Dominating the eastern side of Havana Bay is a mighty fortress. Find out more here about "La Cabaña", a place that reveals some of Havana's fascinating past.
If you are in Old Havana, looking across Havana Bay, it is impossible not to notice an old walled fortress dominating the horizon. Officially known in Spanish as "Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña", though usually shorted to "La Cabaña", the fortress has dominated the bay for 250 years.
It is a testament to just how vital Havana was during colonial times to the Spanish Empire. Havana's strategic geographical location in the Caribbean and its natural harbour that is well suited for shipping meant that the city had to be defended at all costs.
Seven quirky facts that caught my mind after visiting San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress
Here are seven fun facts about La Cabaña Fortress:
It was built following a successful British invasion of Havana
La Cabaña was constructed between 1763 and 1774. It was ordered by the Spanish King Carlos III a year after British forces had captured Havana for six months.
The British gave the city back to the Spanish as part of a treaty (in which the Spanish gave Florida to Britain), but King Carlos III was well aware that the city had shown its weakness and could be prone to further attacks in the future.
Not taking any chances, La Cabaña was built on the very ridge that had been used by the British to shell Havana and cause the city to submit.
It is situated next to an even older fortress
Further along the bay is El Morro, a fortress that was built between 1589 and 1630 in conjunction with two other fortifications on the western side of the bay - "La Fuerza" and "La Punta". The idea back then was that having fortifications on both sides would provide ample protection for the city.
For over a hundred years El Morro successfully fought off attacks from European privateers, mainly English, French and Dutch, but, as mentioned, it proved insufficient in 1762 when British forces captured Havana.
El Morro still continued to play a strong role in Havana's history, despite the construction of La Cabaña. Today, the two are usually combined on tourist itineraries. With El Morro and La Cabaña situated so close to each other, the area is collectively known as "Parque Morro-Cabaña".
It is one of the largest Spanish fortifications in the Americas
When you see with your owns eyes the whopping 700-metre long wall across Havana Bay, it is unsurprising that La Cabaña is ranked high based on its size. While it is one of the largest, usually considered the 3rd largest, of the Spanish fortifications in the Americas, it cannot compete with the immense fortification that the Spanish colonists constructed around the same time in Puerto Rico, known as Castillo San Cristóbal.
It was created as a self-contained village
The fortress was built with a chapel, lodgings for soldiers and officers, a prison and an execution site among other things. It played a role in Cuba's history right into the 20th century. It is still multi-faceted - today you can enter the main fortress for a fee, where you get to see the aforementioned features plus a lot more.
La Cabaña is particularly well geared towards visitors, and there are various cafes, arts and craft stores, and even a tobacco shop that features displays on the Cuban Guinness World Record holder for the longest cigar.
Many of its streets are cobbled, and you can get up close to a massive old sundial and dozens of canons. There are also various small museums both inside the fortress and a short walk around the eastern side.
Every night a canon is blasted, and the sound echoes across the city
Every evening La Cabaña plays host to a centuries-old tradition known as "El Cañonazo", a canon blasting ceremony whereby a cannon is fired at 9 pm by soldiers dressed in nineteenth-century uniform.
The ceremony dates back to when this loud bang sounded to the public that the city gates had been closed, though today it is done for the sake of tradition. It is an event worth attending - make sure you arrive well before 8 pm to get inside and get a good spot.
Note, if you don't get to make it to the canon blasting ceremony, you can still hear the sound of the cannon blast from a long-distance away. Get yourself on the Malecón and at 9 o'clock on the dot you should hear a huge blast.
It offers one of the best views of the city
Being at a vantage point on the eastern side of the bay means one is treated to a picture-postcard panorama of the city. What's more, you probably won't be competing with lots of other tourists to take some beautiful snaps as there is so much space. So as well as getting to see a fascinating historic fortress, you can also leave with some lovely photos of Havana's skyline.
Today it is popular with children
La Cabaña and the surrounding Parque Morro-Cabaña is family-friendly, with large open spaces and plenty of things to keep young children entertained. It is one of many reasons why Cuba is a great country to go to with children. If you planning travelling to Havana with your kids read a bit more here in how to make the most of your time in this beautiful city.
How to get to La Cabaña
There are various ways to get to La Cabaña. The easiest way is to take an official taxi from outside one of Havana's hotels. Remember to establish the price before leaving. Alternatively, you can take a bus. There are regular tourist buses that leave from Parque Central that are well accustomed to taking tourists to Parque Morro-Cabaña.
For the more adventurous, you can try taking a local bus, though for various reasons these are generally not recommended for tourists.
A more scenic option is to take the cross-bay ferry. They leave roughly every 30 minutes, departing from the port opposite the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Old Havana. Until the late 1950s, this would have been your main option, but after the construction of the "Túnel de La Habana" (Havana Tunnel) in 1958, it became possible for vehicles to go underneath the bay.
Should you wish to take the ferry, bear in mind that there is a one-mile steep walk when you arrive. This does mean, though, that you get to see some other sites along the way, including El Cristo de La Habana, a statue of Jesus that was erected in 1958 and stands at a commanding 17 metres in height.