Five hundred years after its founding, the eastern Cuban city of Bayamo bears the pride of an entire nation. Never before has the history of a small city carried so much weight in determining a country’s destiny, or merited so many names, earned with a long history of glorious and heroic events.
Inaugurated by the Spanish explorer Diego Velázquez on November 5, 1513, the second colonial villa created in Cuba after the island’s discovery grew from early on within the rebellious spirit of its sons and daughters.
The city’s indomitable spirit was no doubt sufficient motive for the long delay in giving the city its official title: it was designated as such by Spain 324 years after the city was born. It was out of the events that arose from an inexorable desire for freedom that the city earned the illustrious name of Cradle of the Cuban Nationality. This was the home of our country’s founding father, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the mastermind and architect of the first pro-independence struggle.
That anti-colonial war, unprecedented in the island’s history, featured Bayamo as the first territory that was freed from Spanish rule, as the earliest moment of a chain of military victories by the Mambí Army, the pro-liberation forces. In the same context, on Oct. 20, 1868, the city earned the name of the City of the National Anthem, when the patriot Perucho Figueredo wrote, on a piece of paper stained with the sweat of his horse the lyrics of the song sung most fervently by the Cuban people: “To battle, run, people of Bayamo…!” Almost three months later, in response to the overwhelming strength of the oppressor’s forces, the people of Bayamo decided to reduce the city to ashes before they would defile their freedom in the shadow of surrender. They marked it forever with letters of fire, enshrining it as the City of the Torch, or the Phoenix of Cuba.
In a short period, from their triumphal entry to their tragic sacrifice at the mercy of the flames, the patriots of this city created for the first time a revolutionary government and newspaper and a law to abolish slavery.
History, culture and tradition
A city where innumerable historical and cultural milestones have taken place, Bayamo, now the capital of Granma province, has also borne witness to the events narrated in verse in Cuba’s first literary work, Espejo de Paciencia (Mirror of Patience), and its streets gave rise to “La Bayamesa,” the song that initiated the country’s romantic song movement in March 1851.
A stronghold of the pro-independence cause at every stage of the popular struggle for definitive liberation, Bayamo was also the setting for another action of importance that immortalized July 26, 1953 as the Day of National Rebelliousness: the assault on the local military garrison, led by today’s president, Raúl Castro, at the same time that Fidel Castro was leading the assault on the Moncada garrison in Santiago.
Bayamo also has the unusual feature of three “plazas of the Revolution,” justifying another one of its nicknames: City of the Plazas. These include the first square in Cuba that was named Plaza de la Revolución—by Céspedes, Figueredo and other patriots—as well as the Plaza del Himno (“Plaza of the National Anthem”) and the Plaza de la Patria (“Plaza of the Homeland”). One symbol of pure tradition that still circulates through the city’s streets and avenues are the hundreds of colonial-style horse-drawn carriages, which generated yet another famous name: City of the Carriages.
However, it was in 1935 that Bayamo was granted its greatest title, in recognition of all of its valuable features and the honors it accumulated throughout the centuries, when it became the first city in Cuba to be declared a national monument.
An awakening to modern times
Recent years confirm a measured pace of progress toward prosperity.
Hundreds of projects to benefit society have been completed during this period, improving the people’s quality of life with important services, the impeccable cleanliness of public places, and an exquisite culture of perfectionism, all contributing to Bayamo’s growing reputation.
Spontaneously, new names are given to the city by its surprised visitors: Capital of Ice Cream, Mecca of Gastronomy and Services, and similar allusions that add to a long list, backed by its hardworking inhabitants and the ingenuity of its government institutions.
Today Bayamo has its share of exclusive spots, many of them located on the new Calle General García, a pedestrian mall paved in granite and decorated artistically.
Likewise, the pavement simulates the winding course of the nearby River Bayamo; the utility poles are tree trunks, and paint tubes spilling paint. On either side, ancient homes now restored and other interesting buildings: the Wax Museum (Museo de Cera), which holds dozens of likeness of celebrities; the Model of the Historic City Center (Maqueta), which is currently being built; a small aquarium with endemic fish species from our rivers and seas; ice cream parlours for all ages and especially for children; shops, art and sports academies, specialized restaurants, a painstakingly restored hotel, and two plazas overflowing with the history of our country’s founding, including the one where our national anthem, “La Bayamesa,” was created.
For a restful, pleasant visit, other sites are inviting: Cuba’s largest indoor cabaret; an exquisite botanical garden full of endemic species; a riverside resort; and another plaza that proudly displays the largest single-pane piece of stained glass in the world. And there is also the possibility of taking a horse-drawn carriage ride and reliving the past, present and future of a city that seems to have been the inspiration for a song by Pablo Milanés, the celebrated poet and singersongwriter who hails from these parts: “Man does not sit to contemplate the fruit of his action. Tomorrow he will propose to make it to the sun.”
Now an essential stop on the route of travellers who enjoy surprises, an obligatory reference among small capitals; Bayamo will perhaps have as its next nickname the “Mirror City.”