We think experiencing the authentic side of Cuba is a bucket list item every traveler should check off! That’s why, as one of the first US tour companies to have been awarded a People-to-People license for Cuba travel, we’ve worked hard to send thousands of American travelers to Cuba to participate in unique, inspiring, and affordable encounters with the Cuban people. Recently, we asked one of our fabulous Cuba Tour Managers, Gary White, to tell us about one iconic Havana landmark that really immerses you in the ‘authentic’ Cuba.
For decades, as a forbidden country to US citizens, Cuba was only in our imaginations. We had seen pictures of 1950s classic American cars plying down the dark streets of a crumbling Havana, or of an enthusiastic Fidel Castro gesturing to the masses as military trucks pulling missiles passed in review. And, of course, the island was riddled with aged women who enjoyed oversized cigars tilting down from one side of their mouths.
For newly arriving Americans who catch a tour bus from the airport into Havana, the images are largely confirmed. You see a bright pink Ford Thunderbird in the airport parking lot. On the way to Old Havana, you pass right by Revolution Square where the iconic image of Che Guevara is affixed onto one of the buildings flanking the public gathering area. Deeper into the heart of the city, the density of people will be increasing and sidewalks will become crowded. For the tourists, there really are women with unnecessarily large cigars! Vibrant colors and flamboyant personalities clearly reflect your understanding of what Cubanos are supposed to be like. But nothing, no building, ghost of Castro, or a beautifully restored 1956 Chevy will confirm you are in Havana, Cuba than when you turn onto the Malecón.
The Malecón, or “sea wall”, is actually Avenida de Maceo. It is a five-mile-long sea wall, road, bench, gathering place, protector of the city, and icon of Havana that will race your heart upon seeing it. This is where all the photographs you have seen were taken, where waves hit and crash upward and over the taxis that drive along its avenue. Yep! This is Havana! You recognize the Malecón immediately and you feel compelled to linger and just take it all in.
This is the meeting place for young Habaneros seeking private time among the hoard of other youth as each plays out a calling as a paramour. In a city where most homes are multigenerational, a young couple in love must find another location to be alone and the Malecón’s protective wall shields them from the Atlantic’s waves and grandmother’s eyes. If you want to meet the next generation of Cuba, walk the Malecón on a weekend night. You do not need to skip your dinner to promenade, for the wall will be busy until 3 AM with diehards there until 4.
The Malecón protects the city from the waves generated when the winds blow from the north. Sometimes, the spray from a crashing wave can reach forty to fifty feet high. When such meteorological conditions exist, the roadway along the Malecón will be closed due to flooding. It is a never-ending battle to remain ahead of the decay, and repairs to the wall are constant.
But, when conditions are friendly, old men and boys will cast their lures into the water in hopes of catching the family’s dinner. Couples, straight, gay, and lesbian will hold hands as they sit on the barricade and gaze out across the water and sunset. Those Cubans who have made plans to move to the United States will tell their friends in code that they are “moving to Malecón and ninety.” For ninety miles north of the Malecón is Florida.
Looking at the youth draping themselves along the iconic wall, a visitor catches a glimpse of the future of Cuba. It is frequently stated that to get to Cuba from the US, a traveler must journey ninety miles and fifty years. These young people will be living in a world we will never be able to visit, and so we are left to our imagination. After all, even the most talented traveler cannot move through time. But here, on the Malecón, is where the journey begins. As we recognize our journey’s end only arrives at a new beginning, our intuition affirms that, to be part of such an adventure, even if we only witness the first steps, confirms where we are, where we have been, and who we have become.