Cuba's capital city truly must have been one of the finest cities in the Americas in its day. Compared with many Caribbean ports of call, whose historic structures are limited to a handful of churches and musty museums, Havana and its nod to culture and history are breathtaking. It still boasts thousands of architectural treasures, dozens of top-notch museums, gracious avenues and promenades, wonderful music, friendly people, breathtaking vistas and more.
But Havana is in terrible decay. Some areas, particularly in Old Havana, have been restored, but there are numerous areas that are crumbling. These once-graceful buildings have taken a pounding from hurricanes, sea air and neglect for nearly 50 years, without the commitment or materials to preserve and maintain them. Many buildings are missing roofs; on some, you can see doorways leading to missing balconies, and on others, walls are crumbling. The most fascinating thing is seeing these dilapidated buildings in the evening. Once darkness descends, it becomes obvious that, despite the desperate state of these dwellings, people continue to live in them.
However, the city is rich with rewards for visitors. The core of "Old Havana" or "La Habana Vieja" is a treasure trove of architectural gems. Across Havana Bay, the iconic 16th-century Castillo del Morro (Morro Castle) guards the city and the harbor and provides panoramic views. The graceful and elegant avenues and mansions of "El Vedado" offer a glimpse of a wealthy past. Today, it's also the center of the modern government at the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion.
Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was key in colonial times for its strategic location and rich agricultural base, which developed into the world's foremost sugar industry. (Today, it's almost extinct.) Havana itself was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, and, with its sheltered harbor, it prospered for centuries as a key center for trade.
Spain ruled Cuba for four centuries until the island gained its independence in 1899. In the 1900s, Cuba was mostly run by a series of leaders, who were greatly influenced by the United States. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow leader Fulgencio Batista, and a year later, Castro announced his allegiance to the Soviet Union and Communist principles. Thus, he alienated Cuba from the United States and, in the process, thousands of U.S. tourists that regularly visited the island.
The United States' embargo on Cuba, which began in the 1960s and has been modified several times, once prohibited U.S. citizens and U.S. companies from conducting business with Cuban interests. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton modified the embargo to prohibit subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba, and he also authorized the sale of certain specific products to Cuba. More recently, President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba, starting with those of Cuban descent and eventually allowing all citizens to visit with the ability to self-certify the cultural requirements to do so. Under the Trump administration, the certification required by U.S. citizens in order to visit is back to a group tour mandate -- but the regulations are a moving target.
The island remained politically aligned and economically dependent on the Soviet Union until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Following difficult economic times in the early 1990s (known as the "Periodo Especial"), Castro's regime began encouraging foreign investment, resulting in increased tourism -- predominantly from Canada and Europe. This marked the beginning of capitalism and renewed opportunity for the Cuban people. Cuba now attracts more than two million visitors each year.
In 2008, because of Castro's failing health, his brother Raul Castro was named president. Raul Castro has introduced changes to the island, such as allowing ownership of cellphones, buying and selling property and private enterprise, most notably in the form of paladars, or private restaurants. Fidel Castro died eight years later, in 2016.
With its convenient location, just 90 miles from South Florida, Cuba is an ideal port of call for lines sailing Caribbean itineraries. Now, due to a slow thaw, U.S. citizens are able to cruise to Cuba contingent upon taking a tour that falls under the cultural outreach visa category of people-to-people travel. These approved tours are offered through the cruise lines, and since restrictions loosened in 2016, they are heading to the once-forbidden island in droves. U.S.-based lines that now regularly call on Cuba include Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Oceania, Azamara, Holland America and Viking.