May 2015 – Absolutely itching for a panoramic shot of west Havana and the bay around Havana Vieja? Hop in a car or taxi, and motor west out of Havana Vieja to the tallest building in the city. At the time the 39-story Focsa was completed in the mid-1950s, it was the second tallest building in the world constructed with reinforced concrete at the time.
The building itself is nothing special, with a spare communist feel, but to get some scenic shots, head to the 33rd floor is the cosy and classy La Torre Bar and Restaurant. For a cheap drink , you can linger and take 180 degree shots of the bay and city as falcons wheel overhead.
Plaza de Revolucion
Plaza de la Revolución
Since you’re already on the west, head further out to this massive square, deserted on weekdays, is the site of political rallies and had hosted millions during Fidel Castros speeches. Popes Francis and John Paul also hosted jam packed masses here.
It’s a little bit of a hike out from Haana center, but a good spot for selfies, not much else, in front of the massive Che Guevare mural decorating the Ministries of the Interior and Communications Building with the quote “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” – Until the Everlasting Victory, Always. The second official building bears the image of Camilo Cienfuegos (many mistake it for Castro’s) with the catchy quote “Vas bien, Fidel” – you’re doing good
But nothing much to admire here in terms of architecture – the Jose Marti Memorial tower and statue are kinda boring.
Head for Havana Este (East) and Casablanca
For even more awesome panoramic views and photos of a wide stretch of Havana head across the bay – to the highest point in the district of Casablanca to the of the northeast of the city. Viewed from this spot, Havana is laid out in all its seductive 50’s glamor like an Ocean’s Eleven set in miniature. The view spans from the east’s belching oil refineries and Havana port’s massive tankers and docks to Old Havana’s colorful Malecón-front structures.
How to get there? The best way to do it quick and easy is to hire a taxi or car and driver for 3 or 4 hours; plan on at least five hours if you use public transport.
Public Transport –
For 10 centavos, take the ferry which departs every 20 minutes from Old Havana’s Ferry Terminal at Muelle Luz (Av. del Puerto y Calle Santa Clara) to Casablanca dock which is 10 minutes downhill from El Cristo. You can also walk up to the Foso de los Laureles to visit the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña but this entrance may close at dusk.
Or take the hop-on, hop-off bus from Hotel Sevilla or Parque Central includes the Fortaleza stop as one of 17 on the T3 route, for 5 CUC per person. Buses run from 9 am to 11 pm on most routes.
By car, from Old Havana-
It’s a 10-minute drive across the bay via the tunnel. I booked a driver for a 6 am start with my camera, to catch the light and avoid the crowds. After waiting over an hour, I realized taxi driver, Carlos, who’d been reliable the past two days had either had engine troubles or had ditched me. I flagged down Daniel’s white taxi and he was a godsend (I have to admit that fella with the fancy red Ford Fairlane in the header photo was part of a private tour I’d taken a day earlier).
As we sped along the road approaching the looing Christ of Havana, I caught sight of billowing smoke. “Fire!” I screamed at Daniel who winced as he jammed on the brakes of his precious Lada. Scrambling to the side of the hill, where eastern Havana spread out before me, its source became obvious.
I realized it was pollution from the Ñico Lopez gasoline refinery, among others, in eastern Havana. Oddly enough the noxious yellow-gray cloud wasn’t that obvious from street level. Half a dozen stacks, one belching gas fireballs, produced enough smoke to drape the city in a gauzy mantilla of haze. After the mini-drama and a sheepish apology, we got underway.
El Cristo de La Habana is perched atop a hill at the mouth of the bay, cutting an imposing figure but like much in Cuba, its presence is ironic. Santería, a blend of Catholicism and Yoruba (the religion of African slaves) is more visibly practiced than Catholicism as only about 3% of the populace attends mass.
It’s fitting then that Christ’s oddly blank visage looks dispassionately upon the distant glitter and closeup decay of the city. The 20 meter tall marble statue isn’t doing too well either – with a football sized chunk missing from the back of the head.
Sharing its view and iconic status, a minute’s walk to the north stands Che’s home that’s been converted to a museum, La Cabana de Che Guevara. I didn’t go in, not being a fan after reading about his overseeing brutal executions without trial – but I have to admit the guy knew how to live. The hacienda-style bungalow looked homey and charming.
Ironically charming abode for a revolutionary (the blue plastic bucket isn’t Che’s – it’s the cleaning lady who shyly ran out of the frame with her mop)
Led on by loud bird song, I wandered father down the track past the house and ran into my first and only “Detener!” (I later Googled it and realized it means “halt!”) in Cuba when I stumbled onto a no-go barbed wire zone patrolled by a ridiculously youthful soldier in fatigues. I honestly can’t figure out what state secrets the wooded lane held, especially when a barefoot woman with a goat wandered out. Anyway, I backed out after a five- minute staredown – I didn’t want to find out how he would’ve subdued a scrawny middle-aged Asian woman.
Jumping back into Daniel’s car, we headed off to Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Castle of the Three Kings of the Headland, a dramatic fort hugging the cliffs of the headland. The behemoth guarding the narrow mouth of the bay started out in 1563 as a watchtower. The fortress had to be rebuilt after being partially destroyed by the English in 1762, and now displays recovered treasure out of the bay and hosts temporary exhibitions. It’s a superb perch from which to take scenic photos of Havana and the bay given its size and strategic location to spot enemies from afar.
At the peak of its importance, a battery of 24 cannons – the dozen facing out to the sea were dubbed “The Apostles,” the other twelve near the fortress “The Sheperdesses”. El Morro also has a 30-meter tall lighthouse you can visit via narrow steps, its original oil-fueled lantern replaces by an electric light that still flashes every 15 seconds. A truly fantastic spot to photo the action in the bay.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro
Open daily 10 am – 7 pm | phone: (+53)(7) 861-9727
Entrance, 4 CUC | Extra fee for lighthouse, 2 CUC
From El Morro’s southwest walls, the view of Old Havana across the narrow channel is even better and you can clearly make out Parque de los Mártires (with the statue of General Máximo Gómez on his horse), behind that sits the Museo de la Revolución, and farther back and to the right is the rounded dome of the Capitolio. The massive crane sits atop a building bordering the Plaza Vieja. The panorama continues over Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, and all the way to Central Havana.
From El Morro’s eastern and north facing walls, you’ll see the massive L-shaped Focsa Building, elegant Hotel Nacional, and cool Hotel Habana Libre.
If you’re out early enough, aim your camera over the northwest and north walls over the stunning azure Straits of Florida, and you’ll capture small fishing boats, lone fishermen at the base of the rocky cliffs and what was most puzzling, snorkelers with nothing more than plastic bag, mask and fins a mile from the nearest beach. I asked what they were looking for, a passing tour guide said “lobster” (hah! pull the other leg) and another said coins from colonial galleons. You will also spot lizards with distinctively stubby and curly tails scurrying into cracks in the castle walls.F
To make it a full day, you might want to also visit the restored Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña – Saint Charles of the Flock Fortress – which I skipped. It takes the prize as the largest fort in the Americas, spread over almost 25 acres, and was built from 1763 to 1774 following the English invasion. There are two museums. The small Museo de la Comandancia de Che is located where Che Guevara held tribunals and executions. The Museo de la Cabaña traces the fort’s history and displays armaments from colonial Cuba, as well as the ancient Middle East and Far East. A separate fortress exhibits Soviet missiles from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña La Habana del Este
Open daily, 8 am -11 pm | Entry fee 7 CUC (fort and museums), add 14 CUC to attend cañonazo