Havana's famous Malecón, sheltered by a sea wall, runs west for 7 km (4 mi) from La Punta (where it's also known as Avenida Antonio Maceo) and the harbor's entrance to the Santa Dorotea de Luna de la Chorrera fortress, near the mouth of the Río Almendares. Although it was designed in 1857 by a Cuban engineer, it wasn't built until 1902, thanks, in part, to the American capital that flowed to the island after the Spanish-American War. Once an opulent promenade flanked
by brightly painted houses, the Malecón today is dark and dilapidated, the houses crumbling, and the wide limestone walkway broken and eroded. Yet it still has its charms. As it faces north, it offers spectacular views of both sunrise and sunset—perhaps accounting for the belief that there's not a single habanero who hasn't professed love eternal here at one time or another. Crashing waves and the rainbows created from their spray and the sun adds to the Malecón's magic.
As you walk, look for rectangles carved into the stone. These were once (and are still used as) sea baths, which fill at high tide and allowed people to splash about, safe from both currents and sharks. Just west of the Hotel Nacional you'll come to Monumento al Maine, honoring the 260 American sailors killed in the 1898 explosion of that U.S. warship, which was visiting Havana in a display of American might. Although the Spanish did all they could to immediately help the seamen, American officials and the press accused them of destroying the vessel. Cuban and Spanish historians believe that the explosion was deliberately planned by the Americans to justify U.S. intervention in the ongoing Second War of Independence. American historians maintain that the explosion was either accidental or provoked by Cuban annexationists. Though the explosion appears to have happened inside the vessel, as clearly indicated by the outward eruption of the steel hull, no definitive proof has ever been established. The event did, in any case, lead to what the United States calls the Spanish-American War (for Cubans this was the final stage of their War of Independence, which began in 1868) followed by a period of heavy U.S. involvement in Cuban affairs. A plaque dedicated by the Castro government here reads: "to the victims of the maine, who were sacrificed by imperialist voracity in its eagerness to seize the island of cuba".
Farther along, where Calle L runs into the Malecón, is the U.S. Interests Section, the de facto embassy. Until the Elián Gonzalez crisis, a giant billboard facing it depicted a Cuban soldier shaking a rifle at Uncle Sam (who peers across from Florida), with the Cuban soldier shouting: "Señores Imperialistas: No les tenemos absolutamente ningún miedo" ("Señores Imperialists: We are not in the least bit afraid of you"). During the long battle over Elián's "kidnapping" by his Miami relatives and the long process of his repatriation (upon which, for once, the governments of Cuba and the United States wholeheartedly agreed), an entire stage, theater, and propaganda venue was built here to host massive rallies demanding Elián's return and generally whipping Cuban nationalism up to a pearly froth. What you now see here is an elongated outdoor stage with an elaborate lighting and sound system called Forum Anti-Imperialista José Martí.
In keeping with its history as a place of demonstration, since 2006 a forest of 138 black flags with the Cuban star inscribed fly in plain view of the workers of the U.S. representation office. From the perspective of the Cuban government, the flags represent each victim who lost his or her life at the hands of the United States government in various affront taken over the years to destabilize the Cuban regime.
When you reach the Santa Dorotea de Luna de la Chorrera (La Chorrera) fortress—built in 1643 and named for the wife of Governor Alvaro de Luna and for the Río Almendares, or chorrera (stream)—be sure to stop in its restaurant for a meal or a mojito.