Traditionally, the whole of the country east of Camagüey is known simply as the “Oriente”, a region that in many ways represents the soul of Cuba, awash with historic sites, propaganda billboards and political passions. Running the length of the area’s north coast, the three provinces that make up the northern Oriente – Las Tunas, Holguín and Guantánamo – form a landscape of panoramic pine-scented and palm-studded mountains, all fringed by flatlands where lonely railroads thrust through the vast swathes of sugarcane. Home to some of the country’s most striking peaks and beaches from the flat-topped El Yunque to the stunning protected coves at Guardalavaca, Maguana and Saetía, the Northern Oriente also boasts some of Cuba’s quirkiest towns – namely Baracoa, Gibara and Banes.
The smallest and most westerly of the three provinces is Las Tunas, often overlooked by visitors, though its unassuming and friendly provincial capital, Victoria de las Tunas, is not without charm.
By contrast, larger and livelier Holguín province has a variety of attractions. Chequered with parks, the busy and crowded provincial capital, San Isidoro de Holguín, manages to be modern and cosmopolitan whilst retaining the feel of its colonial past, with several handsome old buildings, museums and antique churches. The once mighty nineteenth-century port of Gibara, presiding over the north coast, also has vestiges of its former glory visible in a few fine buildings and an old fort, while the gently undulating hills around town are honeycombed with underground caves that are perfect for independent exploration. Holguín’s biggest attraction is the popular Guardalavaca beach resort, while the province’s ancient historical pedigree can be seen in the remnants of pre-Columbian Taíno culture in and around the little village of Banes. Further east, the exclusive beach resort of Cayo Saetía is a paradise of white sands and glistening seas, an idyllic place to relax. Inland, where rugged terrain dominates the landscape, the cool pine forests, waterfalls and lakes of Mayarí are unmatched for isolated serenity, while the sugar-farm country further south is home to Fidel Castro’s prosaic birthplace at Birán.
Of the three provinces, the best known is undoubtedly Guantánamo, with the notorious US naval base at Caimanera. Although Guantánamo town is largely unspectacular, it forms a useful jumping-off point for the seaside settlement of Baracoa, one of Cuba’s most beautiful and enjoyable destinations. Sealed off from the rest of the island by a truly awe-inspiring range of rainforested mountains – which are fantastic for trekking – Baracoa’s small-town charm is immensely welcoming.
The amiable city of Holguín is the threshold to the province of the same name, containing the biggest concentration of pre-Columbian sites in the country. On the northern coast of Holguín province, Guardalavaca (together with the neighbouring playas Esmeralda, Pesquero and luxurious Turquesa) is one of the country’s liveliest and most attractive resorts. It is spread along a long and shady beach with ample opportunities for watersports.
Forming the far eastern tip of the island, Guantánamo province is best known for its infamous US naval base. But the region’s most enchanting spot is the jaunty coastal town of Baracoa. Isolated from the rest of the country by a high rib of mountains, this quirky, friendly town freckled with colonial houses is an unrivalled retreat popular with long-term travellers. It also offers ample opportunities for revelling in the glorious outdoors.
Victoria de las Tunas seems to have been built to a traditional Cuban recipe for a quiet town: take one central plaza, a small main hotel, a Revolution square and a thriving market, add a pinch of culture and bake in the sun for two hundred years. The result is a pleasant but slow-moving town where the faster pace of life elsewhere in the world seems but a rumour. The town’s hub is Parque Vicente García, a small but comfortable central plaza hemmed by trees and cacti, which holds a number of attractions.
There’s not much nightlife or entertainment to speak of in Las Tunas except during the summer, when the annual El Cucalambé music festival is held over three days in June. Based in the grounds of the otherwise unremarkable Hotel El Cornito, about 7km out of town, the festival features live folk and salsa in a lively atmosphere awash with beer and food stalls. Other events include rodeos, which take place in August and December at Hotel El Cornito, while fireworks and parades are held every September 26 to commemorate Major General Vicente García. The city also celebrates its carnival and semana de la cultura in September with music, poetry and art events.
