14 NOV 2016: On October 29, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed into Gibara Bay in present day Holguin Province.  He spent 12 days in the area where according to legend, he remarked that “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen”.

Just a short 524 years later, on October 29, 2016, we too found ourselves in Gibara and felt a similar sentiment of wonder, along with the knowledge that this was a place we would never have discovered had it not been for our guides from the Cuba Tourist Board.  On a trip full of surprises, the concept of discovering Cuba turned out to be an ongoing serendipitous, and pleasurable treat.

On a journey that took us to the cities and towns of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camaguey, Bayamo, Santiago, Biran, Holguin and Gibara, we were entranced by the friendliness of Eastern Cuban hospitality and enriched by cultural interaction.  Camaguey’s incredibly vibrant artist scene with the Street of Cinemas, the alluring art galleries and the expressive passion of the Contemporary Ballet, is just waiting to be discovered by travellers.  And in Santiago the hypnotic drum beat and Afro-Cuban rhythms of Tumba Francesa, and the Casa de la Trova, the birthplace of the Buena Vista Social Club, are only two of the many mellifluous rewards that the city has to offer.

On our road of discovery in Eastern Cuba, we feasted not only on fresh, well-prepared, delicious dishes (which poses a serious challenge to the accusation that all Cuban food is bland) but also feasted on the colourful colonial architecture, the celebration of historical personalities, and the enthusiasm with which the locals greeted and engaged us in conversation and smiles.

All in all, we experienced a Cuba that many all-inclusive-bound tourists simply miss out on when they visit the country.

In Trinidad the Manaca Iznaga estate in the Valley of the Sugar Mills features a 45 meter-high tower, originally used by Pedro Iznaga to watch over his slaves.  Today a literally breathtaking 184 steps to the top affords a great view of the area including the market selling clothing, table cloths and souvenirs and the huge pots used to boil sugar cane, but also the bodega down the road where you can escape from factory-produced beers such as the popular Cristal and Bucanero and for only 1 C.U.C (about $1.35 Canadian) you can quaff a bottle of local beer.

The Mausoleum in the Cemetery of Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba is an educational wonder where Cubans and visitors alike pay homage to José Marti, poet, journalist, philosopher and hero of the War of Independence from Spain.  In fact any person who has heard the iconic Cuban song “Guantanamera” already knows something about Marti.

It was none other than the American folk singer Pete Seeger who introduced the song to a North American audience in 1963, when in true folk song tradition, he included a poem by Marti in the opening lyrics:

Yo soy un hombre sincero, De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme quiero, hechar mis versos del alma

I am a truthful man; I come from where the palm tree grows,
Before I lay down my life, I want to share the poems of my soul

At the Marti Mausoleum the short but impressive changing of the guard ceremony takes place every 30 minutes with a high stepping honour guard… and respectful silence.

But not far away, past the tomb of Emilio Bacardi, the founder of the eponymous Rum, and amidst the tombs of revolutionary heroes dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, a Cuban hat and guitar designate the grave of Compay Segundo, generally acknowledged as the spirit behind the Buena Vista Social Club recordings.  Certainly his song “Chan Chan”, is in the repertoire of every musical group throughout the country. The tombstone includes the inscription “Las Flores de la Vida”—referring to the Flowers of Life:  the songs he left to the world.

About 90 minutes outside of Santiago, in the town of Biran, lies the homestead of Angel Castro who with his second wife Lina Ruz Gonzalez, raised seven children including Fidel and Raul.  A tour of the farm includes the school Fidel attended, the thatched homes of the workers who toiled in the sugarcane fields and the family’s lucrative timber business and a field where horses, oxen and goats munch grass and check out the visitors. There is a reconstruction of the home in which the Castros lived (the original burned down after Angel purportedly left a cigar burning), the reconstructed cock-fighting ring where Angel loved to gamble (Fidel hated it and had it dismantled), and the house where Lina lived after Angel’s death in 1956.  The homestead, rich in history and personality, is off the radar of tour operators…so far.

A photographic retrospective of Fidel Castro’s life (he celebrated his 90th Birthday in August, 2016) can be seen in Holguin city, about an hour away from the popular beach resorts, at Museo Provincial La Periquera.  This architectural showpiece is revered as an important symbol of the War of Independence.  The Spanish, in red uniforms with yellow ribbons (similar to the colours of the Spanish flag) locked themselves in one of the rooms and the Cubans, who thought they looked like parakeets, chided them to flee their cage, and thus the name Periquera.

And a short walk away is Loma de la Cruz where 445 steep steps lead to spectacular vistas of the city and the Sierra Maestra Mountains in the distance. True to form, when we huffed and puffed our way to the top there was a lone guitarist singing Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan”.

Toward the end of our trip, on the way to Gibara, famous for its fresh seafood, we stopped at one of the highway fruit and vegetable stands to buy the freshest, tastiest avocados, sweet bananas and juicy tomatoes that one can imagine.  Later on our walk through the town we visited the Hotel Ordoño, the former residence of Filipe Ordoño and the love of his life, Isabel Cano.  The 3rd floor terrace was added after Isabel’s death in 1959 so Filipe could watch over her grave at the nearby cemetery.  Today it offers wonderful views of the town and the Bay.

In the town centre, near the “Statue of Liberty” there’s a cigar factory where you can take photos (unlike at many of the Havana cigar factories).  Down by the Bay, on a Catamaran that serves Cuba Libres and Beer, you can’t help but revel at the scenery that includes weather-beaten fishing boats and fishermen plying their trade in rowboats, snorkeling masks and even rubber tubes.

Eastern Cuba offers unique insights for visitors who are looking for something different:  that vital connection with a destination that takes in people, cuisine, culture, nature and history, along with photographic and video memories galore.  The idea is to step outside of the all-inclusive routine and suggest that your clients spend a day or more in ‘exploration-and-discovery mode’.  They may experience a travel wake-up call that will change their travel habits forever.



Steve Gillick

A tireless promoter of "infectious enthusiasm about travel", Steve delivers his wisdom once a month in his column The Travel Coach.

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