The current Havana area and its natural bay were first visited by Europeans during Sebastián de Ocampo's circumnavigation of the island, in 1509. Shortly thereafter, in 1510, the first Spanish colonists arrived from Hispaniola and began the conquest of Cuba.
Conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded Havana on August 25, 1515 on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó. Between 1514 and 1519, the city had at least two different establishments. All attempts to found a city on Cuba's south coast failed. The city's location was adjacent to a superb harbor at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, and with easy access to the Gulf Stream, the main ocean current that navigators followed when traveling from the Americas to Europe. This location led to Havana’s early development as the principal port of Spain's New World colonies. An early map of Cuba drawn in 1514 places the town at the mouth of the river Onicaxinal, also on the south coast of Cuba. Another establishment was La Chorrera, today in the neighbourhood of Puentes Grandes, next to the Almendares River.
The final establishment, commemorated by El Templete, was the sixth town founded by the Spanish on the island, called San Cristobal de la Habana by Pánfilo de Narváez: the name combines San Cristóbal, patron saint of Havana, and Habana, of obscure origin, possibly derived from Habaguanex, an Indian chief who controlled that area, as mentioned by Diego Velasquez in his report to the king of Spain. A legend relates that Habana was the name of Habaguanex's beautiful daughter, but no known historical source corroborates this version.
Havana moved to its current location next to what was then called Puerto de Carenas (literally, "Careening Bay"), in 1519. The quality of this natural bay, which now hosts Havana's harbor, warranted this change of location. Bartolomé de las Casas wrote:
...one of the ships, or both, had the need of careening, which is to renew or mend the parts that travel under the water, and to put tar and wax in them, and entered the port we now call Havana, and there they careened so the port was called de Carenas. This bay is very good and can host many ships, which I visited few years after the Discovery... few are in Spain, or elsewhere in the world, that are their equal...
Shortly after the founding of Cuba's first cities, the island served as little more than a base for the Conquista of other lands. Hernán Cortés organized his expedition to Mexico from here. Cuba, during the first years of the Discovery, provided no immediate wealth to the conquistadores, as it was poor in gold, silver and precious stones, and many of its settlers moved to the more promising lands of Mexico and South America that were being discovered and colonized at the time. The legends of Eldorado and the Seven Cities of Gold attracted many adventurers from Spain, and also from the adjacent colonies, leaving Havana and the rest of Cuba largely unpopulated.