Cuba’s most famous sculptor, Rita Longa, considered Las Tunas her second home and two of her works adorn the city. As well as the José Martí monument in Plaza Martiana de las Tunas, there’s the non-functioning Fuente de las Antillas fountain, across the street from the Museo Memorial Mártires de Barbados, a reclining female body in the shape of Cuba, which has been much emulated by the island’s contemporary artists.
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.
A mix of characterful wooden houses, dishevelled Art Deco beauties and rather more anonymous concrete buildings, the sleepy town of BANES lies 31km southeast of Guardalavaca. Refreshingly untouristy, it’s known for its museum of pre-Columbian artefacts and for its association with the two titans of twentieth-century Cuban history – Fidel Castro and Fulgencio Batista.
Banes is deemed the archaeological capital of Cuba for its well-preserved history of the former indigenous Taino people. The Tainos, originally from South America who settled in Cuba somewhere around the 400 BC mark were farmers, weavers, ceramicists and boat-builders who had a complex and government-like system, deemed remarkable for their time period. The local chiefs, known as caciques, were responsible for organising their people. The Tainos pre-date pre-Columbian history by roughly 8,000 years and were the first on the island to welcome Christopher Columbus, who described the people as 'sweet', 'generous' and 'gentle' - which makes it all the more saddening that they were eventually sold as slaves on gold mines and colonial plantations, and ultimately wiped out during European Colonisation.
More recent history in Banes brings us to Cuba's elected president-turned dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who was born here in 1901. Fidel Castro, who led the Cuban revolution against Batista, married his first wife in the towns local church.
Banes, being a haven in historical artefacts, is a dream for those who love history. It's Indocuban Baru Museum is home to objects from the Taino people including the infamous 10-carat gold figure of Atabey, the Tainos peoples Goddess of fresh water and fertility. Nearby in Guardalavaca, you can see a reconstructed village, similar to those of the Taino people in Aldea Taina.
For impressive architecture, check out Faro de Lucrecia Lighthouse and Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Caridad, the exotically built church.
Banes has paradise-like beaches and idyllic street corners that make roaming around the town and enjoying the atmosphere quite pleasant, if you wish to take a step back from the busier cities in Cuba then Banes might be the place for you. You can wonder and see the old US-style homes from when United Fruit had their factory here and a large portion of the city until the 1950s.
On the opposite side of General Marreo from the Museo Indocubano Bani, the elegant Casa de la Cultura is one of Banes’s most outstanding buildings, with a black-and-white marble-tiled floor, pale pink and gold walls and a sunny courtyard at the back. As the town’s theatre and music hall it has regular performances of traditional music and dance, and players are generally unfazed if you pass by to admire the building and catch snippets of their rehearsals during the daytime.
Banes’ most substantial attraction is the Museo Indocubano Bani, one of the few museums in Cuba exclusively devoted to pre-Columbian Cuban history. While many of the fragments and representational sketches of indigenous communities are similar to exhibits in larger museums in the country, it also has a unique gathering of jewellery gleaned from the Holguín region. Only a tiny selection of the 22,000 pieces owned by the museum are on display; these include the first skeleton found at Chorro de Maíta as well as its pièce de résistance, a tiny but stunning gold (replica) idol.
Hidden away on the east side of the Bahía de Nipe near the village of Felton, and connected to the mainland by a drawbridge, picture-postcard, isolated Cayo Saetía is the most bizarre – and exclusive – resort in the country. A one-time private game reserve and beach catering to government party officials, it was opened up to the public during the 1990s, yet still retains its air of exclusivity. It’s run by Gaviota, the army-owned tourist group, which may explain the vaguely military aura, notably in the ranks of jeeps and other vehicles stationed across the island. Oddly, Cayo Saetía’s beauty is not diminished by the pale orange smog drifting across the bay from grimy Nicaro, a distinctly uneventful town wreathed in plumes of smoke from an electricity plant.
