Officially known as Avenida Antonio Maceo, and more properly the Muro de Malecón (literally “embankment,” or “seawall”), Havana’s seafront boulevard winds dramatically along the Atlantic shoreline between the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and the Río Almendares. The six-lane seafront boulevard was designed as a jetty wall in 1857 by Cuban engineer Francisco de Albear but not laid out until 1902, by U.S. governor General Woods. It took 50 years to reach the Río Almendares, almost five miles to the west.
The Malecón is lined with once-glorious high-rise houses, each exuberantly distinct from the next. Unprotected by seaworthy paint since the Revolution, they have proven incapable of withstanding the salt spray that crashes over the seawall in great airy clouds and then floats off in rainbows. Many buildings have already collapsed, and those that were painted in haste for the pope’s visit in 1998 have faded again. An ongoing restoration seems to make little headway against the elements, although wrought-iron street lamps in classical style have gone up.
All along the shore are the worn remains of square baths—known as the “Elysian Fields”—hewn from the rocks below the seawall, originally with separate areas for men, women, and negros. These Baños del Mar preceded construction of the Malecón. Each is about four meters square and two meters deep, with rock steps for access and a couple of portholes through which the waves wash in and out.
The Malecón offers a microcosm of Havana life: the elderly walking their dogs; the shiftless selling cigars and cheap sex to tourists; the young passing rum among friends; fishermen tending their lines and casting off on giant inner tubes (neumáticos); and always, scores of couples courting and necking.
The Malecón—the setting for spontaneous riots in the early 1990s—is also a barometer of the political state of Havana. During times of tension, the police presence is abnormally strong and the Malecón becomes eerily empty.
Every October 26, schoolchildren are bused here to throw flowers over the seawall in memory of revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos, killed in a mysterious air crash on that day in 1959.
The Malecón continues into municipio Plaza de la Revolución. There it runs along the bulging, wave-battered shorefront of northern Vedado, curling from La Rampa in the east to the Río Almendares in the west, a distance of three miles.
The sidewalk is pitted underfoot, but a stroll its full length makes for good exercise while taking in such sights as the Monumento Calixto García (Malecón y Av. de los Presidentes), featuring a bronze figure of the 19th-century rebel general on horseback; the Hotel Habana Riviera (Malecón y Paseo), opened by the Mafia in 1958 and recently remodeled to show off its spectacular modernist lobby; and the Torreón de Santa Dorotea de la Luna de la Chorrera (Malecón y Calle 20), a small fortress built in 1762 to guard the mouth of the Río Almendares. Immediately beyond “La Chorrera,” the Restaurante 1830 features a Gaudí-esque garden that includes a dramatic cupola and a tiny island—Isla Japonesa—in Japanese style.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition