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.
Santiago de Cuba province, on the island’s southeast coast, could make a holiday in itself. Its sparkling coastline is fretted with golden-sand beaches, such as Chivirico, while the undulating emerald mountains of the Sierra Maestra are made for trekking. Then there’s Santiago, the home of traditional Cuban music and the country’s most vibrant and energetic city after Santiago. Host to Cuba’s most exuberant carnival every July, when a deluge of loud, sweet and passionate sounds surges through the streets, you can hear some of the best Cuban musicians here year-round. Trekkers and Revolution enthusiasts will want to follow the Sierra Maestra as it snakes west of here along the south coast into Granma province, offering various revolutionary landmarks and nature trails.
Beautiful, heady Santiago de Cuba is the crown jewel of Oriente. Nowhere outside Havana is there a city with such definite character or such determination to have a good time. Spanning out from the base of a deep-water bay and cradled by mountains, Santiago is credited with being the most Caribbean part of Cuba, a claim borne out by its laidback lifestyle and rich mix of inhabitants. It was here that the first slaves arrived from West Africa, and today Santiago boasts a larger percentage of black people than anywhere else in Cuba. Afro-Cuban culture, with its music, myths and rituals, has its roots here, with later additions brought by French coffee planters fleeing revolution in Haiti in the eighteenth century.
The leisurely pace of life doesn’t make for a quiet city, however, with the higgledy-piggledy net of narrow streets around the colonial quarter ringing night and day with the beat of drums and the toot of horns. Music is a vital element of Santiaguero life, whether heard at the country’s most famous Casa de la Trova and the city’s various other venues, or at the impromptu gatherings that tend to reach a crescendo around carnival in July. As well as being the liveliest, the summer months are also the hottest – the mountains surrounding the city act as a windbreak and the lack of breeze means that Santiago is often several degrees hotter than Havana, and almost unbearably humid.
One downside to a visit here is street hustle in the downtown area. Begging and being propositioned is an unbearable problem, especially in and around Parque Céspedes. The level and persistence of hassle is worse than in any other Cuban city – and women travelling on their own, in particular, need to grit their teeth.
Established by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in 1515, the port of Santiago de Cuba was one of the original seven villas founded in Cuba. Velázquez, pleased to find so excellent a natural port near to reported sources of gold (which were quickly exhausted), named the port Santiago (St James) after the patron saint of Spain. With the construction of the central trading house shortly afterwards, the settlement became Cuba’s capital.
After this auspicious start – boosted by the discovery of a rich vein of copper in the foothills in nearby El Cobre – the city’s importance dwindled somewhat. Buffeted by severe earthquakes and pirate attacks, Santiago developed more slowly than its western rival and in 1553 was effectively ousted as capital when the governor of Cuba, Gonzalo Pérez de Angulo, moved his office to Havana.
Santiago’s physical bounty led to a new boom in the eighteenth century, when Creoles from other areas of the country poured sugar wealth into the area by developing plantations. The cool mountain slopes around Santiago proved ideal for growing coffee, and French planters, accompanied by their slaves, emigrated here after the 1791 revolution in Haiti, bringing with them a cosmopolitan air and continental elegance, as well as a culturally complex slave culture.
Relations with Havana had always been frosty, especially as culturally distinct Santiago had fewer Spanish-born Penínsulares, who made up the ruling elite. This rivalry boiled over during the Wars of Independence, which were led by the people of Oriente. Much of the fighting between 1868 and 1898 took place around Santiago, led in part by the city’s most celebrated son, Antonio Maceo.
The Cuban army had almost gained control of Santiago when, in 1898, the United States intervened. Eager to gain control of the imminent republic, it usurped victory from the Cubans by securing Santiago and subsequently forcing Spanish surrender after a dramatic battle on Loma de San Juan. The Cubans were not even signatories to the resultant Paris peace settlement between the US and Spain, and all residents of Santiago province were made subject to the protection and authority of the US. As an added insult, the rebel army that had fought for independence for thirty years was not even allowed to enter Santiago city.
