Cuba is trapped in a time bubble. Walk down the main street of Havana today and you’ll swear you’ve been sent back to the 1950s.
It’s a surreal experience, but how long will it last?
In 2016 President Obama began the process of normalising relations between Cuba and the United States. It seems inevitable that the trade embargoes – in place since the Cuban revolution of 1959 – will eventually be lifted.
And when that happens, Cuba is going to change.
Havana was founded in 1515 CE by conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (who sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493 CE).
Havana quickly rose to prominence, and despite frequent attacks by pirates and privateers over the centuries, it established itself as one of the most important (and heavily fortified) shipping ports of the New World.
By the 1740s Havana was the 3rd largest city in the Americas (after Lima and Mexico City).
In 1837 Cuba built their first railroad, connecting Havana with the sugar cane fields of Bejucal. It was the 5th country in the world to have a functioning railroad.
Rich on sugar cane money, Havana entered its golden era. By the the 1930s the city was known for its luxury hotels, nightclubs, grand prix racing, and casinos. It was the Monaco of the Caribbean.
Then, in 1959, Fidel Castro’s regime took control, and all private property and business was expropriated by the state.
The trade embargoes were implemented.
El Capitolio Nacional, Havana
El Capitolio Nacional, which was built in 1929 and modelled after the Washington, DC Capitol building, was the seat of government for Cuba until congress was abolished during the 1959 revolution. In the following years it became the office of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.
Inside is the 3rd largest indoor statue in the world, La Estatua de la República.
Former Stock Exchange Building, Havana
Like many private and government buildings, the Former Stock Exchange Building of Havana was stripped of its function following the 1959 revolution. In the ensuing years it was used partly for office space but largely remained empty.
Camellos (named so because they were thought to resemble a two-humped camel) were cobbled together from old soviet-era buses, and for a time were a distinctly Cuban form of public transport. The last camellos were retired from service in 2008.
Plaza de la Revolución, Havana
The Plaza de la Revolución is a large public square outside of the city centre where Fidel Castro once addressed the masses. The Ministry of Interior building (seen in the photo above) contains a steel memorial honouring one of the heroes of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara. The quote beneath the steel memorial reads: Hasta la victoria siempre (until the victory, always)
La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana
La Bodeguita del Medio is a trendy bar in which numerous famous figures including Salvador Allende, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Nat King Cole, and Ernest Hemingway were regulars (Ernest Hemingway might not have been as much of a regular as the bar would have you believe – there is an autograph at the bar, supposedly of Hemingway, which reads: My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita – but there are doubts over its authenticity).
Cuba is going to change, and those who want to see the country while it remains trapped in a time bubble better get here soon.
Do keep in mind, the lifting of the trade embargoes – when it happens – will mean everyday Cubans will have significantly improved access to services and resources. The popping of the time time bubble is something that should be celebrated, not lamented.
Practical information and how to reach Havana:
There are regular flights to Havana from destinations in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and South America. More transport info here.
Read more on Old Havana and its Fortification System in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Or visit my crappy capital cities page.