'Wonder City' Havana celebrates 500th anniversary
By Raul Menchaca

HAVANA, Nov. 15 (Xinhua) -- As Cuba's capital celebrates its 500th anniversary of its founding on Nov. 16, 1519, residents and visitors alike reflect on what makes Havana unique.


File photo: CGTN

"It has a captivating beauty in what can be seen and what cannot," said Havana historian Eusebio Leal.

Leal has been instrumental in the renovation of the city and its numerous colonial-era monuments, including the Morro Castle of the Three Kings, which dominates the entrance to the bay.

"It's not for nothing that visitors come from all over the world. They come because we have a beautiful city," said Yamile Delgado, who works for a state-run company working on the renovation of the historic old quarter.

Anette Acosta came to Havana to study history at the University of Havana, but stayed on after completing her degree and now works at the House of Asia.

"Living in Havana has changed me," said Acosta, who used to live in the town of Guines, southeast of the capital, in the nearby province of Mayabeque.

First-time visitor Marta Lopez, traveling from her native city Barcelona with a friend on a two-week vacation, underscored "the hospitality and joy of the people in Havana."

Katherine Bonner, a French national who arrived in Cuba two days ago, also for the first time, said she was "a little overwhelmed by the heat, but very eager to see everything and try the specialties of local cuisine."

Havana's renovation began in December 1982, in which year the Historic Center of the city was elected a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

But restoration work, designed to rescue the historical and cultural landmarks that draw visitors from around the globe, was kicked into high gear as the city's quincentennial celebrations came near.

On a smaller scale, each year on Nov. 16, residents gather to mark the anniversary of Havana based on the legend of the first mass and council meeting held in the city, at the foot of a mahogany tree. A memorial building was erected at the site in 1828.

Thousands of Havana residents gather to walk around the tree counterclockwise and, as tradition dictates, make three wishes.

Renovation work has been critical to a city that has suffered decades of acute economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of U.S. hostility.

One of the iconic features to benefit from the restoration programs is the malecon, or seafront promenade. It hugs the city's coastline for 8 km, drawing Cubans and foreigners, especially at sunset, to enjoy the view and sea breeze.

"Havana is a 'Wonder City' for so many reasons, for its people, for its buildings, for its great history, for how hospitable it is," said tour guide Alejandro Gonzalez.