Vedado – Habana Vieja – Centro Habana – Miramar – Siboney – East Havana Side
Destinations in Cuba: Eastern Cuba
Granma – Holguin – Santiago de Cuba – Guantánamo
Cubans refer to the eastern part of Cuba as the Oriente, giving it an exotic, magical appeal. The landscape, stretching out towards Haiti and other Caribbean islands, is varied, with majestic mountains, magnificent coastlines and an area of arid desert unusual in Cuba. The eastern cities, often rich in history, include Santiago de Cuba, host to one of Latin America’s most famous carnivals.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, thousands of black slaves were brought to Cuba from Africa, men and women who became the ancestors of the multi-ethnic mix visible in Eastern Cuba today, part African, but also part Spanish, part French and part Chinese. In this cultural melting pot, African and European, Roman Catholic and pagan traditions are blended, sometimes inextricably.
The area is full of apparent contradictions: there is the combative Oriente, rebellious and indomitable; and yet there is also the laid-back Oriente, an oasis of pleasure; and the sonorous Oriente, the cradle of great musicians. It is true that the people of Eastern Cuba have always fought with great fervor. One example is the Indian chief Hatuey, who was burned at the stake in the 16th century for organizing resistance against the Spanish. Then, in the 19th century, local nationalist’ led the wars of independence. The citizens of Bayamo even burned down their town rather than hand it over to the enemy. In the 20th century, there were the rebeldes (many of whom were from Eastern Cuba, including the Castros themselves), who launched the struggle against Batista’s dictatorship by attacking the Moncada barracks in Santiago.
Yet the people of eastern Cuba also know how to have a good time. They adore music, rhythm and dance of all kinds, and each July put on a colorful Carnival and Fiesta del Caribe at Santiago de Cuba; the carnival is one of the most celebrated in Latin America.
Exploring Eastern Cuba
The classic starting point for touring the eastern provinces is Santiago de Cuba, a city rich in history, with lovely colonial architecture and sites associated with the 1959 Revolution. To the west rises the majestic Sierra Maestra, also with its own associations with the guerrilla war of the 1950s. The Sierra is most easily reached, in fact, from the north, near Bayamo. To the east, the Parque Baconao has all kinds of attractions, ideal for families with children, while more adventurous souls can head further east, to the province of Guantanamo, famous for its US naval base, and Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest city. The province of Holguin, further north, has some fine beaches, and Cuba’s most interesting archaeological site.
Getting Around destinations in Cuba
Although sights on the outskirts of Santiago can be reached by bus or taxi, by far the best way to get around Eastern Cuba is to hire a car. Some journeys are among the most picturesque in Cuba, especially the drive to Baracoa via “La Farola”. Another option would be to fly to the main eastern town, various organized tours are also available, starting off from Santiago or from the beach resorts of Holguin province, especially Guardalavaca. These tours can be booked through travel agencies.
Called the city of parks because of its many leafy squares, Holguin is a colonial town with a grid layout, situated between two hills, Cerro de Mayabe and Loma and Loma de La Cruz. The people of Holguin took an active part in the wars of independence under the leadership of Calixto Garcia, the famous general who liberated the city from the Spanish in 1872. The house he was born in is now a museum; the square named after hint marks the centre of the city and is dominated by a statue of the heroic general.
Calle Maceo and Manduley -two parallel streets with shops, hotels, bars and clubs, including the Casa de la Trova – cross three squares: Parque San Jose, Parque Calixto Garcia and Parque Peralta. Parque García, always buzzing with people, is the site of the town’s chief monuments and museums including Casa Natal de Calixto García.
La Periquera (Museo Provincial de Holguín)
This large Neo-Classical building with a courtyard overlooks Parque Calixto middle interesting Garcia. It was built in 1860 of birds and as a private home of Spanish merchant Francisco Roldán y Rodríguez. In 1868, at the beginning of the Ten Years’ War, the building was occupied by the Spanish army and converted into barracks. Hence the building’s nickname, La Periquera, which translates as “parrot cage”, a reference to the brightly coloured uniforms of the Spanish army.
Today, the building is the home of the Museo Provincial de Holguin, where five rooms illustrate the main stages of the cultural town. Also on display are archaeological relics of the Taino Indians, who lived here from the 8th to the 15th centuries. The most famous item in the collection is the Hacha de Holguin, a stone axe head carved as a human figure. It was discovered in the hills around Holguin, and has become the symbol of the city.
