Intro to Havana

What’s there to do in Havana, Cuba? Well, a lot. Enough to keep you occupied for months, if not years. The city boasts musicians shaking maracas and belting out classic Cuban tunes all day long, beautifully laid-out plazas providing places for relaxation and people-watching in almost every corner of the city, as well as an architect’s heaven (or hell) with the stark contrast of well-maintained colonial-era buildings and crumbling, war-zone like homes in Centro Habana. Regardless of where you go, there’s no doubt that you will be experiencing a world you’ve never experienced before. Whether it’s your cup of tea depends on your own personal taste.

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A vintage taxi in Havana, Cuba known as a "colectivo"
A vintage taxi in Havana, Cuba known as a “colectivo”

117-second history lesson of Havana

1500s

Havana A.K.A. Habana, was founded in 1515 by the vicious Spanish conquistador, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. A city of salsa, sugary mojitos, unforgettable art and an equally unforgettable history. But, it wasn’t always the bustling capital of Cuba. No, before Havana, Santiago de Cuba was the place to be. The main reason for the switch was the fact that Havana, given its location at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, was the perfect place to be the harbor of the New World. It was the main stop for the conquistadors to chill out and renew themselves before going off and slaughtering (I mean, exploring) other lands and indigenous inhabitants.

Despite not offering much in the way of gold, silver and other gems, the city was often under the attack of pirates, the first taking place in 1555 by Jacques de Sores, who burned much of it to the ground. Eventually, the Spanish Crown figured out a way to protect Havana, and its ships, and the city began to gain notoriety as a metropolis given the fact that all of the conquistadors who stopped there, before heading back to Spain, needed food, water and other supplies. It was this newly acquired importance that caused the capital to move from Santiago de Cuba to Havana.

1600s

On December 20th, 1592, Havana officially earned the title of “City,” thanks to King Philip II of Spain, which led to the construction of palaces, defensive castles and more. By 1750, Havana had around 70,000 inhabitants and was the third-largest city in the Americas behind Lima and Mexico City (for perspective, it was bigger than Boston and New York).

1700s

Around 1762, the British eventually came and took it over (during the Seven Years’ War), introducing slavery to the country (because that’s what they always did, right?). A year later, the Seven Years’ War ended and the Spanish regained control of Havana.

1800s

The 19th century brought about the cultural prominence of the city. Theater became world-renowned, featuring notable actors, and mansions were erected by the growing middle-class. This is when it became known as the “Paris of the Antilles.” In the mid-19th century, life in Havana was good. There were luxury hotels, the third-largest middle-class in the Northern Hemisphere and its tourism began to give Miami a run for its money. Well-known visitors, like Ernest Hemingway, flocked to the country.

1900s

Then came the revolution, which basically flipped the country upside-down. Private industries were nationalized, private property was expropriated and Communism reigned supreme. And with this, a host of other issues arose, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Havana played a role in. This all left much of Havana in ruins, which you can still see in its crumbling concrete buildings today. Additionally, it also caused the country, which was once the biggest receivers of immigrants, to be one of the largest sources of emigrants (around 15% of Cubans live abroad). With many of these trade and economic sanctions still in place, the government is turning towards tourism, again, as a means of bringing the city back to financial prominence.

Family or friends hanging out on a balcony in Havana, Cuba
Family or friends hanging out on a balcony in Havana, Cuba

Summary of Havana

There’s an endless amount to do in Havana. No, an exhausting amount. From museums to restaurants to salsa clubs, there’s no shortage of activities to do regardless of what you’re into. It’s a city with rich history, but what’s even more exciting is that history is still happening right now. With the death of the country’s six decade leader, Fidel Castro, Cuba is changing. People are becoming more informed and the air is electric. And, truth be told, the time to go was yesterday. But, now is as good of a time as any. ¡Viva Cuba!

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com

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