Nestled in a valley surrounded by hills, 72km east of Las Tunas, the provincial capital of SAN ISIDORO DE HOLGUÍN – or Holguín for short – is a thriving industrial town balancing quieter backstreets with a busier central district of handsome colonial buildings, bicycles and horn-blasting cars. Despite having the bustling air of a large metropolis, Holguín’s centre is compact enough to explore on foot and has a couple of fine eighteenth-century churches and some small-scale museums which will keep you quietly absorbed for a day. The city is also spotted with numerous elegant plazas; these open spaces, ideal for people-watching, are central to the Holguín lifestyle, and in the evenings it seems that the whole city turns out just to sit, chat and watch their children play in one or other of them.
The area around Holguín was once densely populated by indigenous Taíno, but the Spanish had wiped them out by 1545, after Captain García Holguín, early colonizer and veteran of the conquest of Mexico, established his cattle ranch around La Loma de la Cruz. Although a small settlement remained after his death, a town wasn’t fully established here for 150 years, and it was only officially named on April 4, 1720 – San Isidoro’s Day – with a commemorative Mass held in the cathedral.
Being an inland town with no port, Holguín was destined to be overshadowed in importance by coastal Gibara. In spite of its rather grand blueprint, laid out in accordance with Spanish colonial city planning laws, it developed slowly. But by the nineteenth century an economy based on sugar production and fruit-growing, as well as a little tobacco cultivation, was established and the town grew accordingly. As with other parts of Oriente, Holguín province saw plenty of action during the Wars of Independence. Shortly after the start of the Ten Years’ War, on October 30, 1868, the city was captured by General Julio Grave de Peralta’s force of Mambises, who lost Holguín to the Spanish on December 6. The tides turned again four years later on December 19, 1872, when the city was recaptured by General Máximo Gómez and Holguín-born General Calixto García. After independence, the province was largely dominated by US corporations and Holguín chugged along much the same as it always had. Since the Revolution, however, it has become more of an industrial city, with several factories and engineering plants, and was designated provincial capital when the province was created in 1975.