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.
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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.