By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Carlos Gómez
“Never have I seen anything so beautiful, full of trees that line the river, beautiful and green and different from ours, with their flowers and fruit, each in its own way; countless fowl and birds that sing sweetly.”
Christopher Columbus, Cuba, October 28, 1492
Rarely, when visiting a destination does a travel writer benefit from the notes of such an illustrious predecessor. Towards the end of his first trip, the fortunate Genoese sailor sailed along the coasts of eastern Cuba. If you travel the same coast today, gazing upon its paradisiacal green forests, it is easy to imagine that day in the late fifteenth century, which marked the first chapter of one of the most dramatic periods in human history: contact between the old and new worlds. I am also here to discover the region, but that’s as far as the similarities go.
While Columbus’s companions were a group of frightened sailors —some of them convicts, forced to choose between this trip and execution— I’m traveling with a group of British, Canadian, and German tourists, who give themselves up to the sun and sea breezes and grow soft on beer, mojitos, and Cuba Libres. And while those fearful explorers had no one but a wilted and resigned chaplain to turn to for consolation, we have the fiery Tina, a honey-souled brunette who cheerfully guides her passengers onto the dance floor in three languages, to the beat of salsa, bachata, and reggaeton. Columbus’s men were filled with uncertainty upon their arrival in an unknown land; we anticipate the pleasures awaiting us at our final destination: Cayo Saetía, a twenty-six square mile island formed by sediment at the entrance of the Ramón de Antilla Bay.
Following the revolution of 1959, the cay was set aside as a reward for academically outstanding children and their families. Cayo Saetía is populated by exotic herbivores, brought here in the 60s, which turn its savannas and forests into a live version of the earthly paradise appearing in the paintings that grace the covers of certain religious brochures. Asian buffalo, Thompson gazelles, antelopes, zebras, and ostriches can be seen, and sometimes even touched, by the domestic and foreign tourists traveling the trails in Jeeps. And the coastline teems with marine life, which you can enjoy on snorkeling or scuba excursions.
Saetía is the first dish in the hearty banquet that eastern Cuba offers all who visit. Don’t settle for a visit to the well-known Guardalavaca Beach; check out other similar, and perhaps even more beautiful sights, such as the beaches at Pesquero, Yuraguanal, and Esmeralda and Vita and Naranjo Bays. They all boast hotels with plenty of sun and surf and are among the island’s best and most pleasant accommodations, offering services such as catamarans, scuba excursions, fishing boats, and day trips, among others. And Naranjo Bay is home to one of Cuba’s most popular aquariums.
Besides boasting the richest biodiversity in the Antilles, the region is proud of its heritage as the starting point for Cuban history. This biodiversity is apparent in the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in the Macizo Sagua-Baracoa. The park covers more than 170,000 acres and preserves the remains of ecosystems that flourished on the island before the European conquest: low and sub-mountain rainforests, natural pine forests, and 5,500 acres of protected marine areas in which manatee (Trichechus manatus) thrive. In the forests inside the park lives the elusive almiquí (Soledonon cubanus), a tiny mammal that once swarmed the island, but is now found only here. There is also the Polimita snail, whose shell, glowing with all the colors of the rainbow except blue, is responsible for the almiquí’s near extinction.
The region’s historical claims can be verified by visiting the Chorro de Maíta archaeological site, which protects the remains of a Taíno settlement dating from the beginning of our era until at least half a century after the conquest. In fact, human remains found here show that European and African natives cohabited. From here you can walk across to a village that reproduces the customs and practices of the Taíno people, who migrated to the island from the mainland in the year 6000 B.C. and dominated until the arrival of Christopher Columbus at nearby Cayo Bariay. Visit the latter by car to see a reenactment of the event, along with the monument erected in 1992 marking its five hundredth anniversary.
The same road that took us to Alejandro de Humboldt National Park also provides access to Baracoa, a town that testifies to the primacy of eastern Cuba in the island’s history. Founded in August 1511, Baracoa was Cuba’s first capital. The island’s first Catholic church was built here and you can also visit the only cross that remains of those planted by Christopher Columbus in the territories he discovered. This relic, known as the “Cruz de la Parra,” is kept in the village temple. It was covered in silver centuries ago to prevent impertinent visitors from tearing off bits as souvenirs. The defensive complex that sheltered it from pirates for centuries now enhances the value of the city as a tourist destination. Fort Matachín, on the eastern edge of the city, is now the city’s historical museum; Santa Barbara Castle on Seboruco Hill is the most traditional hotel, while La Punta Castle to the west is home to one of its best restaurants.