Some 45km southwest of Cayo Saetía, the ground swells and erupts into the livid green Sierra de Cristal mountains in which lies the Parque Nacional La Mensura. High above the cloud line here, the beautiful Pinares de Mayarí pine forest here is a great place for some hiking or relaxation, or a stay at the Villa Pinares de Mayarí. The forest is reached from the nondescript little town of Mayarí, 26km to the north, from where you head south towards the Carretera Pinares and take the right-hand track where the road forks, past tiny Las Coloradas; from Holguín, it’s a 2.5-hour drive. Though passable in a rental car, the road is steep and poorly maintained so requires masterful driving, and during the wet season it’s advisable to check in advance if it’s passable.
The drive up the hill to the forest affords crisp views over the Bahía de Nipe and the terracotta nickel mines to the east, near Nicaro. This lofty region is also Cuba’s main producer of coffee, with stretches of coffee plants visible along the way. At the top of the hill the sharp incline evens out into a plateau, where the lush green grass cool air form a scene that’s more alpine than Caribbean.
A vast area of swaying cane and working plantations, the whole swathe of land southwest from Bahía de Nipe and west of the Pinares de Mayarí is given over to sugar. There’s nothing here for the casual visitor, though true Castro devotees may wish to make a pilgrimage to the tiny community of Birán, 44km southwest of Mayarí, near which, at the Finca Las Manacas plantation, Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926. He spent part of his youth here, until he was sent to school in Santiago, and he still owns the farm. Home to the former school, post office, bar, butcher’s, cock-fighting arena and a hotel, the tidy and well-maintained farm also holds the Sitio Histórico de Birán museum, with a collection of photographs, clothes, Fidel’s childhood bed and a 1918 Ford. Near the entrance are the well-tended graves of Fidel’s father Angel Castro and mother Lina Ruz.
Finding the finca is something of a challenge: from Holguín follow the road east to Cueto, then turn south onto the road to Loynaz Hechevarría; turn east at the sign to Birán and carry on a further 2km north.
Comprising several huge chalet-style villas with quaint rooms richly inlaid with wood, this hotel makes a perfect base for exploring the nearby wilds and is decidedly picturesque in itself, with a small pool and a central dining room boasting a beamed ceiling, like some giant’s cabin. The friendly staff are extremely accommodating, and guided walks are available into the pine-scented mountains. Call ahead as it sometimes closes in slow periods.
Even though the provincial capital of Guantánamo is only on the tourist map because of its proximity to the US Guantánamo naval station, 22km southeast, the base plays a very small part in the everyday life of the town itself. For the most part, this is a slow-paced place marked by a few ornate buildings, attractive but largely featureless streets and an easy-going populace. Most visitors bypass it altogether, and those who don’t tend to use it simply as a stepping-stone to the naval base and attractions further afield. However, it’s worth visiting the Casa del Changüí, where changüí genre (a country music which predates son) is nurtured and performed, or taking in a performance by the Tumba Francesa Pompadour, an Afro-Haitian cultural and dance group.
Many visitors come to the Guantánamo area just to see the US base, but although you can get to the lookout point in Caimanera with a little groundwork, there really isn’t a lot to see, as you cannot enter the base itself – or barely see it at all from Cuban territory. Venturing into the countryside around Guantánamo town is more rewarding, with bizarre contrasts between lush valleys and the weird desert scenery of sun-bleached barren trees. Just north of town is the offbeat Zoológico de Piedras, a “zoo” entirely populated by sculpted stone animals.
Described by Fidel Castro as the dagger in the side of Cuban sovereignty, the US naval base at Guantánamo is approximately 118 square kilometres of leased North American territory, armed to the teeth and planted on Cuba’s southeastern coast.
