The Malecón (‘El Malecón’ in Spanish) has always been popular with locals and visitors to Havana. Day and night it attracts all walks of life, from families to philosophers, and acts as a long, relaxed recreational space that contrasts strongly with the narrow streets and hectic activity of the old city.
If you are visiting Havana, it is inevitable that at some point you will be walking, driving or even dancing along the Malecón. Here are 10 fun facts to put you in the picture.
1. It was built to protect Havana
Plans were first drawn up in the 1800s to create a seawall to protect the city. As with other cities around the world, it was evident that sturdy seawalls could provide a buffer against stormy seas and abnormally high tides. The first construction took place in the early 1900s, and the wall was further extended in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s. With rising sea levels, talks have recently been taking place to enlarge the height of the wall to help protect the city for the future.
2. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the world’s longest sofa’
From end to end, the Malecón is nearly 5 miles (8 kilometres) long. It starts at Havana Bay in Old Havana, and skirts along the north side of the neighbourhood of Centro Habana before ending in Vedado. As most of the seawall also functions as a place to sit or lay down, you might hear locals remark that the Malecón is “el sofá más largo del mundo” - the world’s longest sofa!
3. It got the name ‘El Malecón’ from Havana residents
When the first stage of construction took place in the early 1900s its official name was ‘Avendida de Golfo’, meaning ‘Gulf Avenue’ - the Gulf referring to the Gulf of Mexico which that first section of the wall was facing. However, locals quickly starting calling it ‘El Malecón’ and since then the name has stuck. ‘Malecón’ in English can roughly be translated into ‘esplanade’ or ‘seawall’. Technically today the stretch of road and pavement that is referred to as the Malecón consists of several differently named ‘avenidas’ (avenues), but in everyday conversation and even in official publications and cartography (including Google Maps), the name ‘Malecón’ is commonly used.
4. It is considered a National Monument
In 1991 the Cuban National Council of Cultural Heritage (‘Consejo Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural’) officially declared the Malecón to be a ‘National Monument’, and consequently it is now a ‘Protected Area’ (‘Zona de Protección’).
5. It plays a role for followers of Santaría
For locals that practice Santaría, the Malecón is a spot from which offerings can be thrown to the goddess Yemayá-Asesú, who is said to inhabit the seashore. Offerings usually take the form of several (ideally seven) low value coins. If the sea is particularly stormy, it is believed that this means that the goddess Yemayá-Olokun, who is said to live in the deepest depths of the sea, is angry.
6. It is a popular spot for fishing
Being next to the sea makes the Malecón a popular spot from which to catch fish, especially certain locations along the seawall. Anglers can sometimes be seen using inflated latex condoms as floats, as they are much cheaper than more specialised gear. Whilst some species of fish can be caught close to the shore, these floating condoms drift out to sea with the fishing line, allowing the anglers to catch bigger fish in deeper waters without needing to leave the seawall.
7. Love is in the air
The Malecón has always been popular with couples, whether they have been together for many years or are going on a first date. Some can be seen gently strolling along the promenade, whilst others choose to sit on the seawall. It is also a popular spot with families and friends, who sometimes bring food, drink and entertainment to liven up the evening. In fact, just about everyone visiting or living in the city will come here at some point, to relax, reflect or party, depending on the occasion.
8. At 9pm every night you can hear a loud bang
A centuries old ceremony takes place every evening at the Cabaña fortress, which culminates in a canon blast at 9pm on the dot. In centuries gone by this was to mark the closure of the city gates, though now it is done out of tradition. The Cabaña fortress is located on the other side of Havana Bay to the Malecón, but the sound of the canon is so loud that it can be heard from almost every spot along the Malecón.
9. Occasionally you can walk in the middle of the road
Whilst the sight of old cars cruising along the Malecón’s main road is a classic image of Havana, the Malecón’s main road is equally special when it is closed, with less noise from cars and a different ambience. Sometimes it closes for special festivals, parades and celebrations. Other times it closes if there are particularly rough seas, causing waves to spray seawater over the seawall. It is nature fighting back, and certainly a spectacle worth watching up close, but be careful as you might get wet!
10. There have been three major cocktails named after the Malecón
As with many cocktails that date back many years, the origins of the first version of the Malecón cocktail are cloudy. That said, one of the first printed documents to contain the Malecón cocktail is in 1915, when it was featured in John Escalante’s guide to Cuban cocktails, known as the ‘Manuel de Cantinero’ (‘Bartender’s Manual’). The ingredients included cognac, vermouth, Angostura bitters, sugar syrup and a strawberry garnish.
In 1941, an American cocktail was invented called Malecón that was said to be inspired by Havana and featured in Crosby Gaige’s ‘Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion’. Ingredients listed are dry gin, white rum, Swedish ‘punsch’ and apricot brandy.
The third successful Malecón cocktail was created in 2007 in London by Eric Lorincz when he was bartender at the Connaught Bar. He came up with the idea after a trip to Havana, and it quickly became a bestseller. Ingredients include rum, port, sherry, Peychaud Bitters, caster sugar and lime juice. On coming up with the idea, he remarked:
“I have read that the essence of what it means to be Cuban is to accept the inevitabilities of human existence, that we are born and must die, and to make the very best of the life in between and have as good a time as possible. With this admirable attitude in mind, I wanted to create a drink that could be enjoyed at any time of day or night, and that would be at home in the most elegant London cocktail bar and equally at the Malecón in Havana with music, laughter and tobacco smoke in the air.”
So once you get back from your trip to Cuba, and you want to transport your mind to Havana and its magnificent Malecón, maybe a cocktail will do the trick…
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