Along the Havana Malecón
One of Havana’s most popular attractions is the Malecón, an expansive public space that runs along Havana’s northern rocky coastline. The 7–8 km (about 5 mile) Malecón stretches from the mouth of the Bay of Havana on the north end of Old Town to Vevado, a leafy green suburb west of Central Havana. The Malecón consists of a seawall that separates Havana from the Straits of Florida and protects Havana’s northern coastline from potentially damaging ocean waves that threaten to jump the wall and overflow into the streets.
On the other side of the seawall are a promenade and a major six lane roadway. The wide open expanse of the Malecón serves not only as a major traffic artery for the city but also a scenic, robust social venue for tourists and locals. The warm seawater along the Malecón was the site of public baths in the early 20th century.
Today both tourists and locals commune along the Malecón to enjoy the cool summertime breeze and see ships crossing the horizon as they enter the Port of Havana, but they are unlikely to see bathers. Although all was quiet on the early morning when I strolled along the thoroughfare, the Malecón easily transforms into a locale for diverse events such as parades, concerts, sanctioned car races and shooting of movies.
Monuments situated along the Malecón celebrate some of the major heroes and events in Cuba’s history. One of those heroes is Antonio Maceo, a black soldier who was also called the Bronze Titan because of his mixed heritage. In a park of the same name, the bronze statue of Maceo sits tall astride his horse. Maceo fought in 900 battles and was wounded 25 times. He reached the level of major-general in Cuba’s military and became one of the most popular Liberation Army leaders during the country’s Ten Years War for independence from Spanish colonial rule. The roadway along the Malecón is also called Avenida de Antonio Maceo.
Another landmark located along the Malecón is the Monument to the Victims of the Maine which recognizes one of the major events in Havana’s history. The monument was a gift from the people of Cuba to commemorate the 266 lives lost when the USS Maine exploded in the Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.
Although the reason for the explosion was never conclusively determined, the explosion was the impetus for the Spanish-American War. The monument shows a woman holding the bodies of two of the drowned men. Resting on the monument are anchor chains from the 319 feet all steel warship. Painted white for peace time, the Maine was the largest ship ever to have entered Havana harbor at the time. The mast of the Maine now stands in Arlington Cemetery in remembrance of the servicemen who died in the explosion.
A look up the hill and back toward the Vevado area provides a rear view of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, erected in the 1930’s by an American builder. The hotel, located on Taganana Hill, is considered a beautiful architectural and cultural jewel of the city. In the 19th century Taganana Hill was the site of the Santa Clara battery, one of several defensive sites in the city, and home to the Ordoñez cannon. The cannon, one of the largest of its time, still stands in the hotel’s garden.
As I continued along the Malecón, I saw laborers busy at work restoring many of the old buildings along the main thoroughfare. Lack of maintenance during Cuba’s years of national and international conflict and constant battering from the sea and sun have led to decay of the historic buildings. Restoration of many of those buildings was begun after UNESCO added Havana to its list of World Heritage sites in 1982.
At the eastern end of the Malecón is a narrow channel that separates Old Town Havana from East Havana and provides a shipping lane from the Straits of Florida to the Bay of Havana. The narrow channel is flanked by colonial forts constructed of coral-limestone. These forts provided an ideal site for defense against European pirates and corsairs who attacked and burned the city several times. Castillo del Morro on the north side houses a maritime museum. Castillo de la Punta on the south side is home of the Museum of Fortifications and Armaments. Its grounds are the site of El Cañonazo, a nightly cannon-firing ceremony, with re-enactors in period military dress, commemorating the now obsolete practice of closing the city gates.
Across the Bay atop La Cabana Hill stands El Cristo de la Habana or The Christ of Havana, a majestic 18-meters/60-feet high sculpture made of Carrara marble. The gleaming white figure of Jesus of Nazareth with one hand near his chest and the other outstretched in a position of blessing was sculpted in Italy in 1958 by Gilma Madera, a well-known Cuban artist. rom its vantage point more than 50 meters/about 165 feet above the Bay, the statue can be seen from many points throughout the city. It is considered to be the biggest and most attractive monument in the Caribbean and is the biggest outdoor monument sculpted by a female artist.
Adjacent to Castillo de San Salvador de La Punta is a small picturesque park where I sat for a while to watch the ships enter the Bay. From there, it’s a short walk to Parque Centrale where I continued my Havana exploration.