On the northern edge of the Sierra Maestra mountains in the centre of Granma, provincial capital Bayamo is one of the most peaceful towns in Cuba. Its spotless centre is based around a pleasant park filled with playing children; there are near-zero levels of hassle on the streets; and, with the streets pedestrianized, even the cars are silenced.
Although a fire destroyed most of Bayamo’s colonial buildings in 1869, it left the heart of town untouched, and the splendid Iglesia de Santísimo Salvador still presides over the cobbled Plaza del Himno. Elsewhere, neat rows of modern houses, dotted with pretty tree-lined parks, stand testament to a well-maintained town. There are a couple of engaging museums, notably the Casa Natal de Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, which celebrates the town’s most famous son, a key figure in the Wars of Independence. Bayamo is smaller than you’d expect a provincial capital to be, and you could cram its few sights into one day, but if you’ve no agenda, it’s better to do some gentle sightseeing, eat well and match the town’s unhurried pace.
The second of the original seven Cuban towns or villas founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in November 1513, Bayamo flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when, along with its neighbour Manzanillo, it was heavily involved in dealing in contraband goods. Bayamo became one of the most prosperous towns in the country and by the nineteenth century had capitalized on the fertile plains to the west of the city, becoming an important sugar-growing and cattle-rearing area.
Influential figures like wealthy landowner Francisco Vicente Aguilera and composer Pedro Figueredo established a revolutionary cell here in 1868 to promote their call for independence from the Spanish. They were joined by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, another wealthy local plantation owner, who freed his slaves and set off to war. By the end of October 1868, Céspedes’s modest army of 147 had swelled to 12,000 and he had captured Bayamo and Holguín. Rather than relinquish the town, after three months of fighting, the rebels set fire to it on January 12, 1869, and watched the elegant buildings burn to the ground. Bayamo’s glory days were over.
Bayamo moved into the twentieth century without fanfare, continuing to support itself by producing sugar and farming cattle. The town’s last memorable moment was the unsuccessful July 26, 1953 attack on the army barracks, timed to coincide with Castro’s attack in Santiago – though this happened over half a century ago, it still keeps several old-timers gossiping today.
Top image: The cathedral of Bayamo (Catedral del Saltisimo Salvador de Bayamo), Cuba © Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock