As we spent most of our time in Cuba inland, I really wanted to take time out to linger a while along the Malecon, the 5 mile long stretch of seawall that protects Havana from the lively waves of the Straits of Florida.
I was initially disappointed to discover the sea wall fronts onto a huge pile of boulders rather than a fantastic beach as I was hoping. I guess it would be just too much to expect, and to be honest, the vigorous lashing waves of the Straits would probably soon sweep away any last vestiges of sand. The Americans built the Malecon in the early 1900’s in order to help protect the city from the waves.
Next to the land side of the wall is the main road through Havana. Fortunately, the religion of the motor vehicle hasn’t quite taken off in the same way in Cuba as in the rest of the world. Although the six-lane road can be busy and difficult to cross, it is not as impossible as some streets I have risked.
Many people talk about the 1950’s American cars that cruise around Havana. We found that only about one in twenty Havana cars are now from this era. Most of these are rotting beasts; many have had their original engines removed in favour of locally made diesel engines, and bodies are often more filler than metal. You can still get American car taxis, but they tend to charge a premium, and the finest examples have to be pre-booked.
More common on the streets are the late 70’s, early 80’s Russian Ladas. I remember these in the UK: cars with unintentionally curious dull paintwork. Many of the cheaper taxis are Ladas, but be prepared to look through cracked windscreens, sit on half stuffed seats, and open doors using hanging off handles, or handles replaced by wire.
More recently, the tourist dollar seems to have enabled the introduction of more Far East imports; cars from the cheaper end of the spectrum; Kia and Proton rule in Cuba. Most official taxis are of this type. There are also a smaller number of very expensive European cars; VW beetles, BMW’s and the like. I’m not sure who in communist Cuba gets to own such a rare beast, but I suppose corruption reigns in every society.
One of the really cool things to do in Havana is to take one of the little Co-co taxis down the Malecon. The co-co taxis are open sided three wheelers with a distinctive circular fibreglass hood. I’m not sure the Cuban authorities fully approve of tourists taking the Co-co taxis, but they really are a blast, and the road is quiet and good enough for it to seem safe. I really felt it was my Havana highlight to cruise down the Malecon with the warm sea breeze on my face, speeding past the grand but crumbling buildings facing the road, and catching glimpses of the sea.
The lack of beach certainly didn’t put off the locals; day and night, people strolled up and down the length of the Malecon.
We visited the wall on foot a couple of times. On Saturday night, we didn’t really linger too long, but the people of Havana were out along the wall in force – sittin’, chattin’, chillin’ and suppin’ bottles of Rum. The Cubans are a demonstrably affectionate bunch and given they live whole families to a room, not shy of making out in public! During our taxi ride return to our hotel, we saw more than one couple so heavily engrossed in each other that the outside world might as well have not been there.
On Sunday afternoon, we were surprised with the sheer number of locals enjoying the sunshine and the views out to sea. This was more of a family occasion, and most people ventured out onto the slime covered boulders beyond the wall. It was fun to see so many family pets with their owners, and I was particularly surprised at the numbers of pedigrees: Dalmatians to Great Danes and Staffies. One owner had carried a puppy to a small boulder “island” sticking out of the sea and it was excitedly barking at the waves. Nearby, the kids in the family had commandeered an old tyre, and were bobbing along gently. I didn’t get the vibe they were preparing for a crossing over the Florida Straits, but who knows; it could have been a test run!
We found the Malecon very good-natured and we got very little hassle. A guy offered us a photo opportunity of his dog for a dollar, and some pre-teens half-heartedly tried to convince me that we had to pay to hang around their patch. While we didn’t get any grief, some young Australian guys we were chatting to a few days later, told us that some of the local young bucks on the Malecon had threatened them. It would thus be wise to be alert.
If you prefer to look out at the Malecon without being amongst the throng, then a slow drink at the Hotel Nacional might be for you. The hotel stands on a small cliff overlooking the main road. We strolled in at around lunchtime hoping just for a drink, but a waiter told us that the tables were reserved for diners. So instead, we lingered a while on the sun bleached lawns and took in the view of the sea. The hotel itself looked a little faded and rather stuffy. In any case, I don’t think the hotel is in the nicest spot along the drag, and the buildings around aren’t too interesting, although the besieged American Interests building is just down the road.
I much prefer hanging around the area towards old Havana in the centre of town, at the end of the Malecon. There is a cheap outdoor restaurant right by the wall, and we sat and watched the world go by. I cannot remember the name of the place, but the food was fine if basic.
The only “annoyance” here comes with the guy who draws cartoon caricatures while you relax. However, if you don’t want to buy them, he will simply go away. I found that my caricature had me with a 1950’s style quiff, and a face not unlike Elton John! My beloved meanwhile had developed 1960’s style horn-rimmed spectacles. I’m not sure if the impact was intentional, but they were so bad they made us laugh. A lot. As it was our last afternoon in Havana, he did rather well for his pains.
Another quiet haunt along the Malecon in this area is the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. This is a smaller fort, built to defend the harbour, and completed in around 1630. Inside, visitors pay $3 to wander round the castle. We enjoyed just looking out over the wall at the city, although inside is an exhibition of some of the treasures dredged up from ships that had sunk in the region over the years, including lots of matted together coins, ingots, plates and the like.
We also saw a rather sobering exhibition about the slave trade, fuelled by the demand for sugar in Europe and the US. The exhibition also contained some intricate scale models of ships from the 1600’s through to the 1900’s, which weren’t quite my thing.
It’s true to say that it all happens on the Malecon, and that you can tune into the vibe of the city just by lingering a while to watch the world go by. I enjoyed getting a feel for life in Havana by simply spending a little time wandering up and down the famous Malecon. Even better, when things get too hot on the streets, I found quite a few boltholes to go and explore.