Over the following decades, the American betrayal nourished local anger and resentment, and by the 1950s Santiago’s citizens were playing a prime role in the civil uprisings against the US-backed president Fulgencio Batista. Assured of general support, Fidel Castro chose Santiago for his debut battle in 1953, when he and a small band of rebels attacked the Moncada barracks. Further support for their rebel army was later given by the M-26–7 underground movement that was spearheaded in Santiago by Frank and Josue País. It was in Santiago’s courtrooms that Fidel Castro and the other rebels were subsequently tried and imprisoned.
When the victorious Castro swept down from the mountains, it was in Santiago that he chose to deliver his maiden speech, in the first week of January 1959. The city, which now carries the title “Hero City of the Republic of Cuba”, is still seen – especially in Havana – as home to the most zealous revolutionaries, and support for the Revolution is certainly stronger here than in the west. The rift between east and west still manifests itself today in various prejudices, with Habaneros viewing their eastern neighbours as troublemaking criminals, and considered as solipsistic and unfriendly by Santiagueros in return.
Although Santiago’s music scene and carnival are good enough reasons to visit, there are a host of more concrete attractions. Diego Velázquez’s sixteenth-century merchant house and the elegant governor’s residence, both around Parque Céspedes in the colonial heart of town.
On the west side of Parque Céspedes is the magnificent stone edifice that is the Museo Ambiente Histórico Cubano. Built in 1515 for Diego Velázquez, one of the first conquistadors of Cuba, it is the oldest residential building in Cuba. It now houses the Museo de Ambiente Cubano, a wonderful collection of early and late colonial furniture, curios, weapons and fripperies which offers one of the country’s best insights into colonial lifestyles, and is so large that it spills over into the house next door. There are choral performances here on Sundays and traditional music peñas throughout the week.
The commanding El Morro castle at the entrance to the bay, exemplifies the city’s prominent role in Cuban history. Additionally, the part played by townsfolk in the revolutionary struggle, detailed in several fascinating museums, makes Santiago an important stop on the Revolution trail.
Just 8km south of the city is one of Santiago’s most dramatic and popular sights, El Castillo del Morro San Pedro de la Roca, a fortress poised on the high cliffs that flank the entrance to the Bahía de Santiago de Cuba. Designed by the Italian military engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli (also responsible for the similar fortification in Havana) and named after Santiago’s then-governor, it was built between 1633 and 1639 to ward off pirates. However, despite an indomitable appearance – including a heavy drawbridge spanning a deep moat, thick stone walls angled sharply to one another and, inside, expansive parade grounds stippled with cannons trained out to sea – it turned out to be nothing of the sort. In 1662 the English pirate Christopher Myngs captured El Morro after discovering, to his surprise, that it had been left unguarded. Ramps and steps cut precise angles through the heart of the fortress, which is spread over three levels, and it’s only as you wander deeper into the labyrinth of rooms that you get a sense of how huge it is. Now home to the Museo de la Piratería, El Morro is also notable for its daily cannon firing ceremony, which takes place at dusk, but the real splendour here is the structure’s magnificent scale, the sheer cliff-edge drop and its superb views out to sea.
Musical entertainment in Santiago is hard to beat, with several excellent live trova venues – all a giddy whirl of rum and high spirits, with soulful boleros, son and salsa banged out by wizened old men who share the tunes and the talent of the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo, if not their fame. You don’t have to exert too much effort to enjoy the best of the town’s music scene; the music often spills onto the streets at weekends and around carnival time, when bands set up just about everywhere. Sometimes the best way to organize your night out is to follow the beat you like the most. The best nights are often the cheapest, and it’s rare to find a venue charging more than $5CUC.
