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Cuba libre: a trip through Cuba’s Oriente

For a taste of old Cuba, Lydia Bell heads east. The Oriente and its stridently Afro-Cuban capital, Santiago de Cuba, remain largely untouched by the wave of change sweeping the island.

Baracoa's colonial legacy

Tom Parker


Among airlines that fly from the US to Havana is Alaska Airlines, which flies direct from Los Angeles to Havana. Air Canada flies from Sydney to Havana via Vancouver and Toronto; LATAM flies from Sydney to Havana via Santiago, Chile.


Black Tomato, a tour company based in the UK and US, arranges customised 10-night luxury tours from Havana to eastern Cuba, visiting Santiago, Baracoa and Cayo Saetía, from $7,200 per person. This includes accommodation listed below, transfers, domestic flights and activities.


Santiago de Cuba

The once-derelict Hotel Encanto Imperial has been restored by the government recently and is now the city’s best hotel, with 39 spacious rooms and public areas with beautiful balconies and pediments. Black Tomato also arranges stays in a 1950s home on the cliffs overlooking the beach at Siboney or in Vista Alegre, the suburb once favoured by the city’s sugar barons. Calle Enramadas, Esq Santo Tomás. Stgo de Cuba.


Villa Maguana has 16 rooms set in pretty timber buildings on the pristine Bahia de Cayoguaneque, about 20 kilometres north of Baracoa. *Carretera **de Moa, Km 22, Guan, Baracoa.*

Cayo Saetía 

The cay’s only accommodation is the simple but comfortable Villa Cayo Saetía, a government-run guesthouse of 12 rooms set in bungalows with verandas overlooking the ocean. 


The Cuban Ministry of Tourism reports close to four million arrivals on the island last year, an increase of nearly 13 per cent on 2015, but an ageing and largely inadequate infrastructure in Havana and cities such as Trinidad and Viñales means tourist operators struggle to meet demand for accommodation, food and service. There are anecdotal reports of hotel tariffs in Havana, Trinidad and Viñales doubling in the past two years; the cost of some rooms in Havana has tripled or quadrupled. While some global tour operators have pulled back on Cuban itineraries, the current wave of tourists arrives on cruise ships, with an estimated 370,000 cruise passengers due in Havana this year. Seven new luxury properties are under construction or restoration, which will add 3,673 rooms across Cuba. In the northern spring, Swiss chain Kempinski opened Cuba’s first modern five-star hotel, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. Last year Starwood Luxury Collection snapped up Hotel Inglaterra and Hotel Santa Isabel, colonial-era landmarks in Old Havana, and extensive restoration is under way. And earlier this year Cuban authorities and Russian Railways announced a plan to upgrade Cuba’s antiquated railway network, investing nearly $1.5 billion by 2030 in either a new branch line from Havana to Varadero via Matanzas or an extension of the existing Hershey line.

There are times when it feels as though the entire city of Santiago de Cuba has congregated in Parque Céspedes. It’s a square hemmed in by faded colonial-era piles, and tonight, as a humid dusk falls, it’s full of folk promenading and gossiping and flirting. Even more are huddled over their phones hoping to log in to the overloaded public WiFi. From the rooftop of the Casa Grande, the most emblematic hotel in the city, I watch the pageant below: children playing football, hustlers staking territory, lovers circling slowly beneath the bronze bust of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who freed his slaves and declared war on the Spanish in 1868. Up here on the terrace a salsa party is in full swing, fuelled by Mojitos and led by Grammy-winning local heroes Septeto Santiaguero singing old-style son Cubano beneath a full moon.

Live music on the streets of Santiago de Cuba.

