Boasting sunshine all year long, Santiago de Cuba is an infinitely beautiful and interesting destination within the Cuban island. With its picturesque uphill streets, amazing historic sites and rich cultural blend that translates into flavoursome rumba, conga and son music; the vibrant city is filled with delightful spots to discover.
From understanding religious syncretism in Caridad del Cobre Basilica and learning about the first rebellious movements of the Revolution in the Moncada Barracks, to simply strolling down Tivoli street and observing beautiful colonial buildings whilst being serenaded by traditional Cuban rhythms, Santiago de Cuba offers hundreds of amazing experiences.
Although all of these attractions make Santiago de Cuba special, there is often one particularly quirky destination that most travellers have not heard of. Situated less than a kilometre away from the mainland, amidst the blue waters of Santiago’s Bay, lays an islet that is tiny in size but large in charm.
If you are inclined to take a little break from the urban scene during your stay in Santiago de Cuba, visiting Cayo Granma, which is barely 30 minutes away, could just be the soothing experience you are after. Find out more about this key and what makes it unique below.
Cayo Granma – its curious location and characteristics
Situated within the beautiful Bay of Santiago de Cuba, Cayo Granma is a small islet in the south-eastern part of the country, 800 kilometres southeast of the capital, Havana. Surrounded by the beautiful Caribbean Sea, the key is separated from the mainland by only half a kilometre. However, it is situated 19 kilometres from Santiago de Cuba’s city centre.
Cayo Granma limits to the north with Punta Gorda, which is the spot where you can take boats and ferries to and from the key. To the south, the islet limits with la Socapa, a site renowned for its nice beaches; to the east the closest part of the mainland is Ciudamar and Punta Caracoles represents the western limit.
Another curious fact about Cayo Granma is how tiny its proportions are, with an area of just under 2 square kilometres. The key is in fact, so small, that it is possible to walk around it in just a quarter of an hour. At present, it is estimated that only a total of 1,200 people live within the islet. The climate corresponds to a typical savannah, with an average all-year-round temperature of 26 ° C.
The key boasts fairly plain grounds, and its highest point is 13 metres above sea level. Due to its close proximity to this amazing historic place, Cayo Granma is considered part of the Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca Fortress. The site, which is located on the border of the bay, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
A brief history of the key’s evolution through time
The very first records of life in Cayo Granma date back to Cuba’s aboriginal roots, with historians considering that Taino tribes inhabited the key during the 15th century. However, it is after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the foundation of the city of Santiago de Cuba in 1515, that the most relevant historic events take place.
When the Eastern Cuban city was attacked and robbed by French and English pirates and corsairs in 1538 and 1547, Cayo Granma played an important role for the ruthless “treasure hunters”. Because it was practically uninhabited and due to its strategic position at the entrance of Santiago de Cuba’s Bay, it is believed the key served as a hiding spot and safe haven for attackers.
The key was first known as “Cayo Smith”, although the origin of this name is still uncertain. Some claim it came from the first fisherman to have ever landed on the islet, whilst others argue that it took the name of its first owner, said to be a wealthy American. To the date, there is no evidence or records to support either of the theories.
Role in Cuban independence
Later on in Cuban history, the key was also of vital importance for one of the glorious battles against Spanish troops led by Maximo Gomez whilst fighting for Cuban independence. During the 10 Year War, on 18th December, 1870 the Cuban “mambises” (soldiers) fought the Spanish regiment of “La Socapa”. After the Cuban victory, many of the Spanish people who lived in La Socapa fled from the mainland and established themselves in the key. According to official history records, the islet counted with 184 inhabitants in 1879, and the first church, the Ermita de San Rafael, was built in 1877.
They key continued to play an important role years later, in the Spanish-Cuban-American War, where once again its geographic position was vital in planning military offensives. Several key residents also served in the war and supported Cuban independence by transporting weapons, correspondence and serving as a safe port.
First half of the 20th century – summer house haven
Already by the end of the 19th century, and throughout the first fifty years of the 20th century, the then Cayo Smith saw growing interest from wealthy families in Santiago de Cuba, who wished to establish their summer homes there. As the presence of Americans in Cuba grew, they began to build game clubs, recreational and swimming areas, shops and water sports facilities; which all brought a new cheerful vibe to this fisherman’s key and elevated its economic and touristic value.
During the Revolution and after 1959
Whilst rebel troops hid in the Sierra Maestra mountain range, during the fight against president Batista’s dictatorship, the key served one more as a refuge. Many brave inhabitants hid rebels in their homes and aided them with food and medical supplies.
