One cannot say "I've been to Holguin", if one hasn’t gone up the 458 steps that link this beautiful Cuban city with the top of its most famous tourist destination: "La Loma de la Cruz" (hill of the cross). It is a physical challenge, a struggle to not be beaten by Cuba’s tallest stairway, and also a unique journey of spiritual enrichment…
The symbolic elevation of the so-called "Ciudad de los Parques" (city of parks), is named after the large wooden cross that one of its founders, Good Fray Antonio de Alegrías, carried on his back to its final location on May, 1790. That 270-metres-high ascension was recorded as an act of faith. Unwittingly, the monk laid the foundations for a tradition that lasts until the present day.
As it’s often the case, going up this hill became a cultural tradition, a sort of rite of passage and a symbol of identity for the city dwellers. There is a road that takes you straight to the top of the hill; but the more challenging (and more fun) way to do it is by climbing the granite stairway, just like I did.
Tips for the adventure
It might initially look like a daunting task, but going up La Loma de la Cruz is attainable even for sedentary people. However, it’s still not appropriate for pregnant women and people with heart conditions. As I said earlier, you can get to the top on a car, but you can’t park there; instead you’ll have to leave your car at a distance of around 100 metres from the very top.
Getting to the foot of the hill from Calixto Garcia Park is easy. Just take one of the local "bicitaxis", which are different from most other ones in the rest of Cuba in that they only take one passenger and are basically a bicycle with a sort of sidecar. The tour is short and cheap – between $0.50 and $1.00 CUC-, and the driver usually gives you useful tips about the climb.
How to make the steep climb enjoyable and fun
First tip: Take a lot of water with you, as much as it’s comfortable for you to carry along the journey. The slope is very steep and around the foot of the hill there are no shops or cafeterias to stop at for a bottle of water.
On the way up, you will find benches to rest in, but no vegetation to shelter from the sun. Therefore, the best time to go is early in the morning or at sundown. Whichever way you do it or whatever the time, just take it easy, don´t worry about stopping for a break or taking pictures.
If you are particularly athletic or sporty, you can join the dozens of tourists who go up and down the steps running or jogging. The steps are wide enough not to bump into anybody as you go.
On the way up, you will discover many new sides to the beautiful city of Holguin, a city that opens itself up to you, little by little, step by step.
At the feet of the cross
La Loma de la Cruz has changed a lot since the first climb ever recorded there and done by Fray de Alegrias. The cross that towers over the hill now is not the original but a third version, carved like the original on caguairán, a very hard local wood: a symbol of the zone for its strength and abundance.
You will never find yourself alone on top of the hill. Visitors come here in all seasons, at all times, tempted by the challenge of the climb. The panoramic view at the top is amazing. It’s at this point that visitors get to feel really tall as they tower over the city which peacefully lies at their feet, surrounded by mountains. You make it there breathless and sweating, but happy to have made it, happy to say you have now officially been to Holguin…
Reasons for doing the climb
Once upon a time people used to climb the hill during Mass processions, to fulfil a promise or to enjoy the open-air festival held at the top in May, during the religious pilgrimage called Romerias de Mayo. Eventually, it became a popular feat, made easier and more accessible with the construction of the stairway, paid for with the money locally collected by the townspeople. This helped turn a strenuous climb and arduous hike uphill into a long and joyful (albeit steep) stroll .
Going up the hill nowadays, but more notoriously in May, is like going to a party. The open-air festival, known as Las Romerias de Mayo, brings together the new generations of artists from all over the world in an intense Youth Festival, which kicks off with people going up the hill while carrying a gigantic aboriginal axe on their shoulders.
But any day is a good day to climb this sort of stairway to heaven in Holguin. At the top there is a bar-cafeteria, with cheap prices, where you can get something to wet your whistle. The menu is not what you would call exactly varied, but you don´t really go up there to eat, but to enjoy wonderful scenic views. It´s a place where people go to have a good time with their family, take pictures under the protection of the sacred cross, or a selfie as a testimony of this adventure.