A Look at Holguín

A Look at Holguín

Attractions & Excursions

By Ciro Bianchi Ross Photos: Publicitur & Prensa Latina

Some say that it was in Holguín where Latin America was born. One of the most important, if not the most significant, encounters of humanity in the New World occurred when Columbus landed at Bariay on his first voyage to the western hemisphere. In a narrow bay on the north coast of the province, he made contact with the native community living in the area. "This the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen," wrote the Admiral in his diary and with it delivered the first Western praise to the eastern region of Cuba.

Holguín really is beautiful. We can only marvel at the sight of its sea and mountain landscapes, pine trees, beaches, virgin forests, natural parks, and the coastline. The view from the Mayabe vantage point is breathtaking. There are no words to describe the surroundings of Key Saetia. But Holguín is not only about nature. It also has its history and culture, it's past and present. The majority of the people visiting may be seeking its dreamlike sea, but there are also other interesting places to go. Holguín is not only sun and sea, beach and mountain.

Holguín, according to locals, is the tourist province par excellence. This is maybe a little exaggerated but it has become one of the most important tourist areas of the largest island in the Caribbean. During high season, there are at least 50 flights a week arriving to its airport.

History and Legends Holguín, capital of the province with the same name and located 770 km to the east of Havana, is a city with pretentions. When the whole of the eastern region was only one province called Oriente, Holguín was competing with Santiago de Cuba to become the capital of the province. It does not have Santiago's history or fame, but it does have a booming economy making it the centre of one of the largest sugar growing regions of the country and with vast deposits of nickel and cobalt.

The city was founded by Spanish colonizer, Captain Garcia Holguín, who named it after himself in 1545 and seven years later, it was officially registered as a city. From that moment on, its development was quite slow and different from other Cuban cities. Slavery wasn't prevalent and the black population level was low. That is one of the main reasons why its population and cultural roots are essentially Spanish.

Among the representative traces of its colonial past, there is the San Isidoro Cathedral built in 1720 with brick arcades and Moorish roofs and the Periquera, a neoclassical two-storey house formerly the city hall and today the museum of provincial history.

The name of this house, Periquera, means "Parakeet House" and is related to a piece of history. On October 30, 1868, right at the beginning of the first war of independence against Spanish rule on the island, Cuban independence fighters entered and took possession of Holguín. Spanish soldiers sought refuge in the partially built house of a local tradesman. With their uniforms consisting of green pants and jackets, yellow epaulettes, and red scarves, just like the colours of parakeets, they looked out of the windows and were mocked by the Cubans who desisted from capturing the building. "They look like parakeets in their cage," said the Cubans.

There are numerous legends about this house with its Moorish galleries. There is the one about the governor's wife who was buried alive with her lover by her cuckolded husband.

Another story is about some secret tunnels connecting the house with the Loma de la Cruz, the "Hill of the Cross" which is the city's natural vantage point and another one of its symbols. I f the story of the tunnel was true; it would stretch for three km to the west where the hill is located. You can reach the summit by car but it is best to climb it on foot, if your legs and lungs can make the 458 steps to the top. On May 3, 1790, Franciscan priest Antonio de Alegría placed a wooden cross on top of the hill, 275 m above sea level and 127 m over the city. For years this was a place for pilgrimages and nowadays the location for the May procession, a popular party that combines the modern and the traditional.

The Idol of Banes

A good part of Cuba's archaeological wealth was discovered in Holguín. In Banes, there are almost a hundred sites bearing witness to its aboriginal origins.

It is easy to reach Banes from Guardalavaca Beach, only 20 km away. No other place in Cuba has that number of sites, not even Baracoa with 54. That is why Banes is considered the archaeological capital of Cuba.

The Chorro de Maíta, on the outskirts of the town, is worth paying a visit to. It is a cemetery with 108 graves that are maintained as they were found, at the same depth and facing the sun. Experts considered it a controversial place since pre-Columbian tribes did not choose a particular place for their burials. One of those remains belongs to a Spaniard who, it seems, became part of the community and at his death was buried according to the aboriginal custom in a fetal position. Unlike him, a native was placed in a Christian position: legs outstretched and arms crossed over the chest. There is another one whose skeleton measures 1.76 cm and is the tallest of the whole cemetary and should have been a chieftain. One woman, nicknamed the Princess, around 18 years of age at the time of her death, has the remains of a baby placed at her feet.

She was placed in the grave with many ornaments, one of them is a spectacular necklace made with rose coral, pearls, quartz, and gold beads.

The so called Idol of Banes is also made of gold. This four cm long figure is exhibited in the Indocuban Bani Museum, the most important Cuban museum regarding aboriginal cultures. It represents a naked woman with a pot held in her hands at chest level.

The White Town

Gibara, to the north of the provincial capital, is known as La Villa Blanca or the "White Town" for the white façades of the buildings. It is the only walled urban borough that existed on the island apm1 from the city of Havana. It is there that the International Low Budget Film Festival takes place presided over by Cuban director Humberto Solás.

In its central park, facing the church, there is a statue of liberty placed there at the beginning of the 20th Century. You will also find the gallery of Cuban painter Cosme Proenza whose paintings have gone beyond regional limits but is still very attached to his native soil. This is also the land of the popular Cuban singer Faustino "EI Guayabero" Oramas who lived to almost a hundred years old and never stopped sharing his charismatic songs with his people.

Moa, to the east, has one of the biggest nickel and cobalt mines in the world. Along with the large sugar production and cane harvester factory, chrome extraction and processing, and feldspar deposits, Holguín is the Cuban province with the greatest economic growth.

Holguín also stands out in the field of health. On the outskirts of the capital is a drug rehabilitation clinic with an increasing level of international patronage.

For leisure activities, there are barely any limits for tourists in the area. You can have a swim at the beach with dolphins or just watch those beautiful animals. You can dive or fish or use catamarans and jet skies. You can explore an ecological reserve and also spend some time at a farmer's house sharing his daily chores. Have a richly organic meal or just take a ride on a cart pulled by oxen or on the backs of mules.

Visitors have four and five star hotels available for great stays at Holguin's beaches at Guardalavaca and Pesquero.

A Jump in Time

A visit to the Bariay Monument National Park is like traveling through time. It occupies a two km2 area full of natural beauty and history and contains the exact place where Columbus landed 515 years ago. A monument was placed here as a symbol of the encounter between the two cultures. The Spanish one is represented by a number of columns placed in a triangle and penetrating the aboriginal culture represented by its gods placed in a circle.

At the entrance, right in front of a rebuilt Spanish fort, you are welcomed and invited to board a carriage on which you will tour the park.

During the tour, you will get to visit a village where "natives" perform their daily chores. This includes working the land and preparing casabe, a sort of cracker made out of cassava which, together with iguanas and turtles, was an essential element of their diet.

Further along, a man playing the part of Columbus takes possession of the land and invites his visitors to follow him. You will reach the end of the Bariay Bay where two circular houses are located as models of the kind of dwellings Columbus encountered when first discovering this land. There a group of dancers perform native dances, called Areitos. You can also have lunch at a 15th century sty led Spanish tavern.

You will be lucky to visit Holguín and to have the chance to experience a trip that combines environment awareness, culture, and history. The land that you will see has been preserved to be the same as what Columbus witnessed when he gave life to Latin America.