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  • Submitted by: lena campos
  • 11 / 18 / 2012

More than 2 million Cubans on Friday celebrated the 493rd anniversary of the founding of their capital city of Havana with cultural festivals and official ceremonies.

San Cristobal de La Habana, as it is officially called, was the fifth village founded on the island by Spanish settlers on Nov. 16, 1519.

The founding was marked with a mass conducted by Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas under a mahogany tree near the coast, and attended by the residents and authorities of the newfound village.

A neoclassic building called "Templete," or small temple, was erected at that very spot centuries later and is visited by thousands of Cubans and foreigners each year on the eve of the city's anniversary.

Tradition calls for visitors to walk three times around the tree while casting coins towards its base to get a wish fulfilled, and as in past years, people lined up since Thursday midnight for their turns to make their wishes come true.

Havana originated from another city founded in 1514 about 50 km south of the capital's current location, which is now called Batabano. Five years later residents decided to move northwards along the coast to a more propitious site on a calm bay and near clean rivers.

After moving north, the city's name was changed to Havana, derived from the native Indian chief Habaguanex, who helped the Spanish settlers establish their new village.

The bay and its excellent harbor conditions for sheltering vessels were discovered and described in 1508 by Sebastian de Ocampo, the first Spaniard to circle the island. Ocampo docked in what would become Havana Bay to repair his two ships.

Storied Havana is home to 2 million residents, many of whom migrated from other parts of Cuba, and draws annually numerous tourists.

Ninety percent of the 2.5 million foreign visitors who travel to Cuba each year explore the Cuban capital, and 95 percent of them stay in Havana's Historic Center.

The center has changed in recent years, with shops, restaurants and cafes opening up as the government promotes self-employment and small-scale entrepreneurs.

The streets and avenues are now more crowded with old U.S.-made cars from other provinces, since the government allowed an increase of private taxis. Smog is also on the rise, as many of these old gas guzzlers are run on black-market gasoline, kerosene or even cooking oil.

Still, 493 years later, Havana continues to be the same cosmopolitan center where diverse traditions and cultures meld, especially the Spanish, African and Caribbean.


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