Once an exotic vacation hideaway for rich Americans, with its nightclubs, intoxicating cigars, rum, and the rich traditions of salsa, today’s Cuba has lost its shiny veneer. But, with the relaxing of the United States’ 50-year-plus economic and travel embargo on the island, the crippling effects is slowly easing as Americans, curious about this hidden treasure, start to travel to the largest island in the Caribbean.
A timely publication, this colorful coffee table book should be a must-read for ‘treasure hunters’ to the island as Garcia and Larramendi have created a detailed ‘map’ of old Cuba for ‘hungry’ tourists seeking the richness of the Cuba of old. And, unlike many similar publications, it’s not just about destination descriptions and grand photos. Old Cuba is also a history book, marking the island’s major milestones.
In chronological order, the author walks us through Cuba’s development beginning with the year Christopher Columbus landed on the Taino-inhabited island in 1492. Unfortunately, there is only a cursory mention of the indigenous people as highly advanced and skilled; there is no reference to their extinction at the hands of the European colonizers.
The Spaniards’ expansion and development of the island through the establishment of cities and government centers at the beginning of the 1500s certainly highlights the importance of this island, and indeed the other Caribbean territories, at the time. Sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations sprang up in the ensuing centuries, influencing the growth of new settlements and the architecture around them. Besides the government, administrative, and cultural buildings that were erected to emphasize the hold and presence of the Spaniards, religious edifices became an important marker of colonial power. Magnificent churches and cathedrals stood tall in main parishes or cities, directing the lives of residents with their tolling bells.
The growing Spanish population also had to consider protecting its new territory, hence the creation of military fortifications, barracks, and castles in Cuba and around the region where the colonizer staked its flag. Many of these city and fortress walls, and castles still stand unchanged centuries later as testament to the architectural skills of their creators. Hence, many Cuban cities are historical examples of what life was like in old Cuba. Old Havana, for example, is a step back in time.
One of the oldest cities in the Americas, according to Garcia, Old Havana is rich in history, culture, and architecture. She talks about its important marine setting, the “beloved” Havana Cathedral, and the fact that this old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The accompanying images shows the perceived opulence of the period based on the majestic buildings and preserved interiors.
Among some of the other important cities explored is Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba. Known for its baroque-style doorways, triumphal arches, wooden ceilings, and enclosed balconies, this city has maintained its Spanish-Creole traditions characteristic of its colonial past. There is so much to Old Cuba, a short review cannot do justice to it. The combined descriptions, history, and images starts the journey that must be taken if one is to go beyond 30-second news clips and biased sound bites.
Author: Alicia E. Garcia