It’s been a day of extraordinary music, even by the high standards of a city where the music is always live, the venues always packed and the audience always ready. Earlier, at a another son session at the Casa de Los Tradiciones, a tucked-away venue in the untouristed neighbourhood of Tivoli, my guide Alian Pantoja Alvarez, a millennial Santiaguero with a vast network of associates and friends, introduced me to Harry Follett, a young English entrepreneur who last year staged the city’s first international music festival since the revolution, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Follett came here to learn batá and conga and ended up hatching a plan to bring global electronic music together with Afro-Cuban folk (practised in the eastern mountains and the city’s neighbourhoods) and stage it in Santiago’s landmark Teatro Heredia and the city’s plazas and jazz clubs. Later we catch a matinée at one of the city’s defining venues, La Casa de la Trova, a colonial-era music hall, packed with tables of tourists and hustlers where a local band belts out salsa and couples weave around each other on the dance floor. Later that night, not far from my hotel, after Septeto Santiaguero has finished their set atop the Casa Grande Hotel, we stumble into a street-corner rumba, a style of dance that came to Cuba from West Africa: intense, sweaty, and life-affirming. 

Ready to rumba in Santiago de Cuba.

There’s nothing preserved-in-aspic about these traditions. Music and dance are kept exuberantly alive in homes, mainstream venues and on the streets every night. Santiagueros have a mix of Spanish, West African, Haitian and Jamaican heritage, and this is reflected in music that mixes Spanish guitar and African percussion and vocal traditions with influences from neighbouring countries. Many Cuban musical genres, such as son, have their roots in Cuba’s east, and many subgenres stem from the different influences converging in this region.

Cuba’s second city is wedged between the majestic Sierra Maestra mountains and the Caribbean, about 860 kilometres south-east of Havana. Santiago de Cuba is palpably different in character from the more metropolitan, Europeanised capital. Shimmering with heat, humidity and potencia, it’s a stridently Afro-Cuban city, a place never so deeply in thrall to the Spanish ruling class as other Cuban provincial centres. In 2015 the streets were spruced up for the city’s 500th anniversary celebrations and a visit by the Pope, but much of Santiago remains dilapidated and dusty, with the feel of a country town. From here I’ll drive through Guantánamo, the country’s easternmost province, to Cuba’s oldest colonial settlement, Baracoa, drop by Cayo Saetía for a bizarre Caribbean safari, then catch a flight home from Holguín, the east’s flight hub.

Street in Baracoa.

Here in the far east, there’s not much evidence of the tidal wave of change that has swept Cuba since diplomatic relations with the United States began to thaw in 2014. Tourist numbers to the island have surged, with just over 4 million visitors last year, an increase of 13 per cent on 2015, itself an increase on the year before. American travellers are arriving on direct flights from several US cities and everyone else is clamouring to see the island before, it’s commonly assumed, the Americans change everything.

Incremental change really began in 2008 when Fidel Castro‘s younger brother Raúl was made president and steps such as the legalisation of some small businesses (nail bars, food outlets and the like) and residential property trade between Cubans started to liberalise a moribund economy. (Now 86, Raúl is due to step down as president next year, though he’ll remain as party secretary.) Then, in one great historic rush last year, Cuba witnessed the arrival of a US president and a détente between the two former Cold War enemies; the Rolling Stones staged a free concert in Havana for an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands; the first American cruise ship in nearly 40 years arrived. The Kardashians dropped in. Fast and Furious 8 was shot in Havana. Karl Lagerfeld showed Chanel’s cruise collection on Havana’s Paseo del Prado. Commercial flights from a raft of American cities were launched. And the father of the Cuban revolution died on 25 November at the age of 90.

Most travellers stay in Havana where hotels and guesthouses are often booked solid even though some prices have doubled, or more, since American travel to the island was legalised. Those who look beyond the capital tend to venture mainly to the western Viñales valley, the colonial-era town of Trinidad in the south and a few beach towns – Banyan Tree Resorts, for instance, is opening four new resorts this year, two on the north-eastern cay of Santa María, and two on the peninsula of Varadero.

Beach in Baracoa

In the Oriente, as Cubans call the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, development remains largely theoretical. For the moment the region has quiet towns with homestays for travellers and few cars on the roads. It’s hotter, more humid and greener than the west, with tracts of virgin jungle, forested mountains and largely empty coastlines. The east is wild.

