A Glance at Oriente - Cuba's East
By Mercy Ramos / Photos by PUBLICITUR
Five provinces comprise Oriente, Cuba's vibrant eastern region: Las Tunas, Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, and together they combine the diverse spectrum of elements that attract travelers to the island: sunshine and beach life, wildlife, water sports, culture and history, as well as health tourism.
The region boasts renowned beaches like those at Guardalavaca and Baconao as well as Cuba's highest mountain ranges including the famous Sierra Maestra. On the cultural side, Oriente buzzes with festivals all year round, amongst them the Fiesta del Fuego (Fire Festival) and the Latin American festival of Décima verse and improvised poetry. The jornada Cucalambeana is a day-long celebration of folk verse, and the “Romerías de Mayo” is a traditional religious pilgrimage that takes place May.
Oriente also throbs with history —the region is home to many significant sites, from the Spanish fort in Santiago de Cuba (el Morro de Santiago de Cuba) to Bariay where Columbus first landed in 1492 and the church Santuario de la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Its museums —a wax museum, an automobile museum and the Bacardi rum museum amongst others— celebrate the region's heritage and regularly fascinate visitors.
Santiago de Cuba
The city of Santiago de Cuba recently celebrated its 500th anniversary and it is looking its finest thanks to extensive renovations carried out for the occasion. This beautiful city was the sixth town founded by Diego Velázquez and the first capital of Cuba.
A vibrant mix of indigenous, Spanish, African and French influences make the area a cultural melting pot, reflected in its rich musical heritage.
The province of Santiago de Cuba has stunning beaches and other sites of particular natural beauty including the Gran Piedra Biosphere Reserve located over twelve hundred meters above sea level. The reserve is also home to the ruins of many coffee plantations founded by Franco-Haitian settlers at the end of the 18th century now recognized by UNESCO as world history sites.
One of the city's many colonial churches, La Basilica Menor de El Cobre, houses a statue of Cuba's Patron Saint la Virgen de la Caridad, while La Loma de San Juan is famous as the hill where the last battle of the Spanish-Cuban-North American war was fought in the summer of 1898.
The vast Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia is another site well worth visiting. Covering an area of over a hundred thousand square meters, the cemetery is a jewel of Cuban funerary art and a national monument.
The province of Santiago de Cuba also has a lot to offer watersports enthusiasts. Divers can explore the well-preserved coral reef and any of the seventy-three shipwrecks, which include the remains of the fleet of Admiral Cervera sunk during the battle of Santiago de Cuba on July 3rd, 1898. Non-divers can enjoy coastal boat tours or a “seafari” to Cayo Damas that includes snorkelling, other water sports and a tasty lunch.
Granma is another Eastern Cuban province, whose capital Bayamo was the second town founded by Diego Velázquez in 1513 (as San Salvador de Bayamo) and was the first capital of the Republic-at-Arms during the war of independence. It was in Bayamo that the first notes of the Cuban national anthem were heard, and the anthem was composed by a native of the city - Perucho Figueredo. A national monument, the city is considered the cradle of Cuban nationality.
Traditional horse-carriages are seen all over the streets of Bayamo, and are celebrated in the chorus of a popular Cuban song A Bayamo en coche: “…quiero ir a Bayamo de noche, a pasear por el parque en un coche…”. “I want to go to Bayamo at night, to ride round the park on a horse-andcarriage…” Almost half of Cuba's significant historic sites are found in the province of Granma, since it was there that the first freedom movements were born.
Manzanillo is the province's second city, where the main port and international airport are located. Known for its beautiful central square, it also has various historic and cultural interest spots like the Parochial Church of La Purísima Concepción de Manzanillo and the Demajagua a ruined sugar factory that is now a historical museum. The house of poet and revolutionary journalist Manuel Navarro Luna is a piece of 20th century history, now a literary arts center.
For nature-lovers, Marea del Portillo where the mountains of the Sierra Maestra meet is an almost untouched natural wilderness, and like the rest of Oriente Granma province also boasts beautiful beaches and plenty of opportunities for diving, snorkelling and other watersports.
The northeastern province of Holguín is known for its nickel production but is also the country's third most popular tourist destination and has a well-developed infrastructure. On its spectacular beaches at Guardalavaca, Esmeralda, Pesquero and Yaraguanal, soaring mountain ranges provide a contrasting backdrop to the calm blue waters of the Caribbean.
Cayo Saetía, at the mouth of Cuba's largest bay Nipe, is one of Holguín's principal attractions. A magnificent beach with clear water and fine white sand converges with a nature reserve which visitors can explore on safaris.
Holguín is a also home to Bariay, where Christopher Columbus' landing more than half a millennium ago is commemorated today by a monument to “the Meeting of the Two Cultures.”
Lying at almost a kilometer above sea level, Pinares de Mayarí is a unique and captivating wildlife destination with more than three hundred endemic plant species and around a hundred bird species.
Amongst the numerous attractions of the city of Holguín, one of the most popular is definitel y La Loma de la Cruz (the Hill of the Cross.) Visitors can climb its 458 steps to take in magnificent panoramic views of the city and every year local people make the traditional May Pilgrimages (Romerías de Mayo) to this spot.
Known as “The Balcony of the Cuban East” the province of Las Tunas is home to virgin beaches and vast natural beauty spots.
Covarrubias is the the region's most popular tourist beach, with an international diving center and 6 km of coral reef, mainly made up of black coral and sea sponges.
The streets and squares of the provincial capital are covered with sculptures by a host of artists, not for nothing the city is known as the capital of Cuban sculpture.
The city of Las Tunas is also known for its poetry, and has become the permanent site of two festivals - the jornada Cucalambeana and a Latin American Festival of Décima and Verso Improvisado (ten-beat and improvised verse, similar to the folk verse forms that influenced Shakespearean pentameter.) Both festivals celebrate traditional folk verse and are dedicated to the prolific Cuban poet Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo (1829-1861).
Guantánamo is the easternmost province of the country and home to Cuba's eastern tip at Maisí. It has many attractions, among them the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park - a Biosphere Reserve and one of the Western Hemisphere's most important floral conservation sites.
Guantánamo's Zoológico de Piedra (Stone Zoo) houses a curious collection of indigenous animals carved in stone, as well as minature “palenques” - slave communities - also carved from stone.
Considered one of the seven wonders of Cuban engineering, the famous La Farola viaduct runs along the mountainside at heights of up to to six hundred meters above sea level and features eleven suspension bridges.
However the province's most important tourist attraction is undoubtably Baracoa, Cuba's first city founded in 1511, home to the first cabildo (religious community) and the first cathedral.
Today the city is a national monument and its parochial church houses the last remaining Cruz de la Parra, one of the twenty nine crosses that Christopher Columbus planted upon his arrival on the new continent more than five centuries ago.