Though the busy and buzzing capital of Havana or the laid-back beach paradise of Varadero may seem like obvious choices when planning a getaway to Cuba, these are certainly not the only wonderful destinations to visit within the tropical island. Those who wish to dig deeper into Cuba’s essence and unveil the many secrets of its history, culture and nature will find it impossible to leave out Cuba’s charming Eastern provinces.
It was in Eastern Cuba, specifically in the region of Bariay, Holguin, that Christopher Columbus landed when he discovered the island on his first trip to the American continent. Overwhelmed by the splendour of the verdant nature that surrounded him when he set foot in Cuba, Columbus said:
“This is the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen”.
Indeed, Cuba’s eastern region is home to some of the island’s most breath-taking flora and fauna. Its indigenous inhabitants (tainos) had reached an important level of development, which is why this region still possesses many traces of this culture. Moreover, Eastern Cuba was the place where Cubans began to fight for their freedom from the Spanish colonial yoke.
Those looking for a quick and useful guide to Eastern Cuba and its most interesting sites, will find useful tips on where to go and what to see within these charming provinces.
Camaguey is the name of both the largest province in Cuba and its capital city, named after the Indian chief of the old settlement which was established there previously. The city became prosperous through cattle and sugar, despite severe water shortages. To counteract this problem, the early settlers collected rainwater in large earthenware jars called "tinajones" which were unique to the city and which gave it its nickname “City of the Tinajones”. Even today these symbols of the city can be seen everywhere.
The narrow, somewhat haphazard streets – said by some to be deliberately designed that way in order to confuse pirates, who were regular visitors – give the city a real Spanish flavour and they are best explored on foot in order to fully appreciate the beautifully restored buildings. In 2008, Camaguey's well-preserved historical centre was made Cuba's ninth UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Plaza San Juan de Dios
An angular old cobblestoned square surrounded by brightly hued single-storey buildings dating from the 18th century, Plaza San Juan de Dios is one of Cuba’s most beautiful plazas. This landmark is also an excellent point to discover other important edifications, like the adjacent baroque church of San Juan de Dios, and the striking Moorish style museum of the same name, where the body of patriot Ignacio Agramonte was brought by the Spaniards after his death on the battlefield.
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria
Any exploration of Camaguey’s religious history should begin at its most important church, named for the city's patron saint. Rebuilt in the 19th century on the site of an earlier chapel dating from 1530, the cathedral was fully restored with funds raised from Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit. While not Camaguey's most eye-catching church, it is noted for its noble Christ statue that sits atop a craning bell tower. Visitors can climb the tower for 1 CUC.
Second only to Havana in its ballet credentials, the Camaguey Ballet Company, founded in 1971 by Fernando Alonso (ex-husband of number-one Cuban dancing diva, Alicia Alonso), is internationally renowned and performances are the talk of the town. Also of interest is the wonderful theatre building of 1850, ornamented with majestic chandeliers and stained glass.
Casa de Arte Jover
Camaguey is home to two of Cuba's most creative and prodigious contemporary painters, Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sanchez. Their magnificent home in Plaza Agramonte functions as a gallery and piece of art in its own right, with a slew of original pieces, resident chihuahuas and delightfully kitschy antiques on show. Guests can browse and purchase high-quality original art. The artists also keep a studio and showroom, the Estudio-Galeria Jover, in Plaza San Juan de Dios.
Elegant and old, this relatively hush city has been cast for time immemorial as the city that kick-started Cuban independence. The “Ciudad de los Coches” (city of horsecarts) is an easy-going, slow-paced place where the clip-clop of hooves follows wherever you go.
The town of Bayamo, founded in 1513 by Captain Diego Velazquez, was the cradle of Cuba’s National Anthem and also the birth place of Cuban patriot, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. Built in the colonial style, it has public squares, majestic mansions and a very old cathedral.
Plaza de la Revolucion.
One of Cuba's leafiest squares, Bayamo’s central meeting point is surrounded by pedestrian-only streets, making it a rare and peaceful spot. Despite its friendly airs and secondary role as the city's best outdoor music venue (orchestras regularly play here), the square is loaded with historical significance. Surrounded by grand monuments and big trees loaded with bird life at dusk, this square comprises bronze statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, hero of the First War of Independence, and a marble bust of Perucho Figueredo, with the lyrics of the Cuban national anthem (which he wrote), carved upon it.