Museo de Historia Natural Carlos de la Torre
Holguin´s museum of natural history is housed in a brightly painted building with a handsome portico and Spanish tiling throughout. A middle interesting collection of birds and shells, including Polymita snails from Baracoa, is on display, along with a 50-million-year-old fossil fish, found in Sierra Maestra.
Catedral de San Isidoro
Consecrated as a cathedral in 1979, San Isidoro was built in 1720 on the site of the first mass held to celebrate the city’s founding: Parque Peralta. It is also known as Parque de Flores because a flower market used to be held here.
The church contains a copy of the popular Madonna of Caridad the original of which is in the Basilica del Cobre near Santiago de Cuba (see p225) On 4 April there is a celebration in honour of the Virgin.
Bazar de Artesanía
Two blocks north of Parque Calixto Garcia is Bazar de Artesania, a charming indoor market selling a range of handmade accessories, carved wooden ornaments and seed and resin jewellery. The pedestrianized street outside the market is a peaceful spot to see.
Plaza de Ia Revolución
Situated east of the city centre, behind Hotel Pernik, this square contains a monument to the heroes of Cuban independence, the mausoleum of Calixto Garcia and a small monument to his mother. The square is the main venue for popular festivities.
Loma de Ia Cruz
There are marvellous, far-reaching views from the top of the Loma de Ia Cruz (Hill of the Cross). The engineers who founded Holguin used this site to plan the layout of the town, but it was only much later (from 1927-50) that the 458-step stairway was built to the top. Every year on 3 May, the people of Holguin climb up the hill for the Romerias de Mayo, a Christian celebration of Spanish origin. The top of Loma, about 3 km (2 miles) northwest of Parque Calixto Garcia, is marked by a Spanish lookout tower and by a cross placed there in 1790 by friar Antonio Alegria. During his visit in 2015, Pope Francis blessed the city from here.
Another more distant viewing point over the city is the Mirador de Mayabe on the Cerro de Maya be, 10 km (6 miles) south-east of the city centre.
From the mirador there is a view of the valley with Holguin in the distance.This spot is also home to an aldea campesina (country village), with simple lodgings and a restaurant, as well as an open-air museum, illustrating the lives of farmers living in a small village. Reconstructions include examples of a bohío real, a typical rural home with a palm-leaf roof, a hen-house and a courtyard containing jars for transporting water.
South of the bay that Columbus named Rio de Mares (the river of seas) is the picturesque town of Gibara, famous for an exten-sive network of caves perfect for exploring on the edge of town. In the 19th century, Gibara was the main port on the northern coast of the province of Oriente, and it has the most important colonial architecture in the area.
The shady Malecon (seafront) has a statue of Columbus shown gazing at the horizon, a restored garrison and views of the small fishing harbour. From here, narrow streets lead to the main square, overlooked by the Iglesia de San Fulgencio (1854), and an old theatre.
The Museo de Artes Decorativas (Decorative Arts Museum) is housed in a 19-th century manor. A staircase bordered by marble columns and fine stained-glass windows represent the region’s best ensemble of a 19th- and 20th-century furniture and objects.
About 2 km (1 mile) from the centre of the town are the Cavernas de Panadernos, etched with pictographs and home to bats. Cave diving and exploring the system of caves with a guide is possible.
Bahía de Bariay
East of Gibara is a bay with a spit of land in the middle called Cayo de Bariay. Most historians (but not Baracoans, see p246) agree that Columbus first landed here in 1492. With its abundant flowers and trees laden with fruit, it looked like paradise to the explorer. In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in Cuba, a monument called Encuentro (“Encounter”), dedicated to the Taino Indians, was erected here.The site is relatively remote if travelling by car, but boat trips can be arranged from Guardalavaca (see p219). East of Cayo de Bariay is the beautiful Playa Don Lino.
Columbus in Cuba
On 28 October 1492, when he first set foot on Cuban land, Columbus wrote in his travel journal: “I have never seen a more beautiful place. Along the banks of the river were trees I have never seen at home, with flowers and fruit of the most diverse kinds, among the branches of which one heard the delightful chirping of birds. There were a great number of palms. When I descended from the launch, I approached two fishermen’s huts. Upon seeing me, the natives took fright and fled. Back on the boat, I went up the river for a good distance. I felt such joy upon seeing these flowery gardens and green forests and hearing the birds sing that I could not tear myself away, and thus continued my trip. This island is truly the most beautiful land human eyes have ever beheld”.
