The southern part of Oriente – the island’s easternmost third – is defined by the Sierra Maestra, Cuba’s largest mountain range, which binds together the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Granma. Rising directly from the shores of the Caribbean along the southern coast, the mountains make much of the region largely inaccessible – a quality appreciated by Fidel Castro and his rebels, who spent two years waging war here. At the eastern end of the sierra is the roiling, romantic city of Santiago de Cuba, capital of the eponymous province and with a rich colonial heritage that’s evident throughout its historical core. Cuba’s most important urban area outside Havana, the city draws visitors mainly for its music. Developed by the legions of bands that have grown up here, the regional scene is always strong, but it boils over in July when the Fiesta del Caribe and carnival drench the town in rumba beats, fabulous costumes and song.
Spread along the coastline around the city are the magnificent coastal fortification of El Morro and the Gran Parque Natural Baconao; inland, there’s gentle trekking in the Parque Nacional de la Gran Piedra where one of the highest points in the province, Gran Piedra itself, offers far-reaching vistas. In the lush, cool mountains west of the city, the town of El Cobre features one of the country’s most important churches, housing the much-revered relic of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Still further west, bordering Granma province, the heights of the Sierra Maestra vanish into cloudforests, and although access to the Parque Nacional Turquino – around Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest peak – can be restricted, you can still admire from afar.
Unlike Santiago de Cuba, which revolves around its main city, the province of Granma has no definite focus and is much more low-key than its neighbour. The small black-sand beach resort at Marea del Portillo on the south coast is a favourite for Canadian visitors, but the highlight of the province, missed out on by many, is the Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma. Lying in wooded countryside at the foot of the Sierra Maestra, this idyllic park, home to an assortment of intriguing stone petroglyphs, can be easily explored from the beach of Las Coloradas. Further north, along the Gulf of Guacanayabo, the museum at Parque Nacional La Demajagua, formerly the sugar estate and home of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, celebrates the War of Independence amid tranquil, park-like grounds.
Granma’s two main towns are underrated and often ignored, but the fantastic Moorish architecture in the coastal town of Manzanillo is reason enough to drop by, while Bayamo, the provincial capital, with its quiet atmosphere and pleasant scenery, appeals to discerning visitors looking for an easy-going spot to stay.Read More
In October 2012, the category three Hurricane Sandy hit Santiago de Cuba province hard, tearing through the coastal Gran Parque Natural de Baconao before wreaking havoc on Santiago city. Some 200,000 homes were damaged and 15,000 people lost their homes entirely; many buildings lost roofs, and the city was also almost entirely denuded of its trees and greenery. Even more tragically, eleven people lost their lives – an unusual occurrence in Cuba, as the government’s hurricane evacuation strategy is heralded the world over for its effectiveness, and fatalities are a rare event.
Immediately after the storm, the army was sent in to start on the clear up of the city. Six months on, though many families in the outskirts were still living in makeshift accommodation, the historic heart of Santiago was more or less back to normal, though many of the colonial-era buildings showed roof, tile and wall damage, and the lack of greenery remained noticeable.
- Carlos Manuel de Céspedes
Driving the Southern Coast Road
Driving the Southern Coast Road
Though it suffered damage from Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, which compounded the havoc wreaked by previous hurricanes, the lonely southern coast road between Pilón and Santiago de Cuba offers one of the most exhilarating drives in Cuba, with the Sierra Maestra rearing up directly from the roadside, and the ocean swirling from a Caribbean postcard-blue to an indigo black. The road undulates up and down the mountainside and, at one point, due to persistent damage, has fallen into the sea; it is sometimes passable by negotiating the track and the sea. Sometimes passing inches from the ocean, skirting rockfalls and crossing or diverting via broken bridges, this is a hair-raising route, and you should always seek out local advice before setting out to drive it, either in Niquero or Pilón in the west, or in Santiago. The journey from Pilón to Santiago (where the last petrol station is) takes 6–7 hours because of the state of the road.