Havana is the capital city of Cuba and presently has a population of slightly over two million. The city was founded by the Spanish in the 1500′s and has a long and fascinating history.
Its numerous tourist attractions bring over one million visitors to the city per year and the city continues to evolve and change just as it has done over the centuries. Havana in fact has seen a wide range of historical events, ranging from being a base for Hernan Cortes to explore Mexico to being the first country in the West to have an officially communist government.
How Did Havana Get its Name?
No one knows for sure where the city of Havana got its name. There are, however, two very plausible theories. Some say that the name Havana came from the name of a local Taíno chief, Habaguanex. Others say that the name is a derivative of the Dutch word “havene”, which means harbor. Considering the fact that this city was at first built to be a port city in the new world, it would seem that the second theory is likely the right one.
Havana, like much of Cuba, was owned by Spain for hundreds of years. However, the British did take control of the city for less than a year and during this time the city saw a rapid cultural transformation. Nonetheless, the British returned the city to Spain as part of a treaty made at the end of the Seven Years’ War. Cuba continued as a Spanish colony until 1898, at which time the United States occupied the island.
In the years leading up to the Cuban revolution, Havana saw a great deal of change. It went from being simply a port city to being a place of fashion, design and culture. Plantation owners that lost their lands in the Civil War came to Havana. This was in fact the start of the Cuban cigars industry, as many plantation owners found that Cuba has the ideal climate for growing tobacco.
Large mansions and plantations soon became commonplace in and around the city. The middle class also grew; however, there was still a great divide between the very rich and thousands who were very poor. Out of this divide rose Castro, Che Guevara and the communist revolution that was soon to change Havana forever.
Naturally, Havana has changed a lot under Castro’s rule. Privately owned companies were nationalized and many rich and middle class Cubans fled to Florida and other countries in order to escape Castro and his communist government. This brought about a change in the city, as Havana went from being a Latin American version of Paris to city that was handicapped by an economic embargo and lack of tourism.
However, Havana has never stopped being a cultured, classic city with much to offer. In recent times, foreign investors have been able to enter and build large hotels, stores and other related enterprises. Fashion shows are now held in Havana on a regular basis. The area of Old Havana, which was crumbling under communist rule, is now being rebuilt with the aid of foreign companies. Cuba’s government is still communist but it slowly changing and allowing more openness and freedom. Many countries now have at least cordial relations with Cuba, which has made it possible for Havana to one again become the cultural leader that it was in times past.
There are numerous historical sites both in Havana city and Havana province. Habana Vieja, the old part of the city that was founded many years ago, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is visited by tens of thousands of people every year. Plaza Vieja is a particularly interesting part of the old city, as it used to host executions, processions, bullfights, fiestas and more.
The Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña is yet another interesting site. It was the most impressive fortress in the 1700s and was built by Spain in an effort to fortify the city. Other well known fortresses built in the city include El Morro Fortress and San Salvador de la Punta Fortress. El Morro was built to withstand attacks from pirates and buccaneers while San Salvador was built to protect the island from foreign aggressors.
However, not all historical sites in Havana are hundreds of years old. El Capitolio Nacional, which was built in 1929, is impressive and a must see building for those who come to visit the city. It is home to both the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Museum of Natural History. Cristo de La Habana is a large 20 meter high statue of Christ that was built in the late 1950s and is also a site that any tourist will want to get a peek at.
Havana is a city with a long and rich history. It went from being a small port town in the 1500s to becoming a fortified city for the Spaniards to base out of as they continued to explore and plunder Central and South America. Havana saw a transformation in the 1900s as it become a cultured city with stunning architecture and while this vision of Havana become only a memory under Castro, it is starting to reappear as foreign companies and tourists are becoming more welcome in the city.
Havana has seen numerous wars as the British, Spanish and Americans have all fought over the city in the hundreds of years since it was founded. However, it is now more likely to see fashion shows and cultural events that bring out the unique and fascinating Cuban culture. And just as Havana has changed over the years, it continues to change and evolve, making it a rich and fascinating place to visit.