Converted in the mid-1980s into a holiday resort, the beaches of Guardalavaca are among Cuba’s most popular holiday destinations. Although the resort is within easy reach of Holguin, which lies 58 km (35 miles) to the southwest along a road through curious conical hills, the location still feels remote.
The 4-km (2-mile) crescent-shaped main beach, enclosed at either end by rocks, is backed by abundant vegetation. The sea is crystal-clear, the sand is fine, and there is a coral reef quite close to the shore. To the west are several developed beaches.
The name “Guardalavaca” (watch the cow) derives from the Spanish word for the cattle egret, a bird which is common throughout Cuba, and especially prevalent here.
West of the beach is Bahia de Naranjo, a natural park that comprises 32 km (20 miles) of coastline and 10 sq km (3.9 sq miles) of woods, with karst hills covered with thick vegetation. There are three small islands in the bay; on one, Cayo Naranjo, there is an aquarium featuring shows with sea lions and dolphins. Boat tours, diving and fishing trips are also organized here.
El Chorro de Maíta
Near the coast, just 5 km (3 miles) south of Guardalavaca, is El Chorro de Maíta, the largest native Indian necropolis in Cuba and the Antilles. At this unmissable site archaeologists have found 108 skeletons and a number of clay (dolt d objects, bone amulets, Inda funerary offerings and decorated shells.
All this material can be seen from a boardwalk inside the museum. Across the road is an aldea taína, a reconstruction of a Pre-Columbian rural village, built for entertainment, but historically accurate. Visitors can buy souvenirs and sample food that the Amerindians used to eat. In front of the huts are life-Si7P Statues of natives.
This country town, 32 km (20 m) southwest of Holguin, is located in the middle of a vast and rich excavation zone (the province of Holguin has yielded one-third of the archaeological finds in Cuba). Banes is the home of the Museo Indocubano Bani, Cuba’s most important archaeological museum outside Havana. The museum has over a thousand objects on display, including axes, terracotta vases, flint knives and, most notably, a 4-cm (2-in) high figure of a woman in gold, known as the Idolo de Oro. It was found near Banes, and date from the 13th century.
Mayari, 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Holguin, was founded in 1757 and, together with Gibara, is the oldest city in the province.
Nearby are the Farallones de Seboruco, caves where objects left by the Taíno people have been found and the Meseta de Pinares de Mayari, a large idlest cloaking the hills up to an altitude of 1,000 in (3,280 It).
Southwest of Mayarí is Birán, where Fidel Castro was born. His parent´s house, Finca Biran, is now a museum.
Lying at the mouth of the Hay of Nipe, this small islaild cover-ing 42 sq km (16 sq miles), with stunning coves, is connected to the mainland by a drawbridge, It was formerly a private hunting reserve, and in the woods sit meadows, antelopes and zebra still live side by side with species native to Cuba. On safaris, led by expert guides, visitors travelling on horseback or in jeeps can observe and photograph the animals. The few tourist facilities on this island are for paying guests only and were designed with every care for the environment. A boat trip to Cayo Saetía from Guardalava is a highlight.
The second oldest town in Cuba after Baracoa, Bayamo was founded in 1513 by Diego de Velázquez. Until 1975 it was part of the large Oriente province, but after administrative reform it became the capital of a new province, Granma, It is a pasture and livestock breeding area but has also been the home of nationalists and the cradle of political revolts and struggles.
In 1869, rather than surrender their town to Spain, the citizens burned Bayamo down, As a result, the centre is relatively modern. Daily life revolves around Parque Cespedes, the main square, dominated by a statue of local plantation owner and war of independence hero Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1955).
The square is home to almost all the important buildings in town: the Cultural Centre, the Royalton Hotel, the offices of the Poder Popular, and the historic Pedrito café.
Adjacent to the main square is Plaza del Himno (Square of Himn). It gained its name after La Bayamesa, the Cuban national anthem, was first played in the church here on 20 October 1868. Making this event is a sculpture that includes bronze plaque on which are engraved the words and music by Perucho Figueredo. His but stands next to the nationalist´s flag. In the smaller Parque Maceo Osorio, formerly Parque de San Francisco, north of Parque Cespedes, is the Casa de la Trova Olimpio La O, one of the town’s few 18th-century buildings. The courtyard is used by local groups for concerts.