Catedral de San Salvador de Bayamo
Since 1514, this site has been home to a church. The current construction dates from 1740 but got devastated in the 1869 fire, so much of what we can see nowadays results from building work in 1919. One original section surviving the fire is the "Capilla de la Dolorosa" with its gilded wooden altar. A highlight of the main church is the central arch, which exhibits a mural depicting the blessing of the Cuban flag in front of the revolutionary army on October 20, 1868. Outside, Plaza del Himno Nacional is where the Cuban national anthem, 'La Bayamesa' was sung for the first time in 1868.
Six blocks northeast of the bus station, opposite Plaza de la Patria, lies one of the Cuba's most impressive theatres. Constructed in 1982, the theatre was converted into its current function only in 2007. The vitrales (stained glass windows) in the lobby are sensational. Performances are usually presented on Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday.
Fabrica de los Coches
It's worth the jaunt to observe the goings-on at Cuba's only handcrafted coche (horse cart) production line. Most horse carts you'll see in Cuba are made of metal, but these are fashioned in wood and take far longer (up to three months per cart) to produce. You'll see horse carts in various stages of completion, meet the workers and be able to buy Bayamo's best souvenir: miniature model horse carts with incredible attention to detail. The big ones cost about 8000 pesos (325 CUC) and don't fit quite so well into a suitcase.
Bayamo's main shopping street was pedestrianized in the 1990s and reconfigured with benches and funky artwork. Here you'll find wax museum "Museo de Cera", various public utilities and plenty of Cuban-style commerce, including food stalls at night.
The nation’s fourth-largest city serves up authentic provincial Cuba. Holguin is a window to life in the interior: from the religious solemnity of the annual procession climbing Loma de la Cruz to the exuberant cheers pouring forth from the oversized baseball stadium. Lovingly nicknamed “la Ciudad de los Parques” (the city of parks), Holguin is an immaculate and peaceful city, close to the popular beach hub of Guardalavaca.
Ciudad de los Parques and Parque Calixto Garcia
A marvellous way to get to know Holguin is through its numerous parks. Some of the most important ones include Parque Infantil, Parque San Jose, Parque San Isidoro, Parque Marti, Parque de las Flores and, perhaps the most revered and important, the Calixto Garcia park. Fringed with abundant leafy trees, this large park, named after one of the heroes of the Cuban War of Independence is a beautiful space close to other important landmarks and museums.
La Periquera History Museum
Situated on 198 Frexes Street, La Periquera History Museum used to be a warehouse until it was turned into a Casa de Gobierno, the official residence of Spanish governors, for centuries. The name of “La Periquera” (the parrot birdhouse) comes from a historic event during the War of Independence, where members of the Spanish troops dressed in red and bright yellow (similar to the colour of some parrots) hid from Cuban soldiers during a battle. Today this museum comprises important objects that depict Holguin’s history.
Loma de la Cruz
Set 261 metres above sea level, this majestic elevation is the city’s highest point. Climbing the 458 steps to the top is well worth the effort to observe the breath-taking panoramic vistas of Holguin. Atop a very much needed restaurant awaits to restore visitors with strength and energy. Its name derives from the cross that can be found at the top, a symbol of faith first placed on the top of the hill on 1790. The cross we can find today is not the original one (which was in a poorly state during the early 20th century) but the third cross that has been placed here, made from caguairan wood, which is abundant in the province’s vegetation.
For a relaxing and laid-back retreat, drifting from the city’s path to nearby Guardalavaca allows for a chance to unwind in one of the island’s most beautiful and pristine beaches. Though Guardalavaca boasts a much stronger tourist presence, this site is still quite tranquil in comparison to other beach destinations like Havana and Varadero.
Santiago de Cuba
Renowned as Cuba’s most Caribbean city, the sizzling Santiago de Cuba stands out for its rich cultural blend which has originated diverse musical genres from salsa and son to chachacha and rumba. The stifling heat, friendly locals, narrow uphill streets and colonial buildings make Santiago, once the country’s capital, a truly worthwhile visit.
Castillo San Pedro de la Roca del Morro
Built in 1638 to defend the port of Santiago de Cuba, the Castillo San Pedro de la Roca is a 60-metre high military fortress set in the entrance of the Santiago harbour, 10 kilometres to the southwest of the city. Declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, the city’s Castillo del Morro, is a wonderful spot to get a feel of the island’s history, tracing back to the time of colonizers and pirates, as well as observe breath-taking views of the blue sea beyond.
