By Mayté Solano Gómez

Havana bay
Havana bay

Havana is the capital of Cuba. In this cosmopolitan city not only converge cultures and customs from many countries, but also different periods. It has a historical, architectural and cultural heritage very attractive for tourists, with other contemporary elements. All this and the Cuban people itself, are the factors that differentiate and make this nation unique.

The historical center of Havana is considered the main focus of tourism in this city, both for nationals and foreigners. Declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1982, it is one of the best preserved in Latin America. The existing system of squares and fortifications attest to this.

Defense against corsairs and pirates

Havana was attacked by corsairs and pirates for the first time in 1537. From that moment on it was permanently besieged, looted and burned by them. The construction of fortifications for the defense of the town was essential. Among the first ones built are the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and the Fort of San Salvador de la Punta.

However, the limitations of these fortifications were evident, while the Cabaña hill remained abandoned. Around 1757, the Spanish engineer José Abarca proposed the design of a square-plan castle with bastions at the corners for the fortification of this area. However, the procedures for its approval were delayed over time. Just 5 years later, this was the gap that the English troops took advantage of, in 1762, to attack El Morro, ending the event with the surrender of Havana. It is then that King Carlos III orders the fortification of this high bank immediately.

San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress

Named in honor of the King of Spain at that time, Carlos III, its construction began in 1763, under the direction of the military engineer Silvestre Abarca. He was the brother of the original designer, already deceased. The combination of the novelty of the design, the strategic position of the fortress and its great extension determined that, at the end of its construction in 1774, it was the largest Spanish fortification in America.

About 2,000 men worked on the uprising, primarily slaves and prisoners. The cost of its construction approached fourteen million pesos and it´s said that it aroused the curiosity of King Carlos III, who asked for glasses to see it because “a work that had cost so much, had to be seen from Madrid.”

Furthermore, from the military point of view, the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña marked a milestone in the defensive system of the time. It had a great military capacity, determined by the amount and power of the weapons, as well as by the preparation of the officers and soldiers. For example, between 1859 and 1863 the number of cannons increased from 120 to 245. There were also bronze howitzers of different calibers and other short-range light weapons.

The fortress, from a constructive point of view, has an eclectic style, so that it contains patterns of Italian, Dutch and French engineering. It is surrounded by land by two moats, while by the bay it is protected by a cliff. It has in its interior the parade ground and the barracks, with ramps and circulation streets for the troops. At one end of the western barracks was the chapel, with its elegant cover.

San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress
The San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress is surrounded by land by two moats.

Towards the 20th century, the fortification no longer had a defensive function, so it was used as a warehouse, troop accommodation and prison. After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, in 1959, Che’s headquarters was established in the Cabaña.

Currently in San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress

In 1986 the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña was restored, culminating this work in 1992. It reopens its doors as Morro Cabaña Military Historical Park. Its facilities currently house the Weapons Museum, the Che Commandery Museum and a Monographic Museum, which tells the history of the fortress.

It is also a space for important cultural events in Cuba, such as the International Book Fair and the Havana Plastic Arts Biennial, as well as occasionally other fairs such as Tourism.

Foreign tourist can also find here the ideal souvenir, since a large number of artisan artists gather daily in the cobbled streets of the fortress, to show and sale their handicrafts.

The 9 pm cannon shot, the main attraction

Undoubtedly, one of the main attractions that can be enjoyed in the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, both by nationals and foreign tourists, is the 9 pm Cannon shot ceremony. Every night a cannonball is fired. However, this ceremony does not begin at that time, but about 40-45 minutes before … even, centuries before …

Centuries ago …

Between 1673 and 1740 a wall was built around Havana to complement the defense provided by the fortresses. Hence, the city was divided into Havana intramural and Havana extramural. To allow the passage from one side to the other, 2 doors were initially used, but taking into account the length of the wall, these came to be 9. They were opened every day at 4.30 in the morning and closed at 8.00 at night. On each occasion the inhabitants of the city were warned with a cannon shot, which was fired from a boat in the bay. So, whoever was surprised by the discharge from the other side of the wall, had to stay there until dawn, despite the rigors of time or the criminals.

In 1774, when the construction of the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress was completed, the ceremony began to take place from this fortification. In 1863, the wall that surrounded the city was demolished (some remains can still be seen). However, the ceremony remained. Over the years, the time also changed from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., eliminating the early morning shot in 1898.

The 9 o’clock cannon shot only ceased during World War II, between June 24, 1942 and December 1, 1945, when it was suspended to save gunpowder and protect the city’s location and the only time it sounded later, without even knowing the cause, it was in September 1902, when the traditional shot was made 30 minutes after the established.

The 9pm Cannon shot ceremony today

The Cannon Shot ceremony is currently performed by a squad of artillery cadets dressed in colonial style and with a piece from the 18th century. Using a ¨pregón¨ (type of proclamation), the act begins with a call to silence, with the participation of an officer, a drummer, a standard bearer, several gunners and a lamplighter who sings the story of the cannon shot.

Cannon Shot ceremony in San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress
Cannon Shot ceremony in San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress is currently performed by a squad of artillery cadets dressed in colonial style

The performance is carried out from the Battery of Ceremonies of the fortress, made up of 21 bronze pieces from the 18th century, each one beautifully decorated and named: Solano, Luperto, La Parca, Ganímedes, Capitolino … and although they can launch a spherical bullet of solid iron up to 800 meters, in the show fake shots are fired to fall within a short distance.

And despite the warning of the drums rumble or from other visitors who have already witnessed the ceremony before, when the cannon shot sounds with timed precision, just at 9 p.m., no one can avoid the shock.

Cannon shot ceremony, in San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress
When the cannon shot sounds with timed precision, just at 9 p.m., no one can avoid the shock.
Cannon shot ceremony, in San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress
Cannon shot ceremony, in San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress

It is assured that the sound of the Cannon shot reaches the entire Havana; taking four seconds to the Capitol, 13 to Paseo Street, in Vedado; 19 to the Loma del Mazo, in the Vibora; 32 to Marianao; 36 to Cubanacán, formerly Country Club. In Santiago de las Vegas, near the José Martí International Airport, arrives a minute later.

Some recommendations.

Although the Cannon Shot ceremony begins shortly before 9 p.m., it is advisable to arrive at the site at least around 7.30 p.m. This way, you can have a better location to enjoy the show. Every day, both nationals and foreigners delight in the act, which is why it is always well attended. If you go on weekdays there may be less audience.

In any case, arriving before will never mean a lost time, since you can enjoy the sunset, the beautiful view of the bay of Havana and part of the city (you should bear in mind that, between October and April, the sunset occurs shortly before 6 in the afternoon). The photos from here are really beautiful and amazing.

To get to the Morro Cabaña complex you can do it by taxi, if you go through the tunnel of the Havana bay, one of the 7 wonders of Cuban civil engineering. Another route, although longer, is by the little boat of Regla, where you can visit the Cristo de la Habana, another point of interest that offers a spectacular view of the bay and the city. On the way back, this last option is not available, but you will always find numerous taxis that will provide you with the transportation service for a reasonable price.

The option of a guided tour is equally attractive, with the advantage of having not only the company of someone from the city, but also transportation in both directions. At Casa Prado Colonial you can find help to organize this experience, either through advice and recommendations or with transportation or tour management.

Casa Prado Colonial in old Havana
At Casa Prado Colonial you can find help to organize a visit to San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress and enjoy the Cannon shot ceremony