Are you one of the lucky ones going on a legal Cuba tour? If so, you will want to go to San Cristobal de La Cabana Fortress for the cannon firing ceremony. Whether you go on your own or convince your guide to take you, be sure to get there well before 9 in the evening as it can turn into a very crowded event.
I went to the “canonazo” on my first Cuba trip in 1997. At that time, I was finishing my Ph.D. in political science and I was very focused on Cold War militarism and the Cuban Revolution. What a surprise to see this surviving relic from Havana’s colonial history. I thought it was the last tradition that a revolutionary communist or socialist government (your pick) would want to preserve. But I’m so glad they did!
The cannon firing ritual began at the end of the 17th century when Spanish colonial officials needed a way to notify Havana’s residents that the walls protecting the city were about to open or close. At that time, a shot was fired from a cannon situated on a battleship in the port.
Each morning, a shot was fired at 4:30 AM to let inhabitants know that the gates were opening and ready for people and merchandise to flow in and out of the city’s walls.
Almost 16 hours later, at 8:30 PM, a second shot was fired. This let the people of Havana know that they should be inside the walls if they didn’t want to be shut out of the city’s core until the following dawn.
Firing was relocated to San Carlos de La Cabana Fortress when construction on it was completed in 1774.
By the second half of the 19th century, the city had expanded far beyond the port area. Commerce was booming and the city’s gates were a barrier to movement. Still, even after the city walls were demolished, the cannon firing survived.
Note: Those of you interested in more detailed scholarly background on Havana and Cuba will want to check out the Havana Project for lots of in-depth information.
At the end of the 19th century, the number of daily cannon blasts was reduced to one and set for 9 PM. The firing has remained (more or less ) unchanged to the present day.
In 1986, the cannon firing became a bit more of a tourist spectacle with a re-enaction of the actual ritual of the Spanish Infantry Regiment. During today’s ceremony, bags of jute are fired by the cannons to recreate the shots once fired by real cannon balls.
Just as an aside: although the cannon is always fired at precisely 9:00 PM, you will hear the noise 4.3 seconds later if you are staying at the Parque Central and 9.7 seconds later if you are staying at the Hotel Nacional. If you are on a Cuba tour, be sure to listen for it!
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.