The city of Havana was the seventh village to be founded in Cuba by the Spanish conquerors in the early XVI century, and the third and definitive capital of the island. The city, originally called San Cristobal de La Habana, was founded on November 16th, 1519 under the ceiba tree that still grows now near the El Templete church on Plaza de Armas, and this year it will celebrate its 500th anniversary.
What to do in Havana?
Over the course of a half a millennium since its foundation Havana has undergone significant changes, witnessed countless historical and cultural events of great importance, and was recently named Wonder City of the World. Now, in order to provide the city with the best possible celebration for its 500th anniversary the government and the people are all working on transforming the city and making it even more beautiful than it is now.
The campaign for the city’s restoration dedicated to the 500th anniversary of Havana started back in 2017 and was claimed to consist of three phases. The first stage extended up to the 499th anniversary of the city on November 16th, 2018. This stage focused on solving the problems that there were in the city, thus changing the city not only aesthetically, but also improving its infrastructure. Every single citizen has had a chance to participate in this part of the preparations for the anniversary, as the tasks that have been carried out started with such small things as cleaning the city, taking care of public parks and installation of LED street lighting.
Other changes include 4,500 renovation works on pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices; educational centers, sports centers, commerce venues and gastronomy, including restaurants, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries and the famous Cuban “bodegas”. In addition, the rehabilitation of some famous landmarks of the city, such as the lighthouse of the Morro Fortress and the Capitolio building also form part of the program. The authorities state that these works are not going to stop after the campaign for Havana’s 500th anniversary ends, and represent only a small part of all the upcoming projects intended to make a better Havana for its residents.
The second stage of the program is the one the city is currently in. It will last for 365 days since the day of Havana’s 499th anniversary on November 16th, 2018, to the same date in 2019, when the actual 500th anniversary celebrations will take place. The projects for this period include the building of a chain of seven new luxury hotels, some of them sponsored by foreign investors, and a 42-store skyscraper in the Vedado area, which apparently is going to tower over the current tallest buildings of the city, such as the FOCSA building. Besides, the government has confirmed that before the day of the anniversary, several establishments that have not been functioning for many years will be reopened. These include the Cuatro Caminos market, now transformed into a modern shopping center, and the Central Railway Station, among other museums and historical spots.
The citizens of Havana are also anticipating a new bicycle system, which is expected to cover all over the city, and a new housing program intended to improve the dwellings of hundreds of Cubans. Lastly another stage of the anniversary campaign is said to start on November 16th, 2019, but still has no ending date. In this stage, the changes that the city has undergone will continue to occur, showing that the works for the improvement of Havana are not limited by its anniversary date, but are supposed to continue constantly, and with the help of all the Cubans, not only the residents of the capital.
The half millennium anniversary of Havana is also seen by the government as an opportunity to promote the island as a touristic destination; thus, the many festivals and other events that have been arranged to take place in 2019. Several traveling agencies have been invited to visit the country during its anniversary celebrations in order to strengthen the tourism between Cuba and other countries. Among the upcoming events, there is the International Fair of Tourism (FitCuba 2019). It has been announced that the event will take place in Havana as a tribute to the city’s anniversary, and the guest nation of honor will be Spain. Some other cultural events have to do with music: in order to celebrate the anniversary, the Cuban Institute of Music prepared concerts that already take place the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of every month. The most popular music groups of the country will take part in these performances, and they will continue for many months ahead up to November 2019. The closer to the date of the anniversary the more parades, live concerts and theatre performances honoring the history of Havana are going to take place in the capital of the country. Most of them still have not been announced, so stay tuned for more information on the upcoming events and celebrations.
Despite all the recent changes and innovations that have taken place in the city during the campaign for Havana’s anniversary, the Cubans do not forget their traditions. One of the most famous traditions of the island is related to the way the people of Havana celebrate their city’s date of foundation. Every November 15th at night both locals and tourists start gathering on Plaza de Armas, in front of El Templete, where the city was founded in 1519. Then, at midnight, small groups of them start approaching the old Ceiba tree. The tradition is to circle the tree three times, throw some coins to its roots, and make a wish. It is possible to perform the ritual on other days as well, not only at dawn of November 16th, but they say that if you do it on the day of the city’s foundation, then you will not only be granted your wish but also have good luck during the whole upcoming year. Following the tradition on such a significant day as the city’s 500th anniversary has a special importance for all the people who love Havana, and is an amazing way to take part in the celebrations for Havana’s half a millennium.