Home to the island’s longest river and surrounded by the impressive Sierra Maestra Mountains, Granma is one of Cuba’s little-known eastern provinces. Though Granma doesn’t usually feature in the top ten sites to visit within the island, this province boasts rich natural, historic and cultural heritage. Road-scarce Granma is one of Cuba's remotest regions but also one of the most charming settings to get a glimpse of what makes this country unique and special.
One of the few parts of the world named after a yacht, the province was christened after the boat that delivered Fidel Castro and his bedraggled revolutionaries ashore to kick-start a guerrilla war in 1956. With a long tradition of revolutionary spirit, Granma is the land where National Hero, Jose Marti died in battle and where Granma native Carlos Manuel de Cespedes freed his slaves and formally declared Cuban independence for the first time in 1868.
Equally outstanding for its nature, Granma comprises some of the most pristine coastal marine terraces in the American continent along its rugged southern coastline. The province boasts two national parks, the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra and the Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma, habitat of botanical wonders including dwarf orchids and an ancient giant cactus as well as indigenous wildlife such as the tocororo and zunzun bird species.
One of the first settlements founded by Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez, Bayamo is currently Granma’s most ancient and charming city. Bayamo was once burnt by its inhabitants as a sacrifice for the Cuban independence. Locals burnt sugar cane plantations in the 19th century as a symbol of protest against Spanish colonialism. Today, reborn from the ashes, the city stands as a beautiful and peaceful oasis to the traveller weary of hustle and bustle.
The “Ciudad de los Coches” (city of horse-carts) is an easy-going, slow-paced place where the clip-clop of hooves follows wherever you go. The town of Bayamo, founded in 1513, 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.
Bayamo features many interesting sites to discover, including the San Salvador cathedral, the horse cart factory, the Paseo Bayames (the main shopping streets filled with restaurants and commerce), Bayamo Theatre and the Revolution Square. For a glimpse of colonial history and vibes of tranquil urban life, Bayamo is the ideal destination within Granma.
The second most important city in the Granma Province of Cuba, Manzanillo is a humble bay-side town, usually off the standard guidebook trail. Though it couldn’t exactly be describe as pretty, Manzanillo is still worth a visit to see its old-fashioned streets organs and distinctive neo-Moorish architecture.
Founded in 1784 as a small fishing port, Manzanillo's early history was dominated by pirates trading smuggled goods. The settlement was sacked by the French in 1792, and in the following year a fort was built for its protection. The subterfuge continued into the late 1950s, when the city's proximity to the Sierra Maestra made it an important supply centre for weapons and men joining Castro's revolutionaries in their secret mountaintop headquarters.
Some sites of interest comprise the Museo Celia Sanchez, a small but worthy testament to this brave woman who was a key player in the Revolution as well as the nearby Demajagua’s historic ruins. A few kilometres from Manzanillo, La Demajagua is the old sugar mill that kick-started Cuba's War of Independence. The attorney Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, also considered Father of the Homeland, rang the factory’s bell in 1868 to announce the decision of freeing his slaves and invited them to join the fight for independence.
Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma
Mixing unique environmental diversity with heavy historical significance, the Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma consists of 275 sq km of forest, peculiar karst topography and uplifted marine terraces. A shrine to the Cuban Revolution, Castro's stricken leisure yacht Granma limped ashore in this spot on December 1956.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site protects pristine coastal cliffs and a wide diversity of plants (512 in total identified thus far, of which approximately 60% are endemic). Fauna is equally rich, with 25 species of mollusc, seven species of amphibian, 44 types of reptile, 110 bird species and 13 types of mammal.
Visitors can also find the Natural Archeologic Trail El Guafe within this impressive natural site. In El Guafe, archaeologists have uncovered Cuba's second-most important community of ancient agriculturists and ceramic-makers. Thousand-year-old artefacts include altars, carved stones and earthen vessels along with idols guarding a water goddess inside a ceremonial cave.
The Desembarco del Granma National Park has 8 trails and speleological archaeological routes, among them there is one of special relevance covering the route of 22 kilometres between the Las Coloradas mangrove and the Alegria de Pio sugar plantation. Playa Las Coloradas in itself is a historic landmark. This beach was selected for the entry of the expeditionary forces lead by Fidel Castro when he came from Mexico in December 2nd, 1956 in the GRAMMA yacht to fight against the Batista Army.
Marea del Portillo
Wedged into a narrow strip of dry land between the glistening Caribbean and the cascading Sierra Maestra, Marea del Portillo occupies a spot of great natural beauty and great history. This tiny south coast village is a breath-taking area boasting 17 snorkelling sites as well as impressive rivers and waterfalls.
As part of the ecosystem of the easternmost part of Cuba, Marea del Portillo features a seabed with high hillocks separated by narrow ravines that form caves and tunnels where visitors can observe various fish species, crustaceans and molluscs. In order to explore Granma’s exciting underwater world, heading to the Albacora Diving Centre is a great option.
The centre is set out to the region’s dive sites from the village towards Cabo Cruz, at the south-western tip of eastern Cuba, where you can see beautiful formations of staghorn coral, gorgonians and common sea fans. Besides the marine life, divers can gaze at admiral Cervera’s fleet, which is in very good condition, even after more than a century at the bottom of the sea.
Another attractive option is signing up for walking tour around the Cauto River, Cuba’s longest water course. Strolling along this sparkling river that runs through the Sierra Maestra mountain range is a true sight to behold, whilst walking by peaceful ponds, enchanting waterfalls and local farmers tending to their crops. Finally, for those who enjoy a little seclusion amidst verdant nature, Cayo Blanco, a small islet located only 500 meters from the beach is the perfect spot.
Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra
Comprising a sublime mountain escape of verdant peaks and humid cloud forest, and home to honest, hardworking “campesinos” (country folk), Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra is an alluring natural sanctuary that still echoes with the gunshots of Castro's guerrilla campaign of the late 1950s. Situated 40km south of Yara, this precipitous, little-trammelled region contains the country's highest peak, Pico Turquino (1972m; just over the border in Santiago de Cuba province), unlimited birdlife and flora, and the rebels’ one-time wartime headquarters, Comandancia la Plata.
The Pico Turquino is the highest mountain in Cuba with almost 2000 metres of altitude. A 2 to 3 day hike can take you over the peak. No special equipment is necessary, just a good physical condition and the will take on this adventure are enough. Though the vistas from Pico Turquino are not quite dazzling due to the trees on its top, there is a fantastic view point of the Caribbean Sea below a little further down from the peak.
Those who wish to stay more days or take a less exhausting route can follow the trail to Comandancia la Plata. The path will take visitors to the former headquarters of the Revolutionary Army of Fidel Castro in just an hour. The visit to the camp gives you fairly good idea of how the Revolutionaries organized themselves and their battles. It is a very interesting visit but is not recommended to combine on the same day with the hike to the Pico Turquino to avoid exhaustion.