The extravaganza that is Santiago’s carnival has its origins in the festival of Santiago (St James), which is held annually on July 25. While the Spanish colonists venerated the saint, patron of Spain and Santiago city, their African slaves celebrated their own religions, predominantly Yoruba. A religious procession would wend its way around the town towards the cathedral, with the Spanish taking the lead and slaves bringing up the rear. Once the Spanish had entered the cathedral, the slaves took their own celebration onto the streets, with dancers, singers and musicians creating a ritual that had little to do with the solemn religion of the Spanish – the frenzied gaiety of the festival even earned it the rather derisive name Los Mamarrachos (The Mad Ones).
Music was a key element, and slaves of similar ethnic groups would form comparsas (carnival bands) to make music with home-made bells, drums and chants. Often accompanying the comparsas on the procession were diablitos (little devils), male dancers masked from head to toe in raffia costumes. This tradition is still upheld today and you can see the rather unnerving, jester-like figures running through the crowds and scaring children. Carnival’s popularity grew, and in the seventeenth century the festival was gradually extended to cover July 24, the festival of Santa Cristina, and July 26, Santa Ana’s day.
The festival underwent its biggest change in 1902 with the birth of the new republic, when politics and advertising began to muscle in on the action. It was during this era that the festival’s name was changed to the more conventional carnaval, as the middle classes sought to distance the celebrations from their Afro-Cuban roots. With the introduction of the annually selected Reina de Carnaval (Carnival Queen) – usually a white, middle-class girl – and carnival floats sponsored by big-name companies like Hatuey beer and Bacardí, the celebration was transformed from marginal black community event to populist extravaganza. With sponsorship deals abundant, the carrozas (floats) flourished, using extravagant and grandiose designs.
Perhaps the most distinctive element of modern-day carnival in Santiago is the conga parade that takes place in each neighbourhood on the first day of the celebrations. Led by the comparsas, almost everyone in the neighbourhood, many still dressed in hair curlers and house slippers, leaves their houses as the performers lead them around the streets in a vigorous parade. The week before carnival starts, you can see the Conga de los Hoyos practising around town and visiting the seven other city conga groups every day from 3pm to 8pm.
Taking place annually between July 3–9, the Fiesta del Caribe, or Fiesta del Fuego, brings academics, foreign participants and dance, music and cultural groups from across the Caribbean and Latin America to celebrate the culture and music of a designated Caribbean country or region each year. Organized by the city’s Casa del Caribe, it’s a highlight of Santiago’s cultural calendar, with a finale celebrated via a city-wide conga and the burning of an effigy of the devil.
Many of the attractions surrounding Santiago are east of the city, and you’ll need at least a couple of days to do them justice. Cool and fresh, the mountains of the Sierra de la Gran Piedra make an excellent break from the harsh Santiago heat, and the giant Gran Piedra is an extraordinary lookout point. Nearby, there’s the atmospheric Museo Isabelica, set on one of several colonial coffee plantations in the mountains; on another former plantation is the lovely Jardín Ave del Paraíso, a small but exquisite botanical garden. Spanning the east coast is the Gran Parque Natural Baconao, not so much a park as a vast (and still hurricane-raddled) collection of beaches and other tourist attractions, among them a vintage car collection and the Comunidad Artística Verraco – home, gallery and workplace for several local artists.
Just east of Santiago, the mountains of the Parque Nacional de la Gran Piedra are some of the most easily accessible peaks in the country. Eleven kilometres along the coastal road from town, a turn-off inland leads you up a steep, curving mountain road. As the route ascends, temperate vegetation such as fir and pine trees gradually replace the more tropical palms and vines of the lower levels.
Around 15km along the road, a purpose-built staircase leads up from the visitors’ centre to La Gran Piedra, or “The Big Rock”, sculpted by ancient geological movement from surrounding bedrock and now forming a convenient viewing plateau 1234m above Santiago de Cuba, with views out to the sea on clear days. It’s an easy though still invigorating climb to the top, through woodland rich in animal and plant life, including over two hundred species of fern, and is best made before noon, when you’ve a better chance of clear views.