Casa Natal de Carlos Manuel de Céspedes
The house where the leading figure in the first war against Spain in the 19th century was born on 18 April 1819 is a handsome, two-storey colonial building facing Parque Céspedes. Architecturally it is the most important building in the city.
The rooms on the ground Floor, which open onto a courtyard with a fountain, contain the heart of the collection, with Céspedes documents and personal items, including his steel and bronze sword.
Upstairs are several furnished rooms, one of which has a bronze bed with mother-of-pearl medallions, a fine example of colonial furniture. A gallery leads to the old kitchen, which still has its original ceramic oven.
Parroquial Mayor de San Salvador Plaza del Himno
When the nationalists of Bayamo chose to burn down their own town rather than leave anything for the Spanish, they put the holy images kept in the Parroquial Mayor (the Cathedral) into safekeeping. That was the plan, at all events. Unfortunately, the only things spared by the fire were the font (which had been used for the baptism of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes) and the Capilla de los Dolores, a chapel built in 1740, which contained an image of the Virgin Mary and a Baroque altarpiece made of gilded wood. The altarpiece has a particularly fine frame decorated with tropical motifs and representations of local fruit and animals, an unusual and very Cuban element in the art of the 18th century.
In 1916, Bishop Guerra commissioned the reconstruction of the old Parroquial Mayor, dedicated to Jesus the Saviour, the patron saint of Bayamo. The original building had been finished in 1613 and in the course of time had been transformed into a large three-aisle church with two choirs, nine altars and a finely wrought pulpit.
The new church was opened on 9 October 1919, with the old image of Jesus the Saviour salvaged from the fire, a new marble altar, a patriotic painting by the Dominican artist Luis Desangles, and plastered brick walls frescoed by Esteban Ferrer.
Bayamo “the Rebellious”
Bayamo has a long tradition of rebellion. In the early 1500s, the native Indians, led by their chief, Hatuey, fiercely resisted the Spanish. A few years later an African slave killed the pirate Gilberto Girón, displaying his head as a trophy in the central plaza. This episode inspired the epic poem Espejo de paciencia by Silvestre de Balboa, the first major work of Cuban literature. But the most dramatic episode in the history of Bayamo concerns the struggles for independence, during which, on 10 October 1868, a group of local nationalists and intellectuals – Juan Clemente Zenea, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Pedro Figueredo, Jose Fornaris and Jose Joaquin Palma organized an anti-Spanish revolt. They entered the town on 20 October, and declared it the capital of the Republic in Arms. On 12 January, faced with the fact that Bayamo would be recaptured by colonial troops, the citizens decided to set fire to their own town, an act which later led to the choice of La Bayamesa as the national anthem.
Built along the Caribbean Bay of Guacanayabo, Manzanillo is a charming seaside town. It was founded as Puerto Real in 1784, and reached its apogee in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to sugar and slave trade.
Memories are still strong of the feats of Castro´s rebel forces in the nearby Sierra Maestra, especially those of Castro´s assistant Celia Sánchez, who organized a crucial rearguard here. She is honorees by a striking monument in the town.
In Parque Céspedes, the central square, a brickwork bandstand for concerts by local bands was opened on the 25 June 1924. The so-called Glorieta Morisca gained its name for its Arab-influenced decoration, designed by José Martín del Castillo, an architect from Granada. Other monuments in town, all near Parque Céspedes, include the Neo-Classical Iglesia de la Purísima Concepción, built in the 1920s; the atmospheric Café 1906, the 19th-century town hall, now the Asamblea Municipal del Poder Popular; and the Colonia Española, a social club for Spanish immigrants that was completed in 1935. The club is located in a building with an Andalusian courtyard and a panel of painted tiles representing Colombus landing in Cuba.
10 km (6 miles) south of Manzanillo are the remains of La Demajagua, the estate belonging to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.
Yara, 24km (15 miles) east of Manzanillo, is where Céspedes proclaimed Cuban independence, and where the Indian hero Hatuey was burned at the stake. There is a small museum in the central square, Plaza Grito de Yara.
