Places in Playa & Marianao
The gracious, relatively sedate, and wide-spread suburb of Miramar, separated from Vedado by the Río Almendares, evolved in the mid 20th-century as the most chic address in town. It still is! Whereas a wander round Habana Vieja and frenetic Centro Habana feels like stepping back in time, a trip to Miramar gives visitors a glimpse of a Cuba in tune with the 21st century.
By the 1930s, due to the pressure of population growth and an economic upturn, the city jumped the Almendares and expanded into new terrain. In Havana, the political and economic elite have traditionally moved westwards, away from the site where the city was founded. It was they—the upper- and upper-middle classes—who settled the coastal zone called Miramar (“Oceanview”), a leafy neighborhood of broad avenues framed by dripping jagüey trees and mile after mile of grandiose mansions. Initially, the recent arrivals were forced to use a drawbridge, the Puente de Pote (1924), to commute to Havana. However, the completion in the 1950s of the Malecón coastal road with a tunnel beneath the Río Almendares facilitated the journey.
Until the Revolution, Miramar was home to the fabulously wealthy. The 1959 Revolution turned Miramar on its head. The wealthy white elite opposed to the new Castro regime abandoned the city and headed for Miami in droves. Convinced that their absence would be short-term, many émigrés left their servants in charge of the house and stashed their money and treasures (some of which are now national heritage pieces) in double walls and gardens. The vacuum was filled by a vast influx of hoi polloi, many of them non-white and homeless. Miramar took on a whole new tone as multiple families squatted individual mansions, which soon fell into decay. Others were seized by the government and turned into schools, clinics, or government institutions.
Today Miramar is ground zero of Cuba’s newly birthed upscale entrepreneurship as foreign investors join entrepreneurial Cubans to tap into Cuba’s potential and shape its future. Quality private restaurants and even nightclubs inspired by Miami’s South Beach have sprouted like mushrooms on a damp log. Many of the state’s own enterprises are headquartered here, too, alongside the offices of foreign companies and virtually every foreign embassy in town, housed in beautifully restored mansions. Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue), the main east-west boulevard connecting Miramar to Vedado, is known as “Embassy Row” (diplomats’ wives clad in de rigueur sunglasses and Lycra leggings go for gentle afternoon jogs along the central median).
Quinta runs west to the Miramar Trade Center and a luxury hotel enclave principally serving foreign businessfolk. Beyond, along the shore, are once-exclusive bathing clubs: Now somewhat disheveled, they serve the same function for Cuban workers. Inland lies Cubanacán (and, adjoining, Siboney), formerly nicknamed Havana’s “Beverly Hills,” as the grandest homes of all were here. The Audis and Mercedes and SEATs parked in driveways are a dead-giveaway as to who lives here today: foreign diplomats and business staff, Cuban sporting and music celebrities, and Cuba’s own government and MININT elite. The Castros’ own homes are here, too, tucked discreetly away from view in a well-guarded enclave inland of the fishing village of Jaimanitas, on the heavily militarized far western outskirts.
Note that the street system in Havana’s western neighbourhoods can be confusing to visitors. The northern part of Miramar is a straightforward grid, with even-numbered calles and odd-numbered avenidas. However, the roads to the south and west, especially those of Cubanacán and Siboney, are winding and the numbering system is perplexing to follow. Even taxi drivers can have trouble finding addresses around here. If possible, take a decent map with you.
Together, Miramar, Cubanacán and Siboney form the northern half of Playa municipality, a paradoxical mix of prestigious residential zones and of tough proletarian housing schemes that extend south to Marianao, a sprawling municipality known for the world-famous Tropicana nightclub. Several specialized medical institutes are situated here, too. Othwerise, Marianao is a hard-scrabble residential neighborhood with a powerful Santería community.
Siboney hosts the majority of Cuba’s biotechnological and pharmaceutical research institutes, while Cubanacán, with its twin convention facilities, hosts many of Havana’s business or scientific fairs and expos. Some of the best salsa clubs, discos and restaurants are out this way, many of the casas particulares are positively luxurious, and there is none of the clamor of Centro Habana or Habana Vieja. And yachties, anglers and scuba divers will find themselves using the Marina Hemingway at Playa’s west end. However, if you’re interested primarily in sightseeing, commuting from Playa to Vedado or Habana Vieja can be a time-consuming and expensive nuisance.