A mountainous stretch of attractive countryside interspersed with an eclectic set of tourist attractions, the Gran Parque Natural Baconao, 25km southeast of Santiago, makes for a good day out but is hardly the rugged wilderness suggested by its name. Its appeal lies in its relative proximity to the city, the gentle beauty of the landscape and the variety of its attractions.
Some 2km along the park road past the La Gran Piedra turn-off is the Granjita Siboney, the farm that Fidel Castro and his rebel group used as their base for the Moncada attack. The pretty little red-and-white house, pockmarked by bullet holes (perhaps from target practice, as no fighting actually took place here), now holds a museum that largely reproduces information found in bigger collections in the city, with newspaper cuttings, guns and bloodstained uniforms presented in glass cabinets.
Just beyond the Granjita Siboney is Playa Siboney, 19km from Santiago and the closest beach to the city. Overlooked by a towering cliff, this brown-sand, partially pebbly beach is hardly the stuff of archetypal Caribbean picture-postcards but there's a likeable unkemptness and untouristy quality to it. A scattering of casas particulares and restaurants complete the picture.
A lovely structure nestling in palm-studded forest 18km northwest of Santiago, the imposing cream-coloured, copper-domed Basilica de la Caridad del Cobre houses the icon of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, Cuba’s patron saint, and is one of the holiest sanctuaries in the country. Pleasingly symmetrical, with three towers capped in red domes, the present basilica was constructed in 1927, on the site of a previous shrine. Inside, the icon has pride of place high up in the altar, and during Mass looks down over the congregation; at other times she is rotated to face into an inner sanctum reached by stairs at the back of the church, where another altar is always garlanded with floral tributes left by worshippers.
Soon after her discovery, local mythology endowed the Virgin with the power to grant wishes and heal the sick, and a steady flow of believers visits the church to solicit her help. A downstairs chamber holds an eclectic display of the many relics left by grateful recipients of the Virgin’s benevolence, including a rosette and team shirt from Olympic 800m gold medallist Ana Fidelia Quirot Moret, as well as college diplomas, countless photographs and, most poignantly, an asthmatic’s ventilator.
The drive along the coast west towards Chivirico and beyond, with the seemingly endless curve of vivid mountains on one side and a ribbon of sparkling shallow sea on the other, is one of the most fantastic in the country, though potholes and hurricane damage make it somewhat treacherous after dark. About 15km from the city, don’t be put off by Playa Mar Verde, a small, rather grubby hoop of roadside shingle-sand with a café and restaurant; instead, carry on along the coastal road for another couple of kilometres to Playa Bueycabón. Here, an orderly lawn dotted with short palms stretches almost to the sea, and with its calm, shallow waters and narrow belt of sand it is altogether an excellent little spot to pass the day. There is a café here, but no other facilities.
Cuba’s highest and most extensive mountain range, the Sierra Maestra stretches along the southern coast of the island, running the length of both Santiago and Granma provinces. The unruly beauty of the landscape – a vision of churning seas, undulating green-gold mountains and remote sugar fields – will take your breath away.
Access to the mountains is restricted, but there are some excellent trails, most notably through the stunning cloudforest of the Parque Nacional Turquino to the island’s highest point, Pico Turquino, at 1974m. Although a considerable part of the Sierra Maestra falls in Santiago province, Parque Nacional Turquino included, the best chance you have to do any trekking is to base yourself in Bayamo, where you can arrange a guide and suitable transport.
The main trails begin at the lookout point of Alto del Naranjo, 5km southeast of Villa Santo Domingo, which marks the start of the mountains proper. When the mountains are off limits this is as far as many people get, but at 950m above sea level, the panoramic views are awe-inspiring. Most people, especially those planning to trek further into the mountains, make the journey up the immensely steep ascent road to Alto del Naranjo in a sturdy jeep provided by Cubataxi or Ecotur.
