By Bertha Leal
Often referred to as “a city stuck in time,” Havana, Cuba is one of the few places that manage to capture the perfect harmony of a fast-paced city and the melancholy of years gone by. And no single architectural structure encompasses both of those worlds quite like El Malecón.
A Wall Through Time
Running along Havana’s northern coast, El Malecón (which translates into the breakwater or the jetty) is a sea wall that stretches four miles from Havana Harbor in Old Havana to the modern downtown El Vedado, one of Havana’s most vibrant neighborhoods; thus marrying those old and new worlds both literally and figuratively. It was built in 1901 during temporary US military rule in an attempt to protect the city from the rough sea waters and potential enemy attacks. Over time it became less of a strategic defense and more of a favorite spot for swooning lovers taking nighttime walks along its promenade.
Not too far from El Malecón lies El Paseo del Prado, a lovely roundabout also built by the US and also favored by Habaneros as a place in which to stroll off some of that famous tropical heat. On a typical Sunday one can dance to bands playing classic Cuban music. In front of El Paseo del Prado stands the majestic Miramar Hotel, still capable of holding its visitors in complete awe since its opening in 1930. The hotel is reminiscent of an era when evening gowns and tuxedos were required dinner attire.
Gathering Place for All
In stark contrast to the impressive Miramar Hotel, El Malecón attracts Cubans of all walks of life especially natives of humbler means who flock to the wall as a way of entertainment. It is also a source of income for individual fishermen and prostitutes who cast their lures there in the hopes of reeling in a good catch. Although the ravages of time and lack of resources have deteriorated the houses along El Malecón, its true beauty remains in its ability to age gracefully. One could say almost regally.
El Malecón is a definite must see if you’re planning a Caribbean getaway. Havana, in all its colorful splendor, guarantees a thoroughly enjoyable time for a tourist. The light-hearted locals are more than attentive in that special serviceable way; always ready to lend a helping hand whether that’s offering street directions or a more literal hand when pushing your just-ran-out-of-gas rental car to the next pump station. Restaurants line up and down El Malecón for your convenience but some obligatory eats are El Aljibe and La Casa. However, if you prefer a more down-to-earth taste of homemade dishes you should scope out ‘paladares’ (restaurants run by self-employers, mostly family-run businesses). For dessert make your way to the intersection of 23rd Street to El Vedado for some world famous Cuban ice cream at El Coppelia. Or check out El Vedado’s hotels, Habana Libre or Hotel Nacional, for a ‘cafecito.’ Historical places to visit include La Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana, still standing since its 1748 construction, the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine and the fortress Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) on the western side of the harbor.
So if you’re looking to explore a time in history without sacrificing all your 21st century luxuries visit Havana to enjoy the best of both worlds. And while you’re at it, remember to enjoy a traditional ‘mojito’ on the wall of El Malecón, always tipping a bit off first ‘para los muertos’ (for the dead but not forgotten).