29 NOV 2016:  An artists’ mecca past and present, Camaguey, home to 300,000 residents, is home to some of Cuba’s finest and most important artists. Until recently, Camaguey which is an inland city was isolated but the introduction of the Cuba Railroad Company in the 1900s which is headquartered there helped change all that.

Camaguey (Puerto Principe)

City moniker: The City of Churches, and The City of Large Earthenware jars.

Saying: “If you drink water from a clay pot either you will stay or come back.”

Local pride is evident as soon as you arrive.  The early settlers were from Andalusia, hence the bullfight themes and the love of dance.  Camaguey locals are called Agramontinos or camagueyanos who walk with a polished elegance in a city that is dusting off neglected, derelict buildings and embracing them in new ways. This bright future is seen in the artistry, the dance, and the morphing cityscapes.

Founded in 1528 by Diego Velazquez, Camaguey’s historic center is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the heavy concentration of various architectural styles.  Clay pots tinajones (large earthen jars) strewn everywhere are signature hallmarks.

Take a city gallery tour.  The Galeria Larios is an oasis of art, a true incubator. Founder and artist Orestes Larios Zaak had just returned from a visit to Niagara Falls when I met him. “I paint nature scenes,” he smiled, as I encouraged him to create a Niagara Falls theme.

Orestes incorporates workshops, has gallery space open to the public, and is a fabulous mentor to other artists who have studios on the premise. I enjoyed meeting Romelio Paez Pena whose onsite atelier is an enclave of iron and recycled machinery. He churns out fanciful figures of animals alongside comical themes of death and work.

By the pedestrian-friendly Plaza del Carmen drop by renowned Cuban artist Martha Jimenez whose bronze statues of the Old Man, Gossipers and The Newspaper Reader flank the square.   Check inside her gallery to see an extraordinary world of fanciful paintings and clay figures alongside a Wall of Fame of celebrities and politicians like outgoing US Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife.

On Agramonte Square there is a 17th century colonial house, home of  one of Cuba’s best contemporary painter duos, the husband and wife artists Joel Jover and Leana Sanchez. Their live-in house gallery Casa de Arte Jover is a true house of art with an eclectic collection of mixed media and vintage pop cultural curios collected by them.

Where to sleep:

Overnight in a lavish private courtyard. There are three new boutique hotels under the Hoteles E brand from Cubanacan kitty corner from each other Hotel La Avellaneda,  Hotel E Santa Maria, and Hotel Camino de Hierro with its railway theme due to its pedigree. (The site is in the former Cuba Railroad Company headquarters). I stayed at the first one. Named after Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a 19th century Cuban born writer, considered among the finest Latin American female poets. She was born around the corner from this hotel.

Highlights of city and surrounds:

One afternoon, we hopped inside a bicitaxi, a great way to see the sights. Our tour revealed a labyrinth of webbed streets in asymmetrical patterns with buildings spilling beside the narrow laneways as hand-holding moms walked toddlers in school uniforms, and sellers were showcasing mini stands of commerce.

On the dining front, the new colonial hotels feature haute cuisine with professional servers in formal black and white attire ready to assist every whim. Dine rooftop amid flickering votive candles at Santa Maria Hotel or in a private courtyard at the La Campana de Toledo at the San Juan de Dios Square for a riveting dinner dance show.

For more delights, watch the acclaimed Compania Ballet Contemporaneo De Camaguey

Santiago de Cuba

Known as the Cuban City with the Greatest Caribbean Ambiance and a melting pot of cultures.

Enveloped by the Sierra Maestra, this Spanish colony founded in 1515 was Cuba’s first capital so expect history and culture on steroids.  At every corner there’s a new discovery. Learn about its heritage of rum making, and sugar and coffee plantations that became a hotbed for pirates and slaves who churned out a colourful melange of Afro-Cuban music and dance.

The Bacardi name is a legend. Emilio Bacardi Moreau, the city’s wealthy benefactor and one-time mayor, built a purpose-made museum to house his private collection of European art including fashionable curio pieces popular at the time. In 1912 Bacardi embarked on an Egyptian Odyssey and brought back a mummy from Luxor which is on display in the basement. Next to the mummy see another grim display of two mummies from the ancient Paracas culture in Peru.

Explore city monuments, hang out at San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle, which is more manageable than the mega huge morro in Havana due to its smaller size. The castle which sits precariously atop a cliff overlooking the Santiago harbour at one time was heaven and hell on earth.

The Queen’s balcony has heavenly views of the sea while two dungeons imprisoned slaves and were used for torture practices. “As locals we do not go in there,” says one Cuban describing an evil aura associated with superstitions.

Go for the nightlife. The nightclub Casa de la Trova showcases local artists. You can drink a cerveza for 1 CUC and enjoy Afro-Cuban tunes.

Visit the Park Cespedes, a Wi-Fi hotspot known for smartphone carrying locals but also as the park where thousands on January 2, 1959 listened to Fidel Castro deliver his legendary Revolutionary speech from a balcony across the street. Every New Years Eve, the Bacardi family it is said unveils a massive Cuban flag to a throng of revellers.

The Bacardi empire – Next to the former Bacardi Rum factory that once dominated this part of the city drop by a tiny hole in the wall tourist bar, Barrita La Casa del Ron de Santiago de Cuba for a rum tasting demonstration of another label, the lighter rum Ron Cubay produced there.

City and surrounds

Paul McCartney fans will enjoy lunch at the El Morro Restaurante Palmares. The Beatles legend, a known vegetarian, who visited in 2000, ordered an omelette, and today his chair is now in pride of place overlooking the bay enshrined with a commemorative plaque.

At night, catch the very best in AfroCuban sounds of Tumba Francesa “French drum,” a combination of Haitian and French musical traditions that originated in Santiago de Cuba. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage cultural status in 2003, this powerful performance of drumming, singing and dancing is not-to-be-missed. Dancers in long gowns with French influences recreate the maypole dance and other ballroom style dances using Haitian traditions brought to Cuba in the 1790s.

Where to sleep:

Melia Santiago de Cuba

Amid a sprawling city this highrise hotel provides clients amenities and services familiar with Cuba’s major hotel brand. To boot, find a choice of pools with towel and umbrella service, a rooftop bar for breathtaking sunset views, and special services available on The Level for certain rooms between the sixth and 10th floors among other perks.

Related article: Sweets of Colonial Cuba - Part 1

Images by Stephen Smith

Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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