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 de 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.