After the salsa party and the late-night rumba session, I wake with a hangover and Baracoa on my mind. It’s only 230 kilometres due east from Santiago, a three-and-a-half-hour drive, but in the Cuban imagination Baracoa is the end of the earth. A popular old Cuban song opens with the line “A Baracoa me voy, aunque no haya carretera” (“I’m off to Baracoa, even if there’s no road”). The coastal town was effectively isolated by the Sierra del Purial range until 1964 when a mountain road named La Farola was constructed, linking Baracoa to Guantánamo in the south-west. Before La Farola, it would have been easier to get to Haiti in a boat than go by road to Santiago.

Dusk over Baracoa.

From Santiago we skirt the vast scoop of Guantánamo Bay, then turn north and inland. Our van scales La Farola‘s nauseating series of hairpin turns, then corkscrews down hills clad in coffee and cacao farms into Baracoa. By the roadside women sell produce from their gardens and sweets from their kitchens: mountains of mandarins, bars of local chocolate, and cucurúcho, a Baracoan sweet of coconut flesh and sugar cooked down with orange or guava and stuffed into palm-leaf cones. My Irish travelling companion, Johnny, begs our driver to stop, hoping some of the sweetmeat will soothe his hangover and carsickness. “God help me,” he whimpers, as a buxom grandmother hands him a cone and rubs his back in sympathy.

Baracoa has 80,000 residents but it feels like a fishing village, its charming cluster of colonnaded colonial and post-colonial homes hugging the malecón we drive along as the late-afternoon sun warms the sea wall. A pretty cathedral and the remains of a fortress wall hint at the town’s moment of fame. Christopher Columbus arrived here in 1492, his first steps in Cuba, and following tradition it’s said he drove a wooden cross, hewn from local pigeon plum, into the sands of Baracoa harbour. A relic of the cross is kept in the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa cathedral in the heart of town.

The restored Nuestra Señora de la Asunción cathedral in Santiago de Cuba. 

Baracoa is one of the rare places in Cuba where hints of Taíno heritage can still be seen in people’s faces. The Taíno was one of the main indigenous tribes of the Caribbean when the Spanish arrived. By 1519 a smallpox epidemic killed most of those who hadn’t died in enslavement or been murdered. Here in Baracoa, the 16th-century Taíno chief Hatuey led a guerrilla war against the Spanish. He was burned at the stake, and became Cuba’s first national hero, with a town (and a beer) named after him.

Since 2008, when I last visited Baracoa, small businesses have been kick-started by government loans, part of the slow and still heavily regulated push towards privatisation. Nine years ago Baracoa felt deserted. The buildings were derelict, the cathedral abandoned, the streets empty after dark. This time the cathedral is restored, the streets are busy with people, the nightlife pumping.

“Come dancing tonight!” insists Henry Gamboa Druyet, our driver. This is his town, but I wonder how much dancing they do on Sunday nights in quiet Baracoa. After night falls, and after a few Cancháncharas – a local cocktail of white rum, honey and lemon juice – Henry takes us to a crowded salsa class on a terrace in the centre of town. “Lo siento,” the teacher apologises just as we’re getting the hang of it; she’s due to join a group that’s dancing across the road at the Casa de la Cultura. So we head to one of the restaurants lining the malecón and order a typical Baracoan dish of pescado en salsa de coco – fish poached in a spicy sauce of coconut milk and tomato – and return later to watch our teacher dance.

Drummers in Casa de la Cultura, Baracoa.

The casa is packed, with a queue of onlookers outside jostling for a view. She’s one of a dozen dancers backed by another dozen musicians and singers who set a heart-quickening, percussion-heavy beat around tales of seduction and worship. Rumba comes straight out of African music and dance traditions, with three pitches of conga drums competing in a clave rhythm so typically Cuban it instantly transports me to the island, no matter where in the world I am. The rumba in this remote corner of the country is the best I’ve seen: intense, almost hypnotic. Later, exhilarated after the rumba, Henry ushers us into Casa de la Trova where we watch pairs of 60-something salsa dancers dominate the dance floor. The beats of son, salsa and rumba blast into the humid night from a handful of venues in the town centre, all full on this Sunday night.

