Cuba travel guide:
Tropical primary colours, mixed with palm trees and richly forested mountains.
Eastern Cuba, Oriente, embraces some of the most stunning scenery to be found on the island or anywhere in the Caribbean.
The Sierra Maestra, the highest mountain range in Cuba, stretches west of Santiago de Cuba towards Santo Domingo, north towards Bayamo and east towards Gran Piedra and Guantanamo. Its richly forested slopes are an imposing backdrop to the colourful fertile valleys and deep blue seas beyond.
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city, lies deep within the embrace of the mountains and is the most Caribbean of all Cuba’s cities. Beyond Guantanamo, the mountains become almost rainforest as you climb the Farola towards Baracoa, first port of call for the Spanish conquistadores almost six centuries ago. It is hard to resist the charms of Oriente.
Some international flights touch down in Holguin, which happily makes a good place for a first night in Cuba. It is a genteel city of colonnaded squares and gardens with a friendly atmosphere: a pleasant place to explore in an unruffled way. There are several museums and some interesting churches to see in the day, while in the evening there is nothing nicer than to sit in one of the squares and watch the townspeople go by.
Holguin province has a fascinating history going back to at least Taino Indian times. It is also the birthplace of the Castro brothers and of Batista, the dictator they overthrew.
Nearby Gibara is a simple fishing village, which was originally the main town for the region. Some of its grander houses echo its previous rank.
A good way to begin a holiday in Cuba is to drive from Holguin to Baracoa via Maguana beach. You then continue from Baracoa on La Farola, a winding road through the mountains, to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s most Caribbean city and the home of son.
All tucked-in and snug beneath the Sierra Maestra mountain range, the city of Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s most Caribbean city. Approaching from the Carretera Central and looking down over the city, you are presented with a completely fabulous view of blue sea, deep green forest-clad mountains, and a city set in bougainvillea and flamboya trees. It would be a paradise were it not for the 1950s Russian style apartment blocks in the Garzon district that dominate the skyline. The more interesting Melia Santiago Hotel reminds one of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
This is a city of contrasts. A contest between nature and diesel fumes, between the decorum of colonial buildings and the concrete brutalism of the Avenida de las Americas, and between the noise of traffic and the music of son.
The villas and gardens of Sueno and Reparto Alegre and the mango-lined road to El Caney, 5 kms outside the city, recall the city’s richer, bourgeois past, based on agriculture. Walking through the centre of the city, it is impossible to ignore its deep poverty today, easily perceived through lively open windows yet tempered by the inimitable Cuban character and good humour of its residents.
Santiago has featured large in the island’s history from the Spanish conquest to present day, so there is plenty to see and explore. If the museum of the Spanish American War doesn’t appeal then the Classic Car Museum might tempt you. It houses the Castro family’s cars among many others. Most are still roadworthy and are taken out for a rally as part of the Expo Caribe in early June.
Santiago’s musical heritage is second to none, so there is plenty to explore in this domain too. Look also for the impressive modernist memorial to Antonio Maceo on the Plaza de la Revolucion.
Baracoa was inaccessible by road until the 1960s and is still an enchanting
and welcoming town whose people value their degree of independence from
mainstream Cuba. The scenery and beaches around Baracoa and the route from
Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba are spectacular. Chocolate, coffee, coconut palms
and tropical fruits grow in abundance, though the difficulty of reaching markets
elsewhere on the island kept the area poor.
One of Baracoa’s claims to fame is that Christopher Columbus landed here, waxing lyrical about the area’s beauty. A part of the cross that Columbus erected is displayed in the main church, with a copy at the beach of the Porto Santo Hotel just outside the town.
Bayamo, founded by Velasquez, is the proud capital of the province of Granma. It is a calm, typically Cuban town with immaculate colonial buildings and a rich history. Belying its quiet sobriety, Bayamo was an instigator of Cuba’s war of independence and also of the abolition of slavery on the island. Clearly not the sort of people to be taken lightly, during the independence struggle its inhabitants burnt down the original town rather than hand it over to the Spanish.
If you’re here on a Sunday you will see locals playing chess or dominoes around the main square. You might try your hand if you’ve a spare hour.
This is a must-see location for followers of the revolutionary trail and also
an area of great natural beauty. Situated amidst forests deep in the Sierra
Maestra, Castro and his guerrillas set themselves up here as a focus to inspire
the Cuban people towards their revolution. Their headquarters at La Plata can be
visited from here – a drive into the mountains in a Russian jeep followed by a
not too strenuous hike. You can also trek to the Caribbean Sea from Santo
Domingo, a journey of several days with some pretty rough camping.
Visiting Eastern Cuba
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Mayari and its surrounding countryside give you a first insight into the tropical treat you are about to experience during the Eastern Cuba part of your holiday/tour. At Pinares de Mayari there are some easy country walks to enjoy, with the pine-forested scenery sometimes more reminiscent of Switzerland than the tropics. Coffee is one of the area’s main crops.
It is not Guantanamo’s fault that it has become notorious. It’s a typical everyday Cuban town that might not keep your interest for long while you pause en route between Baracoa and Santiago on the lovely La Farola road.
If you do stop, then look for the genuine Russian sputnik opposite the Guantanamo Hotel. The countryside around Guantanamo supports some of the loveliest and richest tropical rainforest on the island. And, oh yes – because of Platt Amendment there’s also a US naval base here.
With eyes half closed you can imagine a peasant girl (a guajira) from these parts (so a Guantanamera) breaking the heart of 1920s crooner, Joselito Fernandez. Now you’ll be humming that tune for the rest of the day.
El Salton is a Cuba-style country-club resort with a natural pool. It’s actually quite a lovely rural retreat, in its way, where visitors without a doubt benefit the local community of tiny Cruce de los Banos nearby.
Playa las Colorados is not actually a beach, but a series of mangroves. More by accident than design, Fidel Castro and his men landed here on 25 November 1956 on their overloaded little boat, the ‘Granma’.
Today, when you walk along the long wooden footbridge towards the sea and see the impossible vegetation they had to combat - let alone Batista’s planes and army – it is clear that they believed in their cause and were willing to risk their lives for it.
The area also hosts a small attractive national park with some interesting rock carvings.
The little resort of Marea del Portillo is close by, reached from Santiago de Cuba by one of the most scenic roads in Cuba. At the time of writing this road has yet to be fully repaired after the 2005 hurricane and is usable only by 4x4 or bike. The state has promised to put this right, and we await news - meanwhile check locally.
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