The history of the naval base here dates back to Cuba’s nominal victory in the Wars of Independence with Spain, whereupon the US government immediately began to erode Cuba’s autonomy. Under the terms of the 1901 Platt Amendment, the US ordered Cuba to sell or lease land necessary for a naval station, declaring without irony that it was “to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba”. Its primary aim, however, was to protect the nascent Panama Canal from any naval attacks. An annual rent was set at two thousand gold coins, and the base was born. In 1934 the Treaty of Reciprocity repealed the Platt Amendment but did not alter the conditions surrounding the lease; and as it’s stipulated that the lease cannot be terminated without both parties’ consent, it seems unlikely that Cuba will regain sovereignty of the land under its present regime. Famously, Fidel Castro has not cashed a single rent cheque from the US government, preferring to preserve them for posterity in a locked desk drawer.
The base’s history took another twist in December 2001 with the decision of the Bush administration to detain Islamic militants captured as part of the “War on Terror”. Prisoners were initially kept in the makeshift Camp X-Ray but in April 2002 were transferred to Camp Delta, a larger, permanent site, which comprises several detention camps, manned by six hundred soldiers as part of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo. Controversy immediately arose around the circumstances under which the men were held. Because they were classed as “illegal combatants” rather than prisoners of war, the US military felt they did not have to uphold the Geneva Convention and that the detainees could be held indefinitely without charge. Some 779 people (including a number of children) representing forty different nationalities have to date been held here, many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits.
A decision in June 2004 by the US Supreme Court ruled that the detainees should come under the jurisdiction of US courts and that the policy of holding prisoners indefinitely without the right to judicial review was unlawful. Rather than address these charges, the Bush administration passed the Military Commissions Act 2006, which overrode the main objections. In January 2009, as part of a broader aim to restore the international reputation of the US’s justice system and foreign policies, President Obama suspended the Guantánamo Military Commissions and vowed that the detainee camp would be closed by January 2010. Though this promise remains unfulfilled, in February 2016 President Obama approved plans submitted to the US Congress to begin the procedure of closing down the camp. Given that there were immediate objections from both ends of the political spectrum, it remains to be seen how long it’ll be before the final US prisoner leaves Cuban soil.
Bordered by salt flats that score the ground with deep cracks and lend a haunting wildness, Caimanera, 23km south of Guantánamo, takes its name from the giant caiman lizards that used to roam here, although today it’s far more notable as the closest point in Cuba to the US naval base. Prior to the Revolution, Caimanera was the site of carousing between the naval-base officers and the townswomen: its main streets were lined with bars, and rampant prostitution, gambling and drugs were the order of the day. Little evidence of that remains in today’s sleepy and parochial town.
The village is a restricted area, with the ground between it and the base one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, though the US removed their mines in 1999. This hasn’t stopped many Cubans from braving it in the slim hope of reaching foreign soil and escaping to the US. Visitors, meanwhile, have to have a permit to enter. The village is entered via a checkpoint at which guards scrutinize your passport and permit before waving you through; note that taking pictures en route is not permitted.
The lookout in the grounds of the Caimanera hotel has a view over the bay and mountains to the base – though even with binoculars you only see a sliver of it. Inside the hotel is a small museum (opened on demand), with a history of the base, a floor model and photos.
Formed following the migration of French landowners, slaves and free slaves from Haiti to Cuba after the 1791 Haitian Revolution, the Tumba Francesa Pompadour, at Serafín Sánchez no.715 e/ Narcisco López y Jesús del Sol, is an Afro-Cuban-Haitian society and dance group who perform traditional dances at their base here in Guantánamo town. Sundays are often booked out with large tourist groups, but all visitors are welcome.
Roughly 20km north of Guantánamo, in the foothills of the Sierra Cristal and set in a private coffee farm, the whimsical and slightly surreal sculpture park known as the Zoológico de Piedras was created in 1977 by local artist Angel Iñigo Blanco, who carved the stone in situ. Cool and fresh, dotted with lime and breadfruit trees, hanging vines and coffee plants, the park centres on a path that weaves around the mountainside, with stone animals peeking out from the undergrowth at every turn. Slightly cartoonish in form, the creatures bear little relationship to their real-life counterparts: a giant tortoise towers over a hippo the size of a modest guinea pig. Needless to say, it’s a hit with children.