I recently spent some time in Havana, and immediately fell in love with the city’s energy and rhythm, the way the city pulses at night with music and life, and the way it attacks your senses by day. It is loud and lively and wonderful, and broken and sad and exhausting. It is everything rolled into one, and it gets under your skin.
But while La Habana Vieja charmed me, and the signs of revolution and socialism intrigued me, it was the Malecón that touched me more than anything else. This boulevard and seawall stretches along the city’s waterfront for eight kilometres, sweeping past both Havana’s old city and modern core before ending at the Alamandares river and the tunnel that leads to the leafy, luxurious streets of Miramar. But it’s also more than just a seawall. It is the city’s “sofa,” where people come each evening to share a sunset, a drink, a snack or a kiss.
Time and the ocean have hit the Malecón hard: the salt-filled air has damaged the colonial buildings; many are crumbling with peeling façades, and some are collapsing to the ground altogether. The walkway is broken in spots, too—another victim of the ocean’s elements.
The Malecón—officially known as Avenida Antonio Maceo—follows the moods of the ocean that surrounds Cuba. On days when the water is rough and temperamental, waves splash up and over the concrete seawall. They break in large bursts, exploding over the edge and onto the road, and sometimes onto the children who dare to tempt the waters, leaping out of the path and risking being sprayed by a force that will push them to the ground.
But when the ocean is calm, the Malecón is a welcome respite from the chaos of Havana’s streets. The road itself is hectic, with six lanes of traffic whipping past in what seems like a free-for-all of road rules. But along the Muro de Malecón, it’s a gathering place at the end of the day.
The Malecón is called “Havana’s sofa,” and as the sun begins to set over the Atlantic—casting an orange-pink glow over the Malecón’s crumbling buildings—locals and tourists gather along the seawall, bringing with them picnics of meat and cheese sandwiches and bottles of beer or rum. They sit along the wall, looking out over the ocean in groups—friends laughing, children playing, lovers kissing. For kilometre after kilometre, a line of people sits along this concrete barrier, all of them linked together like a human braid.
It was hot and still during my stay in Havana. Each night, the ocean was quiet in the humidity and the Malecón tempted me, encouraging me to stay longer, the sight of friends and strangers and lovers all as one lulling me into the moment of simply being there, present, in Havana.
On my final day, the winds picked up and the ocean went wild. As my taxi sped along the Malecón, taking me to the airport and my flight home to Toronto, vicious waves soared up and over the seawall, crashing against the road in a violent display of power, water splattering on our windshield. Evening was approaching and the sun was low in the sky. But the people were gone. The party had ended. It was as if the Malecón—and Cuba—was saying goodbye.
This article originally appeared on TravelandEscape.ca.