A less taxing alternative to the Pico Turquino trail is the trek to the Comandancia de La Plata, 3km west of Alto de Naranjo, where Fidel Castro based his rebel headquarters during the Revolution. The trail is well marked and you can complete the reasonably strenuous climb in around four hours return. The headquarters are spread over two or three sites, the first of which is the very basic hospital (it’s little more than a wooden hut) that Che Guevara founded and ran. The second site comprises the guard post, a small but worthy museum and the grave of a rebel who fell in battle. Most evocative are the wooden huts where the rebels lived and ate, which were covered with branches to protect them from enemy air strikes. Castro’s small quarters consist of a rudimentary bedroom with a simple camp bed, a kitchen, a fridge, a study and a secret trap door to escape through if he was under attack. Those wanting to take pictures of the rebel camp will need to pay an extra $5CUC at the Casa Medina rest stop, halfway along the walk.
South of Niquero on the coastal road, the province’s southwestern tip is commandeered by the Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma, which starts at Campismo Las Coloradas (open to Cubans only), and stretches some 20km south to the tiny fishing village of Cabo Cruz. The forested interior of the park is littered with trails, but its main claim to fame is that it was here, on the park’s western coastline just south of Playa Las Coloradas, that the Granma yacht deposited Fidel Castro on December 2, 1956.
Under constant surveillance and threat from the Batista regime following his release from prison, Fidel Castro left Havana for exile in Mexico in the summer of 1955. Along with other exiled Cubans sympathetic to his ideas, he formed the 26 July Movement in exile – the Cuban counterpart was run by Frank País – and began to gather weapons and funds to facilitate the return to Cuba.
Castro was anxious to return as soon as possible. Leaks within the organization had already resulted in the confiscation of arms by the Mexican government and there was an ever-present threat of assassination by Batista’s contacts in Mexico. By October the following year Castro had gathered enough support and money and declared himself ready to return. He bought a 58ft yacht called Granma from a North American couple for $15,000, and hatched a plan to sail it from Tuxpan, on the east coast of Veracruz in Mexico, to Oriente, following the tracks of José Martí – who had made a similar journey sixty years before.
At around 1.30am on November 25, 1956, with 82 men crammed into the eight-berth yacht, the Granma set off for Cuba. Because of the stormy weather all shipping was kept in port and the yacht had to slip past the Mexican coastguard to escape. Foul weather, cramped conditions and a malfunctioning engine meant that the journey that was supposed to take five days took eight. The plan had been to come ashore at Niquero, where Celia Sánchez, a key revolutionary, was waiting to ferry them to safety, but on December 2 they ran out of petrol just 35m from the coast, and at 6am the Granma capsized just south of Playa Las Coloradas. As Che later commented: “It wasn’t a landing, it was a shipwreck.”
Exhausted, sick and hungry, the 82 young men waded ashore only to find themselves faced with a kilometre of virtually impenetrable mangroves and sharp saw grass. They eventually made camp at Alegría de Pío, a sugar-cane zone near the coast, with the intention of resting for a few hours. It was to be a baptism of fire as Batista’s troops, who had been tipped off about their arrival and had been strafing the area for several hours, came across the men and attacked. Completely unprepared, the rebels ran for their lives, scattering in all directions. Thanks to the efforts of Celia Sánchez, who had left messages at the houses of peasants sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, the rebels were able to regroup two weeks later. It was hardly a glorious beginning, but the opening shots of the Revolution had been fired.
Tiny sugar town Pilón, 37 kilometres southeast of Niquero, a second-rate beach resort, and 8km west of Marea del Portillo, is like a remnant of past times, with open-backed carts laden with sugar cane zigzagging across the roads and the smell of boiling molasses enveloping the town in its thick scent. The most useful establishment in town is the local service station on the Marea del Portillo road, which sells petrol, sweets, snacks and cold drinks. It’s also a good place to ask whether the Carretera del Sur to Santiago is passable.
There’s little else to see in Pilón and even less to do, but the two beaches, Playa Media Luna, with beautiful views over the Sierra Maestra and a rocky coastline good for snorkelling, and the narrow white-sand Playa Punta, have an unruliness that’s refreshingly different from the smarter resort beaches.