Our lodgings at Villa Maguana, 20 kilometres north, are on the fringe of the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, one of the most important and least-visited ecosystems in the Caribbean basin, with sections so pristine that it’s said not even indigenous people ventured there. Against a backdrop of jungle, the villa is a constellation of simple timber shacks fronting an idyllic beach on palm-fringed Bahia de Cayoguaneque.

Rumba dancers.

From here we hire a boat for a daytrip into Bahia de Taco a few kilometres north, a place of quiet mangroves and teeming wildlife. With the help of our guide we spot the dark heads of feeding manatees and the flash of emerald-hued hummingbirds, which levitate above shocking-pink blooms. Almost one hundred species of bird can be spotted in these parts, from egrets and turkey vultures to woodpeckers, kingfishers, warblers and the Cuban trogan. Early one morning we hike to the summit of El Yunque, a 575-metre flat-topped mountain seven kilometres west of Baracoa. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour steamy slog through strikingly uniform jungle, but the reward is like no other – views over a vast wilderness criss-crossed by a network of rivers that turn silver as the sun rises.

The Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa mountain range, home to Alejandro de Humboldt National Park.

In October last year, shortly after my visit, Hurricane Matthew hit this largely unpopulated eastern tip of Cuba and devastated Baracoa. Coastal houses were flattened, bridges were washed away, crops destroyed. Six months later, my contacts in the town report that Baracoa’s hotels, restaurants, bars and tours are operating again. The bridge over the River Toa on the road from Baracoa to Villa Manguana is still under reconstruction, so guests are transferred to the villa by boat, or ferried over a temporary bridge when water levels are low enough. The Baracoan spirit and hospitality, they report, remain undaunted.

Our final stop before leaving the Oriente, on a plane from Holguín to Havana, is Cayo Saetía, a deserted cay in the Bahía de Nipe, north of Baracoa. It’s beautiful – a dozen sugar-white coves lapped by a turquoise lagoon and backed by thick forest on a 42-square-kilometre island of rich red earth – but a curious history is the reason we’re drawn here. During the 1970s and ’80s, when Cuba’s fortunes were buoyed by the Soviet Union, Communist-party officials came here to hunt hogs and deer. By 1992 it was filled with exotic African beasts presented to Fidel by the government of Mozambique. Hundreds of their descendants roam the cay’s meadow-like interior – camels, zebras, buffalo, antelope, ostriches and deer – coexisting with native macaws, iguanas and hutias, rodents resembling giant, post-apocalyptic rats.

Zebras on Cayo Saetía.

From the cay’s simple, but comfortable 12-room lodge, run by military-owned tourism group Gaviota SA, we jump into a Russian jeep for an eccentric African safari in the Caribbean. Fidel grew up on a sugarcane estate near Birán, a 20-minute drive from here, and it’s said that he regularly choppered into Cayo Saetía with his family for holidays until 1994, when the cay was officially turned into a commercial hunting ground. The American corporation United Fruit used the island as an orchard until the 1920s, before they gave up fruit in favour of sugar. Fidel’s father, Angel, was a Spanish immigrant farmer who grew sugar cane for United Fruit. Though Fidel developed his leftist, anti-imperialist politics while studying law at the University of Havana, he was also heavily influenced by a childhood in the rural Oriente, where American companies grew rich and Cubans remained painfully poor. Behind every idyll in Cuba, there are deeper, more complex stories.

It’s late afternoon when we leave the cay and drive to Holguín. We pass farm workers wearing high-crowned straw hats riding on the open trays of old trucks, or on carts drawn by oxen. We pass a farmer herding bony brahman cattle on foot and when we take a roadside break late in the afternoon we’re joined by a sun-baked campesino riding by on a mule. He dismounts, delighted to have company. He says he lives in a one-room bohio, a humble cottage he shares with his mule. His unjaded openness is typical of Cubans in the Oriente. It takes a long time to say goodbye, and he’s still beaming as we drive away into the sunset.

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