Barely recognisable as a fort these days due to the many years of multiple uses and the bright yellow paint that covers its exterior, it does still looks like a castle, perhaps with something of a Mediterranean air about it, and thankfully, its darker days as torture chambers and prison are truly over, though those weren’t its only uses over its hundreds of years of existence.
Nowadays, it stands tall and proud as one of Baracoa’s main attractions, and despite the fact that it now exclusively functions as a hotel, many non-guests climb here to enjoy the best views of this provincial city, that remains the most unchanged in all of Cuba. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that a road was build to give access to this hidden away gem, which meant that for very, very long, it had remained completely isolated and disconnected from the rest of Cuba.
And, therein lies the magic of Baracoa, in the fact that it stood quietly and silently for years, cocooned away from the world and maintaining traditions and legends that live on to this very day. With a quirky cityscape surrounded by a privileged landscape and seascape, there isn’t a better way to see Baracoa in all its splendour than from above.
The "Castle of Seboruco" gives you an unique view over all of the city and beyond, a bird’s eye view that can only be obtained from up here. From the funky shape of the table-top mountain known as "El Yunque", to the cove-shaped bay against the backdrop of lush hills and tall palm trees. It’s the vision of paradise, which makes a visit to this castle a quintessential part of any Baracoa holiday.
Origins, design and historic backdrop
Its full name is Castillo de Seboruco de Santa Barbara and it was one of the main defensive fortifications to be erected in Cuba’s first ever city, in case you didn’t know, Baracoa was the first of the seven colonial villas to be founded after the island’s discovery in 1492, and the largest of all. As the third defensive military edifications to be built in the city, it was the grandest and most important.
Designed by Captain Prieto Oviedo, and built between 1739 and 1741, its only purpose was to defend the first city in the island against the attack of pirates, corsairs and invaders. Built some 100 metres above sea level, its privileged location allowing control over the Baracoa Bay, the inlet known as "Ensenada de Miel" or "Boca de Miel", and the rest of the city, made the castle instantly become the Baracoa’s main defensive fortification.
Covering an area of 1820 square metres, with a surrounding area that adds an additional 1878 metres to its total expansion, the castle was designed to adapt to the terrain’s many irregularities, with rough stone walls that are 60 centimetres thick and have crenels at the top. The roofing was done with a wooden structure, combining traditional red French tiles that are also present in a good number of Baracoan homes, as are panelled ceilings or "alfarjes" plus props and entablatures.
Such an impressive fortress kept invaders at bay and was at the same time the pride of city dwellers, which continues to be the case today.
Different uses over time
Throughout its more than 250 years of history the castle served different purposes beyond guarding the city, according to the historical events and circumstances of the time. In 1898, during the final moments of Cuba’s independence wars, it housed American troops. Only a few years later, during the Republican period, the castles saw its darker days as a prison with torture chambers to repress those who opposed the government, as was the case of the ruling years of Cuban President and dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Then, after the Revolution triumphed in 1959, it was turned into a military barracks and that was its last use until the 70s.
Throughout the years, it wasn’t just the castle’s purpose that changed, but also its structure, with several refurbishment and renovation works carried out in 1807, 1854 and 1902.
But the most drastic change of all came in the 1970 decade, when authorities decided to convert it into hotel, named El Castillo, and it experienced its biggest and last transformation. It received some minor remodelling in the 90s to improve the comfort offered to guests but since then it has hardly changed at all.
The main core structure remains as it was when first built, and the castle continues to look as grand and imposing as ever, yet inside modern rooms with modern fixtures await the traveller. Its rooms are by no means state-of-the-art but they’re comfortable enough to guarantee a pleasant experience.
In 1978, due to its unique location and its great architectural value, the castle was declared a National Monument. As a matter of fact, this edification has been proposed as one of the seven architectural marvels in the province of Guantanamo, which Baracoa is a part of.
Seboruco Castle today
Two centuries later the fortress may not look much like it once did but there’s no doubt that its spell is all the more powerful against this singular insular backdrop.
Today, the "Castle of Seboruco" or "Hotel El Castillo" is part of the city’s obligatory tourist trail, it remains in good condition and is currently being expanded to comply with increasing demand from a growing numbers of tourists.
With such an enviable location on top of it all, the castle’s hard to miss and you’ll find it only a few kilometres from the Gustavo Rizo Airport (BCA).
Beyond the location itself, magnificently perched atop a lush hill; don’t worry there are concrete steps to it, no vigorous climbing or hiking required; its large rooftop pool, with paddling pool for little ones, could be said to be its number one attraction, with its shimmering waters overlooking the famous flat-top mountain of El Yunque, the turquoise bay and the rest of lush foliage all around. Its beauty is hard to put into words, but superlative would be a fitting adjective, as would be sublime.
Hotel facilities also include an onsite restaurant, the Duaba, that boasts offering some of the best food fare in the city, with the option of trying dishes endemic to this part of Cuba, while a poolside bar serves the tastiest cocktails in town. There’s also the Yumuri snack bar, offering a variety of drinks, snacks and grilled specialities.
Rooms are spacious, with simple decor and colonial furniture. All 62 rooms offer air-conditioning and come equipped with a mini-bar, satellite TV, don’t expect flat-screens though, safety deposit box and telephone. You’ll need a plug converter to adapt to the 110 V outlets.
In terms of entertainment, the hotel has frequent themed evenings with live entertainment, introducing tourists to a variety of regional rhythms, from “Kiriba” to “Nengon”. There’s also a Caribbean Night, a Cuban Night and an Afro-Cuban Night, so no space for boredom after the sun sinks into the beautiful azure horizon.
Right from the hotel lobby, next to which you’ll find a small shop, you can book a variety of excursions taking you through and around the city, to the "Matachin" and "La Punta" fortresses, the cemetery, the Toa River, and many other landmarks.
But the castle-cum-hotel’s best, most amazing quality is without a doubt the sweeping views the hotel offers from all angles.
Baracoa, the best views
From up there you can observe the lovely little pastel-coloured houses with its cute red roofs, intersected by lush patches of greenery and looking like no other worldly place, or at least no other place in Cuba.
The castle offers an exceptional lookout point from which to soak in the most stunning views over the Baracoa Bay, the Miel and Toa rivers and El Yunque. If that wasn’t postcard-perfect enough, from one of the castle’s ends you can also spot the so-called “Bella Durmiente” (Sleeping Beauty), the name given to the silhouette of the Cordillera de Toa mountain range.
Access to the hotel is via a steep stairway found to the southwest end of Frank Pais street. A mini-turret guards the entrance. It certainly doesn't get much more picturesque or fairy-tale-like than this.