Santa Ifigenia Cementery
Created in 1868 to accommodate the victims of the War of Independence and a simultaneous yellow-fever outbreak, the Santa Ifigenia includes many great historical figures among its more than 8000 tombs, notably the mausoleum of National Hero Jose Marti and final resting place of Fidel Castro. Peacefully nestled on the city's western extremity, the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia is second only to Havana's Necropolis Cristobal Colon in its importance and grandiosity. With walkways lined with huge palm trees, this peaceful mausoleum is well worth the visit for those who are curious about the island’s great historic icons.
Bacardi Rum Factory
One of Santiago’s main attractions is without doubt the original Bacardi factory. The site was founded in 1868 by Spanish-born Don Facundo who came up with the world-famous Bacardi bat symbol after discovering a bat colony in the factory's rafters. Though the Bacardi family fled the island post-Revolution, this construction is still used to produce rum. Cuban brands include Ron Caney, Ron Santiago and Ron Varadero. Barrita de Ron Havana Club, a tourist bar attached to the factory now offers rum sales and tastings.
Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre
High on a hill situated 20 kilometres northwest of Santiago de Cuba on the old road to Bayamo, is Cuba's most sacred pilgrimage site. The beautiful Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre was visited by Pope Francis just last year, during a stopover where he blessed the church and Cuba’s patron saint: La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity). In Santeria religion, the Virgin is syncretised with the beautiful orisha Ochun, Yoruba goddess of love and dancing, and a religious icon to almost all Cuban women. In the minds of many worshipers, devotion to the two religious figures is intertwined. Even for nonbelievers, a visit to the Virgin is a fascinating look in to local culture.
La Gran Piedra
Not for the faint-hearted but a truly unforgettable experience. La Gran Piedra is 4452 steps up from the plain, nestled in one of the highest points of the mountain. Though the climb is difficult, the views from this point are well worth the effort. Situated at 1225 meters above sea level, amidst ferns and orchids, the great stone offers unparalleled vistas of the Sierra Maestra mountain range as well as the city of Santiago.
Baracoa, the oldest town in Cuba, was capital for just a brief four years before Diego Velazquez moved his power base to Santiago. Baracoa is home to some of the last direct descendants of the native Taino tribe, the only ones in Cuba as this is the sole area where they were not completely wiped out by invaders. Enticing, peculiar and surreal, Baracoa is filled with abundant and pristine nature. The town’s seclusion over the years has meant that much of the ecosystem has survived intact, and many people describe this as the most beautiful place in Cuba with its lush national parks, virgin forest and pristine coves. Though 2016's Hurricane Matthew hit Baracoa hard, the town is already on the rebound.
Cross of La Parra
This ancient cross, carbon-dated to 500 years old and supposedly the oldest European relic in the Americas, is said to have come across with Columbus on his first visit in 1492, although this is now thought to be unlikely as the wood is indigenous to Cuba. However, its significance is such that it is housed in a glass case in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Ascension, with metal protection on the four tips to prevent pilgrims removing splinters as mementoes.
Fuerte Matachin museum
This museum does a splendid job tracing local history, from pre-Columbian archaeological finds, to the years of pirate activity, documents and paintings relating to the Spanish colonial area, and exhibits on the War of Independence and the Revolution. There is also a small collection of Polymita snails, an endangered species endemic to the Baracoa area, with brilliantly coloured stripes resembling the careful craft of a master painter.
Once part of a huge plateau from millions of years ago, the Spanish name for this dramatic flat topped mountain means “the anvil”. This space comprises unique species of ferns, orchids and palms, many of which are still thought to be uncharted or recorded, and the slopes have been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Guided excursions can be arranged locally at the El Castillo hotel or Fuerte Matachin museum in town. The hike is not overly exhausting, but those who don’t feel prepared can drive to the summit.
Cuba’s largest river is part of a recently created nature reserve aimed at maintaining the delicate ecological balance of the area. You can travel up the river on a "cayuca", a raft similar to the one used by the native Indians, and during the trip get an excellent view of the soaring Pico Galan (an elevation of over 3,000 feet) and the many waterfalls cascading into the river. You can stop for lunch under the palms and watch the local artisans carving wood and coconuts into exquisite shapes in the blink of an eye.
A little corner of paradise, this is an idyllic palm fringed white beach, a must-see if you are in the area. It takes its Indian name from an archaeological area nearby where some Taino ceramic pieces have been found, and offers plenty of shade and wonderful snorkelling over the coral reef offshore. There is a tiny guesthouse hidden among the palms but otherwise the shore is completely undeveloped. Local fishermen will cook their catch for you on the beach and don’t forget to try the local delicacy "cucurucho", made from coconut, sugar and guava, wrapped in palm leaves.