, which is slow, but joyful. There are many “jazz bars” and nightclubs where Cubans love dancing all night long. La Fabrica de Arte is an interesting novelty in Havana: both an art gallery and a nightclub, this inspiring creative space have been crowded since its opening in 2008. It is located in the Vedado district, known as the “New Habana” (since this is where we find the majority of the “new establishments”). The neighborhood Centro Habana is, meanwhile, more populous and authentic, also not too far from the historic district. From there you can walk along the Malecón (boardwalk) or stroll through the bazaars and public markets that enlightenght the streets of Habana.
The 500th anniversary of the city is also an opportunity for Cuba to promote its destination by welcoming new hotel establishments in its capital this year. Among these, we find the Iberostar Grand Packard, a luxury hotel opened under the category “Grand,” which offers the highest standards of quality of the popular Spanish hotel chain, which already has 20 establishments in Cuba, and three in Havana. The opening of new luxury resorts, the establishment of foreign hotel giants such as Iberostar in a country that has long been associated with cheap independent hotels is an excellent example of a country moving towards change. In the case of Iberostar, the hotelier imports Spanish products and ingredients in order to offer a varied menu of quality to his guests, in addition to setting up managers who have proved their worth in other European establishments of the chain.
Change, yes but…
The desire to raise standards for tourists and the openness of Cuba to the rest of the world are felt, even if the United States is still not part of the equation. Although American tourists can now visit Cuba (and, coincidentally, hotel prices have risen since), the relationship between the two countries remains tense and complex. No opening of Starbucks or McDonald’s in sight, therefore!
Also, old cars are always ubiquitous, beautiful and colorful. Cubans still cannot, for the most part, buy new cars imported by the government, which explains the gigantic proportion of old cars still strolling the streets of Havana. Colonial architecture buildings are as colorful and new buildings are still rare.
The internet is still not optimal, as much in the city as anywhere else in Cuba, and we still feel the shock of times in a country where time seems to have stopped, but, in a way, it is refreshing to get out of our North American comfort zone…
Book your direct flight to La Havana with Air Transat.
Cover photo credits: Visit Cuba