El Malecón: Havana’s Smile

On a hot summer day, the Malecón will be packed with young lovers, bored housewives and kids. Kids being kids and there being a cool sea, over the wall you will see endless jumping, dipping, soaking. And if the right group are in town and you are feeling brave you may see a teenager run barefoot across four lanes of traffic launching themselves 20 feet out to land in a shallow pool of water a further 20 feet below. I can’t look. Victoria Alcalá takes a brief look into the history of this iconic bit of pavement and sets it in context within Havana.

Construction of the first stretch of the Malecón began on May 6 1901, with beautiful lampposts placed along the sea wall. However, the battering of huge waves during the following Cuban winter caused the original design to be replaced by another, this time with no attachments to the wall. The works were finally completed in 1959.

The buildings facing the sea alongside the road, which cover three different city districts, are a colourful sample of the predominant trends of Havana’s architecture. The Malecón begins in Old Havana with the Castillo de la Real Fuerza—the city’s oldest fortress and one of the very oldest in the Americas. The sea front drive is then lined with 18th- and 19th-century stately homes, followed by a row of 20th-century buildings, with their unusual combination of styles and profusion of portals, columns and pilasters that loosely follow classical lines. On its last stretch, bold examples of 1950s modern architecture, such as the Riviera Hotel, emerge, before the road disappears into a tunnel leading to the Miramar district.

But beyond the architectural values of the buildings (many of which are showing the effects of years of neglect and the endless battering of wind and saltwater), its greatest charm lies in being somewhere to stroll or hang out on a stiflingly hot day. It is a place where casting a fishing line may be more important than actually catching a fish; where the breeze joins nostalgic old couples and young lovers. It is Havana’s outdoor lounge.


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