Eastern Cuba, the 'Oriente', embraces some of the most stunning scenery to be found anywhere in the Caribbean. Gorgeous coastlines, imposing mountains, and colourful cities make this one of Cuba's highlights.
Tucked between the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and Gran Piedra, Santiago de Cuba is set beside the Caribbean across a fine bay. Looking down from the hills, you are presented with a fabulous view of blue sea, forest-clad mountains, and a city clothed in bougainvillea and flamboyán trees.
The city's streets climb up from the harbour to a small historic quarter dating from colonial times, with a fine cathedral set on a grand square, the Parque Céspedes. The older streets radiate from the square, their grand buildings in colonial baroque and neoclassical styles testifying to past wealth from sugar and slaves. The city grew to a considerable size, with leafy avenues serving suburbs that flourished in bourgeois years before the revolution. Times are much harder these days, but Santiago thrives on its good-humoured resilience and an appetite for life itself.
Santiago was Cuba's capital for a few decades until it was decided that Havana had the better harbour. There has been a rivalry ever since, with Santiago considering itself more essentially 'Cuban' than Spanish and American-influenced Havana. Accordingly it was Santiago that led the way to independence from Spain in the 1870s and against the Batista regime in the Revolution.
Santiago's character is different in other ways too. This is Cuba's most 'Caribbean' city, with vibrant African influences, a busy carnival, its own styles of music and dance, and an important role for the cult of Santería. European influences include strong French elements from immigrants who resettled here from Haiti.
Among the sites, Santiago offers the beautiful House of Diego Velasquez, which holds a museum of Cuba's social history in creakingly atmospheric rooms that look out through traceried shutters onto the main square. The Museo del Carnaval is a fun place, with examples of masks, costumes and instruments; there are lively dance exhibitions here on many afternoons. An assortment of other museums, many dusty, include the houses of notable Santiagueros, a rum museum, and the Ortiz centre of African culture. Santiago's key role in the early days of the revolutionary struggle are honoured in the Museo Frank Pais, the house of one of Castro's earliest (and youngest) adherents who led the 30 November 1956 uprising, and the Museo de Lucha Clandestina marking the uprising itself, set in a beautiful courtyarded house. Details of Fidel's attack on the Moncada garrison are force-fed to visitors at a museum on that site. More light-hearted is the Classic Car Museum which 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 June. Several small art galleries are worth calling at.
Santiago's musical heritage is second to none, with plenty to explore in this domain too. Its Casa de Trova is among the best, and there are many other venues around town. Cuban son, which underlies most of today's Latin music styles, including salsa, is said by many to have originated in or around Santiago. Son is at the heart of the music of Buena Vista Social Club - whose stars Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer hailed from this part of Cuba.
Some international flights touch down in Holguín, 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 museums and 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, but even so this is not a town to spend long in.
Holguín province has a fascinating history going back to Taino times at least. It is also the birthplace of the Castro brothers and of Batista, the dictator they overthrew.
Nearby Gibara, now a simple fishing village, was originally the main town for the region. Some of its grander houses echo its previous rank.
Baracoa, near the most easterly point of the island, was accessible only by sea until the 1960s. Columbus stopped here during his second voyage and wrote in his log 'this is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen'. It is still an enchanting spot. Bayamo is a welcoming town whose people value their degree of independence from mainstream Cuba. The scenery and beaches around it are lovely, and the road from Baracoa to Santiago (built on Ché's orders) is spectacular. Chocolate, coffee, coconut palms and tropical fruits grow in abundance, though the difficulty of reaching markets elsewhere on the island keeps the area poor.
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. It is the birthplace of Carlos Manuel Céspedes considered the 'father of the Nation'. who was the first plantation owner to liberate his slaves. He also began the Cuban independence movement against the Spanish crown. Clearly not the sort of people to be taken lightly, Bayamo's citizens burnt their town down during the independence struggle, rather than hand it to the Spanish.
If you're here on a Sunday you will see locals playing chess or dominoes around the main square. You'd be welcome to try your hand if you've a spare ten minutes and don't mind a drubbing.
An area of considerable natural beauty and a must-see location on the revolutionary trail. 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 right across the mountains to the Caribbean from Santo Domingo, a journey of several days with some pretty rough camping.
The busy little market town of Mayarí, below the Sierra Cristal, marks the start of stunning scenery for those driving east around the coast. At Pinares de Mayarí there are some good country walks in pine-forested hills. Coffee is one of the area's main crops. A bumpy drive on country lanes brings you to Birán, birthplace of the Castro brothers, now a museum.
Guantánamo is a typical everyday Cuban town that might not hold your interest for long en route between Baracoa and Santiago on the lovely La Farola road. It's quite odd to find a US naval base here. If you do stop, then look for the genuine Russian sputnik opposite the Guantánamo Hotel: an unsubtle raspberry to the US from the early days of the space race.
With eyes half-closed you can imagine a peasant girl (a guajira) from these parts (so a guajira Guantanamera) breaking the heart of 1920s crooner, Joseíto Fernández. Now you'll be humming that tune for the rest of the day.