Map of Parque Histórico Militar Morro Cabaña, Cuba

Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña

Looming over Habana Vieja, on the north side of the harbor channel, the rugged cliff face of the Cabaña is dominated by two great fortresses that constitute Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña (Morro-La Cabaña Historical Military Park, Carretera de la Cabaña, Habana del Este). Together, the castles comprise the largest and most powerful defensive complex built by the Spanish in the Americas.

Visitors arriving by car reach the complex via the harbor tunnel (no pedestrians or motorcycles without sidecars are allowed) that descends beneath the Máximo Gómez Monument off Avenida de Céspedes. Buses from Parque de la Fraternidad pass through the tunnel and stop by the fortress access road.

Along the walls of Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro.

Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro

The Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro (Castle of the Three Kings of the Headland, tel. 07/863-7941, daily 8 a.m.–8 p.m., entrance CUC5, children under 12 free, guide CUC1, cameras CUC2, videos CUC5) is built into the rocky palisades of Punta Barlovento at the entrance to Havana’s narrow harbor channel. Canted in its articulation, the fort—designed by Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli and initiated in 1589—forms an irregular polygon that follows the contours of the rocky headland, with a sharp-angled bastion at the apex, stone walls 10 feet thick, and a series of batteries stepping down to the shore. Slaves toiled under the lash of whip and sun to cut the stone in situ, extracted from the void that forms the moats. El Morro took 40 years to complete and served its job well, repelling countless pirate attacks and withstanding for 44 days a siege by British cannons in 1762.

Originally the castle connected with the outside world by sea, to which it was linked via the Plataforma de la Estrella, the wharf at the southern foot of the cliff. Today you enter via a drawbridge across the deep moat that leads through the Túnel Aspillerado (Tunnel of Loopholes) to vast wooden gates that open to the Camino de Rondas, a small parade ground (Plaza de Armas) containing a two-story building atop water cisterns that supplied the garrison of 1,000 men.

To the right of the plaza, a narrow entrance leads to the Baluarte de Austria (Austrian Bastion), with cannon embrasures for firing down on the moat. A cobbled ramp leads up to other baluartes. Various plaques commemorate heroic figures of the siege—even the Royal Navy is honored.

To the left of the Plaza de Armas, the Sala de Historia del Faro y Castillo profiles the various lighthouses and castles in Cuba. Beyond is the Surtida de los Tinajones, where giant earthenware vases are inset in stone. They once contained rapeseed oil as lantern fuel for the 25-meter-tall Faro del Morro (8 a.m.–7 p.m., CUC2 extra), a lighthouse constructed in 1844. Today an electric lantern still flashes twice every 15 seconds. You can climb to the top for a bird’s-eye view of the castle—the climb is tight and not for claustrophobics.

All maritime traffic in and out of Havana harbor is controlled from the Estación Semafórica, the semaphore station atop the castle, accessed via the Baluarte de Tejeda. The harbormaster will invite you up, but you’ll be expected to tip.

Below the castle, facing the city on the landward side and reached by a cobbled ramp, is the Batería de los Doce Apóstoles (Battery of the Twelve Apostles). It boasts massive cannons and a little bar—El Polvorín (The Powderhouse).

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña

The massive Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (Saint Charles of the Flock Fortress, Carretera de la Cabaña, tel. 07/862-4095, daily 10 a.m.–10 p.m., entrance CUC5 adults, children under 12 free, CUC8 for the cañonazo ceremony, guide CUC1), half a kilometer east of the Morro, enjoys a fantastic strategic position overlooking the city and harbor. It is the largest fort in the Americas, covering 10 hectares and stretching 700 meters in length. It was built 1763–1774 following the English invasion, and cost the staggering sum of 14 million pesos—when told the cost, the king after whom it is named reached for a telescope; surely, he said, it must be large enough to see from Madrid. The castle counted some 120 bronze cannons and mortars, plus a permanent garrison of 1,300 men. While never actually used in battle, it has been claimed that its dissuasive presence won all potential battles—a tribute to the French designer and engineer entrusted with its conception and construction. The castle has been splendidly restored.

