Visit Havana’s 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 10am-10pm, entrance CUC6 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.

Cannons lined up along the ramparts of Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña in Havana, Cuba.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña is located inside the imposing Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña castle complex. Photo © vcheregati, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Built 1763-1774 following the English invasion, it 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 complex was looking deteriorated at my most recent visit.

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, followed by 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: 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. The Ceremonía del Cañonazo (cannon-firing ceremony, CUC6) is held nightly at 8:30pm, when troops dressed in 18th-century military garb and led by fife and drum light the fuse of a cannon to announce the closing of the city gates, maintaining a tradition going back centuries. The soldiers prepare the cannon with ramrod and live charge. When the soldier puts the torch to the cannon at 9pm, you have about three seconds before the thunderous boom. It’s all over in a millisecond, and the troops march away. Opening to the plaza is a small chapel with a baroque facade and charming vaulted interior. Immediately ahead, a now derelict building served as the headquarters for Che Guevara following the Triunfo del Revolución; here, he set up his tribunals for “crimes against the security of the state.”

Plaza de Armas, centered on a grassy, tree-shaded park fronted by a 400-meter-long curtain wall.
Plaza de Armas, centered on a grassy, tree-shaded park fronted by a 400-meter-long curtain wall. Photo © Peter Collins, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Facing the plaza on its north side is the Museo de Fortificaciones y Armas. The museum (thick-walled, vaulted storage rooms, or bovedas) traces the castle’s development and features uniforms and weaponry from the colonial epoch, including a representation of a former prison cell, plus suits of armor and weaponry that span the ancient Arab and Asian worlds and stretch back through medieval times to the Roman era.

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 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. Following the Revolution, scores of Batista supporters and “counterrevolutionaries” met a similar fate.

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