Havana, the capital city of Cuba, one of worlds last surviving communist regimes has a long rich history associated with it. It was established at its present location, a natural harbor in 1519 and was a part of the Spanish Colonial Empire. Havana was declared the capital of Cuba in 1607. Spain lost Havana to the British in the Seven Day war of 1762 at this time many British traders flocked to Havana to sell their wares. However, eleven months later the British exchanged Havana for Florida.
After this time Havana became an important maritime hub and the epicenter of trade for sugar, tobacco, rum and coffee. Havana’s prosperity was brought about by trade of these products which were produced by Cuba’s plantation economy with the use of Western African slave labor. Cuba struggled for Independence from Spain throughout the nineteenth century and Havana was in the thick of the action as it was the birth place of the leader of the independence movement Jose Marti. Events in 1898 led to the Spanish American War and the Spaniards lost Cuba and the Americans became increasingly involved in Cuba. This involvement peaked in the 1950’s when prohibition in America brought the American jet set out to Cuba and especially Havana in droves. Classic 1950s American cars Chevrolets and Oldsmobile’s cruised the streets of Havana and continue to do so till date albeit alongside the Russian made Ladas and Volgas.
All this ended in 1959 when Fidel Castro arrived in Havana and seized power to establish a communist regime in Cuba. This regime improved the lot of the people somewhat especially in the fields of education and medicine. However, the collapse of communism in the USSR in the early 1990s and the long standing trade embargo with the US resulted in shortages of food and essential commodities. This is slowly changing as the US dollar in recent times has been declared legal tender and elements of a market economy have been introduced. Tourism from countries other than the US has flourished and Cuban artists and musicians especially from the Buena Vista Social club have achieved world wide acclaim all this is helping Havana regain its status as a vibrant, lively and culturally rich city.
Climate and the best time to visit
Hot and humid are the terms best used to describe Havana’s weather, July and August are the months when the locals go in vacation usually to the tranquil beaches of the Playa de Este to escape the sultry weather. The rainy season is typically between May and October with the Hurricane season being between June and October. December and January are the main months for tourist arrivals from Europe and Canada. Temperatures hover around 30 C (86F) during the summer months however can fall below 10C (50F) in January.
Restrictions on American Tourists
Americans can travel to Cuba but it is illegal for them to spend money there. Moreover due to the trade embargo imposed by the US treasury department US companies cannot conduct business in Cuba and US issued credit cards or insurances are not valid in Cuba. Most Americans travel to Cuba from a third country mainly Mexico City, The Bahamas and Canada. There is a restriction on the amount Americans can spend in Cuba and they have an import allowance for only $100 for bringing back Cuban goods. Americans require a license to visit Cuba and on return to the USA they face intense scrutiny by the US Customs and Border Patrol. Unlicensed travel to Cuba invites heavy fines and penalties; This in a perverse way, increases the allure of steamy Havana which could be likened to a forbidden fruit for the Americans.
Getting to Havana
Havana’s Jose Marti airport is the main airport with three terminals. Terminal 1 for domestic flights and flights from the Caribbean, Terminal 2 serves chartered flights from USA and Terminal 3 serves flights from other parts of the world. Cuba has its own airline –Cubana but once again due to the embargo Americans are barred from flying on Cubana. Customs and Immigration clearance involves long queues as the officials tend to scrutinize all documents and luggage.
Train connections exist between Havana and Santiago de Cuba and a few other cities however the train service has fallen into disrepair and not an advisable mode of transport.
Due to the US embargo, hardly any cruise ships call on Havana. So going by sea to Havana is not a viable option.
Cuba has an excellent intercity bus service called Busse Viazul . Most buses are spacious and air-conditioned and dollar fares are charged for all passengers.