Cuba’s capital city began as a Spanish port (San Cristóbal de la Habana) on the Gulf of Mexico in 1515; founded by the Spanish explorer Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. As it grew to become a busy trading post, a nearby harbor was recognized to have greater access to the Gulf Stream, and the city was eventually moved to its present location in 1519. It was actually the sixth community established on the island, but quickly became Spain’s principal port in the West Indies, and one of the Caribbean’s main ship-building centers. Ships from all over the New World carried products first to Havana, in order to be taken by the fleet to Spain. From this nexus grew today’s eclectic hub of culture and history attracting tourists from across the Western Hemisphere. For it’s 500th anniversary, Havana plans a host of events including tours, concerts, performances and parades that capitalize on its natural beauty and energy.
Where history began.
To understand Havana, you must know Old Havana. Old Havana, which is defined by the extent of the former city walls, has maintained the pattern of the early urban setting with its five large plazas; each with its own architectural character: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza del Cristo and Plaza de la Catedral.
Perhaps the most distinctive features of Old Havana are its fortification structures. The extensive network of defensive installations, created from the 1500s to the 1800s, consists of some of the oldest and largest stone forts now standing in the Americas. The historical relevance of this port makes Old Havana “the most impressive historical city centre in the Caribbean and one of the most notable in the American continent as a whole,” according to the World Heritage Convention.
To capitalize on this recognition, city historian Eusebio Leal Spengler has dedicated more than 30 years of his life helping to restore colonial squares and buildings in Old Havana – essentially connecting the city’s past to the present. The Anniversary Celebration as a backdrop to these three decades of development is hoped to restore Havana’s brilliant global architectural prominence.
In the years leading up to the anniversary, nearly 600 historic buildings have been restored throughout the city. The provincial government is focusing on expanding green spaces and improving the parks found in the city’s urban and suburban areas.
Renovations to Cuba’s National Capital Building – El Capitolio – are complete after eight years. The Neo-classical icon is modeled after the U.S. Capital building, a constant reminder of the complicated relationship endured by both countries. The Cuban Institute of Music is preparing a series of concerts on the second, third and fourth Saturdays of each month to showcase local talent and musical styles. And throughout the buildings and plazas of the city’s Historic Center are ongoing festivities – including arts displays along the Malecon (Havana’s seafront promenade). It’s truly the most unique time to visit Havana!
Service as a lens.
These and many other people-to-people attractions are available to volunteers on Global Volunteers’ Cuba Program.
Of course, Global Volunteers programs are all about an equal exchange – of respect, understanding, knowledge and perspective – as well as the opportunity to work alongside the Cuban people. Many people tell us they serve in Cuba as a volunteer to truly get to know the people personally.
Cuba volunteer Sally Nist
Every Cuban I met, from the airport personnel upon arrival to host families, the community partners, the people we worked with and the people we met on the streets were helpful, friendly, curious, and open.”
Friendships naturally develop over days of practicing English language skills, upgrading buildings, and caring for elders – but, the most memorable occasions happen in the spaces between scheduled projects. These are the experiences of “common humanity” that remind us we’re all more alike than different – and live in our hearts forever.
Viewing Havana’s 500th Anniversary year through the lens of service provides you a privileged perspective. Our local partners and those with whom you work share their personal histories, enabling you to witness this milestone with the understanding of a short-term community member.
Attending special events, concerts and performances, lectures, and tours with new Cuban friends and teammates is a most authentic combination of service, travel and celebration in Cuba! Global Volunteers’ full-day itinerary ensures you comply with U.S. regulations and IRS requirements. You return home knowing you’ve invested in the Cuban people, and experienced the richness of their culture.