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by Victoria Alcalá

Over the years, Havana has been a changing capital. Of course it first started out as what we today call La Habana Vieja, Old Havana, with its imposing forts and government buildings, lordly mansions, churches and squares. But in the nineteenth century that quarter began to mix up all sorts of functions and became more popular, so whoever could do so moved elsewhere to gain back their sense of privacy. They drifted towards the splendid estates of El Cerro which very soon suffered a decline for exactly the same reasons which saw it grow: the invasion of the “masses”.

Or maybe it was because the ancient area of the city walls became part of the urbanization process, occupied by luxurious small palaces. Nowadays, the Historical Center of Old Havana has once more taken on some of its ancient splendor thanks to the restoration program of the Office of the City Historian lead by Eusebio Leal. Not only is it a tourist magnet, it also constitutes one of the undeniable cultural centers of the city. Any one of its residents can become a spontaneous guide after having heard the Historian speak so many times.

By the twentieth century, El Vedado was known as the chic part of town, preferred by the upper bourgeoisie for their residences surrounded by metal grillwork fences and gardens that isolated them from the roar of the traffic and the curiosity of the “plebs.” This select piece of real estate gradually started to fill up with tall buildings, offices, the best cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants, and small theaters that stamped it with a modern cosmopolitan air that it still possesses.

In the present day, it is the heart of Havana nightlife. Some of the upper class families once more took up their exodus, moving even further west to what is now Playa Municipality, following the coastline towards Miramar, Alturas de Miramar and the neighborhoods known as Atabey, Siboney and Cubanacán, all aboriginal names that were adopted after 1959, having nothing in common with the residential enclaves around the Country Club Park or the Biltmore. Most of these exclusive areas didn’t even have any bus service.

As soon as all the private beach clubs were opened to the general public and with the building of the Art School (1960-1963), the Convention Center (1979) and some hotels in the 1990s, accompanied by new restaurants, Playa Municipality, which is joined to El Vedado by a tunnel and the famous Steel Bridge (Puente de Hierro), took on a more lively profile, but it still maintains a lot of the exclusivity it acquired at the start of its existence.

As for Centro Habana, it became the business center for the entire city after the 1930s. Movie theaters like the Payret, the Rex-Duplex, the National Theater (today the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana), a wide assortment of department stores such as El Encanto (the largest and most luxurious store, which was destroyed by a sabotage attack during the early years of the Revolution), Fin de Siglo, Flogar, La Época or La Filosofía. Shoe stores, jewelers, furniture and perfume shops…the variety was infinite, every kind of business imaginable. And there were dozens of stores in Chinatown, a must visit for anyone wanting to cook Chinese fried rice at home. People living in the outskirts often say: “I’m going to Havana” whenever they’re going downtown for any reason.

Even if today the buildings are looking a bit run-down and nobody goes “window-shopping” anymore, Centro Habana still conserves that lively spirit of times gone by. The streets are always filled with people and refurbished Chinatown, even though you can no longer buy sausages, beans and other delicacies there, has dozens of Chinese restaurants that serve menus that have more to do with San Francisco than Beijing.

Nevertheless, far off the usual tourist trail, we have “other Havanas.”

Regla, Casablanca and Guanabacoa, all on the far side of Havana Bay and the last of these with an interesting historical downtown area, are lovely places full of deep-rooted traditions. If you should be having a streak of bad luck, someone will always recommend a trip to Guanabacoa because it’s famous for babalawos. Many go to Regla to ask the “Black Virgin” for something, or to fulfill a promise and at Casablanca people go to admire the monumental statue of The Christ. Still further east are La Habana del Este and the Villa Panamericana: they prove that it is possible to plan popular neighborhoods without the sparseness and ugliness of their neighbor Alamar.

All three are known as “dormitory” towns whose residents conduct most of their social and cultural lives on the other side of the tunnel but in the summer take advantage of the excellent beaches nearby, such as the most popular two, Santa María del Mar and Boca Ciega. The fishing village of Cojímar, which lies between Habana del Este and Villa Panamericana, basks in the memory of Hemingway; it is both a town and a beach and this seems to have molded the personalities of the people who live there, always ready to welcome the curious who are on the trail of Papa and The Old Man and the Sea without altering their daily routines.

The municipality of Diez de Octubre, one of the most densely populated in Cuba (it is practically a city in itself with a population of well over 200,000) connects to downtown Havana by the avenue of the same name. This road used to be called Jesús del Monte and joined the city to the nearby rural areas. You can see amazing variety throughout this municipality. Luyanó has humble houses and rooming houses and is known to be rowdy, extroverted and often bellicose.

The somewhat sleepy and laid-back Lawton and Santos Suárez have undergone a kind of renaissance in their old mansions thanks to a recent wave of real estate fever. The same has happened in La Víbora and even in tree-shaded Sevillano whose inhabitants are known for being rather private even though extremely friendly amongst themselves, sharing news, gossip and homemade desserts. The novelty of well-appointed private restaurants springing up has resulted in seeing families who are all dressed up and going out to celebrate some special occasion at places that offer menus a little more “sophisticated” than the usual pizza or “comida criollas.”

There are places in Havana that haven’t been able to shake off their rural pasts: Santa María del Rosario, Santiago de las Vegas, Calabazar and El Calvario. They are very much like any typical provincial town with their large central park presided over by the church. Santa María del Rosario, for example, is even in the heritage category.

The people living there are a little warier than “big city” folk. Some parts of Marianao also remind you of a past that was more rural than urban, but others are bubbling with unique popular spirit, religious beliefs, music, tastes and smells, much like what happens in El Cerro whose main road, under the inevitable patina of time, retains the ancient splendor of large estates surrounded by humbler buildings, narrow streets and spontaneous folk always ready to cheer on the Industriales baseball team in the neighboring Latinoamericano Stadium.

A little further in the Casino Deportivo, modern homes, well-looked after gardens and generally deserted streets remind you more of Nuevo Vedado than the bustle of El Cerro to which it officially belongs.

And so those are the “Havanas,” different from each other and contrasting. Only those who are brave enough to penetrate the “hinterlands,” leaving behind the advertised tourism routes, can really get to know a city that can live and vibrate with the sea at its back.

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