Baracoa lies at the center of a lush, green region, the inhabitants of which preserve some of Cuba’s most steadfast traditions. Some of the surrounding farms confirm this fact. Duaba Villa, for example, teaches tourists the basics of traditional cocoa farming and provides samples of the best chocolate anywhere, available in tablets and by the glass (mixed with coconut milk, elevating the flavor to another level). Rancho Toa offers a taste of classic eastern Cuban cuisine served on dishes made from bamboo and royal palm (catauro). But not all the cultural value of eastern Cuba is concentrated in Baracoa: to the southwest lies Santiago de Cuba, alpha and omega of the Cuban Revolution.
Santiago de Cuba set the stage for the two most important events in this momentous political movement. First, the assault on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, which marked the official beginning of hostilities between insurgents and forces of the dictator Batista; and second, Fidel Castro’s speech from the balcony of City Hall, in Céspedes Park on January 1, 1959, after the uprising proved victorious. At present, the Moncada Barracks houses both a complete commemorative military museum and a primary school.
City Hall (now headquarters of the Municipal People’s Power) shares Céspedes Park with the Cathedral, the home of Diego Velásquez (first Spanish governor of Cuba), the former Club San Carlos, and the iconic Casa Granda hotel, where you can savor a mojito or a cup of fine Cuban coffee while enjoying a wonderful view of life in the city from the hotel’s terrace. The Plaza is one of the epicenters of Santiago’s lively nightlife, famous throughout the island and beyond. Other tourist attractions in the city include El Morro, built on the south side of the bay, which is so dramatic that at times, you feel like you’re in a medieval castle rather than a colonial New World fortress.
The Santiago coastline is unlike its northern counterpart. While in the north, humid tropical forests tumble onto fine white sand beaches, Santiago is surrounded by dry savannas populated with woody shrubs and cactus that spread out across low cliffs. But this doesn’t mean that there are no natural paradises, they just happen to be located in the mountains. One such example is in Pinares de Mayarí. Villa Pinares de Mayarí, in particular, built some 2,300 feet above sea level on a hidden plateau in the Sierra de Nipe, was inspired by one of Fidel Castro’s visits to Siberia. The Villa is near Salto del Guayabo, a 1,800-foot waterfall that is the highest in Cuba. This region teems with a large number of native birds, such as the tocororo, the national bird of Cuba.
Discovering eastern Cuba can be intense, given the wealth of attractions it offers. This is merely a partial list; we have no doubt that after your first visit, you’ll want to return again and again.
As of June 21, Copa Airlines will offer two weekly flights from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean to Holguín (Cuba). Flights will depart on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 9:01 a.m. from the Hub of the Americas in Panama City, and land at Frank País International Airport at 12:31 p.m. The return flight from Holguín to Panama departs the same days at 1:21 p.m. and arrives at 2:47 p.m.
During our tour of eastern Cuba, the Panorama of the Americas team visited a number of tourist facilities, which we recommend if you’re planning to travel to this beautiful part of the island.
Where to stay
Playa Pesquero Resort: A fun and relaxing option for the whole family. Highway to Puerto Arturo, municipality of Rafael Freyre, Holguín.
Memories Holguín Resort: Harmonious natural surroundings. Playa Yuraguanal, municipality of Rafael Freyre, Holguín. www.memoriesresorts.com
Paradisus Río de Oro Resort & Spa: Adults only. Highway to Guardalavaca, Playa Esmeralda, municipality of Banes, Holguín.
Hotel Playa Costa Verde: Family fun for nature lovers. Playa Pesquero, municipality of Rafael Freyre, Holguín. www.gaviota-grupo.com/es/hoteles/playa-costa-verde
Villa Cayo Saetía: Enjoy the exotic flora and fauna. Cayo Saetía, municipality of Mayarí, Holguín.
Villa Maguana: Small, intimate, and friendly. Highway to Moa, Kilometer 22, municipality of Baracoa, Guantánamo. www.villamaguana.com
Hotel El Castillo: History and comfort high up in Baracoa. Castillo de Santa Bárbara, Seboruco Hill, Baracoa, Guantánamo.
Hotel Villa Gaviota: Original period houses in Santiago de Cuba’s most exclusive neighborhood. Avenida Manduley. Reparto Vista Alegre. Santiago de Cuba.
Villa Pinares de Mayarí: A unique choice in the mountains, in a region of beaches. Loma La Mensura. Pinares de Mayarí.
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