From the north, you pass through two defensive structures before reaching the monumental baroque portal flanked by great columns with a pediment etched with the escutcheon of Kings Charles III, and a massive drawbridge over a 12-meter-deep moat, one of several moats carved from solid rock and separating individual fortress components.

Beyond the entrance gate a paved alley leads to the Plaza de Armas, centered on a grassy, tree-shaded park fronted by a 400-meter-long curtain wall. The wall—La Cortina—runs the length of the castle on its south side and formed the main gun position overlooking Havana. It is lined with cannons engraved with lyrical names such as La Hermosa (The Beautiful). The cañonazo (cannon-lighting) ceremony is held here nightly.

Opening to the plaza is a small chapel with a baroque facade and charming vaulted interior. Facing it is the Museo de la Comandancia de Che, where, following the Triunfo del Revolución, Che Guevara set up his tribunals for “crimes against the security of the state.” The small museum salutes the Argentinian doctor-turned-revolutionary who played such a key part in the Cuban Revolution. His M-1 rifle, submachine gun, radio, and rucksack are among the exhibits.

A cobbled street leads west from the entrance gate to a large cannon-filled courtyard, from where steps lead down to La Divina Pastora restaurant, beside the wharf where supply ships once berthed. The adjoining Bar La Tasca (tel. 07/860-8341, daily noon–11 p.m.) overhangs the harbor and is a great place to relax with a mojito and cigar.

Facing the plaza on its north side is the Museo de la Cabaña. The museum traces the castle’s development and features uniforms and weaponry from the colonial epoch, including a representation of the cañonazo ceremony. A portal here leads into a garden—Patio de Los Jagüeyes—that once served as a cortadura, a defensive element packed with explosives that could be ignited to foil the enemy’s attempts to gain entry.

The stone block on the northeast side of the plaza has thick-walled, vaulted storage rooms (bovedas). One boveda displays 3-D models (maquetas) of each of Cuba’s castles, including a detailed model of the Cabaña. The adjoining room contains suits of armor and weaponry that span the ancient Arab and Asian worlds and stretch back through medieval times to the Roman era. The bovedas open to the north to cobbled Calle de la Marina, where converted barracks, armaments stores, and prisoners’ cells now contain restaurants and the Casa del Tabaco y Ron, displaying the world’s longest cigar (11 meters long).

Midway down Marina, a gate leads down to El Foso de los Laureles, a massive moat containing the execution wall where nationalist sympathizers were shot during the Wars of Independence. A cenotaph is dedicated to Juan Clemente Zenea, executed in 1871. Following the Revolution, scores of Batista supporters and “counterrevolutionaries” met a similar fate here.

On the north side of the moat, a separate fortress unit called San Julián Revellín contains examples of Soviet missiles installed during the Cuban Missile Crisis (called the October 1962 Crisis or the Caribbean Crisis by Cubans). The rest of the fortress grounds is still used as a military base and is off-limits. It includes the domed Observatorio Nacional (National Observatory).

A ferry (10 centavos) runs to Casablanca every 20 minutes or so from the Muelle Luz (Av. del Puerto y Calle Santa Clara) in Habana Vieja. You can walk uphill from Casablanca to an easterly entrance gate to the Foso de los Laureles. This gate closes at dusk, so don’t take this route if you plan on seeing the cañonazo.

Estatua Cristo de la Habana

The Estatua Cristo de la Habana (Havana Christ Statue, Carretera del Asilo, daily 9 a.m.–8 p.m., entrance CUC1, children under 12 free) looms over Casablanca, dominating the cliff face immediately east of the Fortaleza. The 15-meter-tall statue, unveiled on December 25, 1958, was hewn from Italian Carrara marble by Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera. From the mirador surrounding the statue, you have a bird’seye view of the harbor. The views are especially good at dawn and dusk, and it is possible, with the sun gilding the waters, to imagine great galleons slipping in and out of the harbor laden with treasure en route to Spain.

The adjoining Casa del Che (daily 9 a.m.–8 p.m., entrance CUC4, guide CUC1, camera CUC2) café/restaurant has a small museum, with personal effects, dedicated to the revolutionary.

The statue is a 10-minute uphill walk from the Casablanca dock.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Cuba.