After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the islet was renamed “Cayo Granma” in honour of the yacht that led a 12-men army (including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara) to Cuban shores. The new laws took away the properties of a number of wealthy house owners, who mostly chose to leave Cuba after the political changes. These homes were then usually given to locals or those who were previously in charge of the maintenance within the houses.
Cayo Granma today – humble yet charming
Today the key has the vibe and look of a petite fishing village. Though very humble, Cayo Granma counts with basic services such as water and electricity. A project to improve the conditions of private homes and public facilities that were deteriorating in Cayo Granma began in 2002. The programme was carried out by Santiago de Cuba’s Heritage Office and Spain’s Andalucia Council for Territory and Housing.
Some of the main areas of interest for the project were the pier (the key’s main point of access), the cafe and the park, which is the community’s most popular reunion spot and was badly deteriorated with almost no benches and poor green areas. In addition, the project set out to improve the façade of the old post office, which had to be reconstructed, as well as a group of houses located in 24 de Febrero Street.
Cayo Granma’s inhabitants are friendly people who usually declare they wouldn’t feel happy or comfortable living anywhere else. Although getting around can be a hassle for day-to-day life, as the key can only be accessed via boat or ferry (or swimming, if you are skilled!), its inhabitants are proud of their islet. Due to its vulnerable position surrounded by water, Cayo Granma has suffered damage from hurricanes; the most notable harm was done six years ago by Hurricane Sandy. Many parts of the key are still recovering.
Places to see and things to do in Cayo Granma
Once you have set foot on the tiny key, you will begin to understand the magic of this picturesque setting. Surrounded by the sparkling waters of the Caribbean Sea all around, Cayo Granma is a little fantasy island of red-roofed wooden houses (many of them built on stilts above the water) that guard a traditional fishing community. Observe the relaxed pace of the village, and take the time to snap some photos at the beautiful, if sadly somewhat deteriorated, houses around.
Stroll around its small cemented streets and look at all angles of Cayo Granma; this is far from an exhausting experience as it is possible to explore the entire islet in just 15 minutes (though the relentless sun may make the walk more challenging). Whilst you march through the key, observe local establishments: a primary school, hairdressers’, butchers’, pharmacy, “bodegas” (where Cubans purchase some food products for a very inexpensive amount, which are provided to every citizen by the government), medical facility and a dock for fishing boats.
Before concluding your tour around Cayo Granma, you may like to see its most important location from a religious and architectonic point of view. Situated 13 metres above sea level, the small whitewashed Iglesia de San Rafael blesses locals from the highest point of the key. Hike up the hill and take snapshots of this small but beautiful church.
It would be very sad not to leave with a good taste of Cayo Granma, which is why staying for a meal is the perfect way to put an end to this visit. You can choose between two restaurants: Restaurante el Cayo or Palmares. The first one is a true seafood haven, where you can indulge in some freshly-caught fish, shrimp, octopus and lobster, accompanied by the traditional rice and tostones (plantain chips), as well as some veggies. The second, Palmares restaurant, is a clapboard home that sits just over the water and is also a great option for seafood or other Cuban fares such as "ropa vieja" (shredded beef in sauce) or pork chops with Cuban mojo.
Getting there – a beautiful maritime experience
As mentioned before, the only way to get to the key is by motorboat, or in small fishing boats, which fishermen rent out for different prices. You can board the main form of transport approximately 500 metres away from La Estrella beach, which is located on one side of Santiago’s Castillo del Morro Fortress in the bay’s entrance. The other boarding point is a few kilometres inland. The boat is similar to the one used in Havana to cross the bay, the difference being that the Santiago Barge has two floors, seats and the surrounding views are beautiful in a completely different way.
Perhaps the safest and fastest option for visiting Cayo Granma is to hop on board the regular ferry (which leaves everyone and a half hours) from Punta Gorda just below El Morro fort. The boat stops en route at La Socapa (actually still the mainland; the western jaw of the Bahia de Santiago) where there are decent swimming beaches. This stopover at La Socapa provides the perfect opportunity to get into a relaxed mood if you wish to unwind by the beach for a while, before heading over to Cayo Granma.
Make Cayo Granma part of your Santiago de Cuba experience
Make your stay in Santiago de Cuba stand out from others by venturing on a trip to this small and quirky islet. Although in close proximity to the mainland, and relatively close to the boisterous urban centre of the city, Cayo Granma offers a completely different vibe of relaxation and peace; as though as if time had slowed down or even stopped for a moment. Enjoy the calm and unassuming charm of this fishing village, and get away from the hustle and bustle of Santiago’s city centre for an afternoon.