Over the centuries, the sacrifice of Hatuey acquired great patriotic significance and gave rise to numerous legends, including La Luz de Yara (The light of Yara), written by Luis Victoriano Betancourt in 1875. The author relates that from the stake on which the Indian hero was being burned, there arose a mysterious light that wandered throughout the island, protecting the sleep of the slaves who were awaiting their freedom. This light was the soul of Hatuey.
Three centuries later, the wandering light returned to the site of the Indians sacrifice, the wandering light returned to the site of the Indians sacrifice, and in a flash all the palm trees in Cuba shook, the sky was lit up, the earth trembled, and the light turned into a fire that stirred Cuban´s hearts: “It was a the Light of Yara, which was about to take its revenge. It was the tomb of Hatuey, which became the cradle of independence. It was 10 October” – the beginning of the war of independence.
Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra
This national park which covers an area of 38,000 ha (95,000 acres), spans the provinces of Granma and Santiago de Cuba.
This is where the major peaks of the island are found, including Pico Turquino (at 1,974 m/ 6,390 ft, the highest in Cuba), as well as sites made famous by the guerrilla wat waged by Fidel Castro and the barbudos.
The main starting point for exploring the Sierra Maestra is Villa Santo Domingo, about 35 km (22 miles) south of the Bayamo-Manzanillo road (there is comfortable accommodation in Santo Domingo).
From Santo Domingo, you can make the challenging 5-km (3 mile) journey – on foot or in a good off-road vehicle – to he Alto del Naranjo viewpoint (950 m/ 3,120 ft). With a permit (obtainable from the visitor´s office north of Villa Santo Domingo), you can go on to Comandancia de la Plata, Castro´s headquarters in the 1950s. Here there is a museum, a small camp hospital and the site from which Che Guevara made his radio broadcasts. Comandancia de la Plata is accesible only on foot – a one-and-a-half hour’s walk through lovely, though often foggy, forest. The area was made into a national park in 1980. The dense, humid forest conceals many species or orchid and various kinds of local fauna. The Sierra Maestra mountains are excellent hiking territory, and also attract mountain climbers. The scenery is spectacular but be prepared for spartan facilities. A limited number of tracks can be organized from the visitor´s office. Overnight accommodation in the mountains is available either at campsites or in a simple refuges. Note, however, that since much of this area is a military zone, lone trekking is not permitted.
At present, it is possible to do a three-day guided trek across the park, beginning at Alto Naranjo and ending at Las Cuevas, a small town on the Caribbean Sea. Hikers do not need to be expert mountaineers in order to take part in this walking tour, because the path is equipped with ladders, handrails and rock-cut steps. However, it is still advisable to do a certain amount of training beforehand. The final descent from Pico Turquino onwards is fairly strenuous and walkers need to be reasonable fit.
It is important to take a proper mountain gear with you: walking boots, thick soaks, a sun hat, a sweater, a windproof jacket, and perhaps even a waterproof groundsheet and a good tent. Humidity in the often misty Sierra is very high, and showers are common.
The coast at the southern edge of the Sierra Maestra is spectacular. The coastal road runs close above the waters of the Caribbean Sea and offers excellent views. However, great care should be taken if driving after dark as the road is in need of repair in some places.
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
Basílica del Cobre
The village of El Cobre, about 20 km (12 miles) west of Santiago de Cuba, was once famous for its copper (cobre) mines. A great number of slaves worked here up until 1807. Nowadays the village is best known for Cuba’s most famous church, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. Here the main attraction is a statue of the Virgen del Cobre. This black Madonna is richly dressed in yellow, and wears a crown encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, with a golden halo above. She carries a cross of diamonds and amethysts. The statue is kept in an air-conditioned glass case behind the high altar.
It is taken out every year on 8 September when a procession takes place to commemorate the Virgin’s saint’s day. TheVirgen del Cobre was proclaimed the protectress of Cuba in 1916 and was blessed and crowned by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Pope Francis laid a silver vase with his coat of arms during a subsequent papal visit in 2015.
This fine three-aisled church, built in 1926, stands on a hill, the Cerro de la Cantera, which is linked to the village by a flight of 254 steps. The elegant central bell tower and two side towers crowned by brick-bed domes are a striking sight above the cream facade.
The basilica is the object of pilgrimages from all over the island. In the Los Milagros chapel, thousands of ex votos left by pilgrims are on display. Some are rare curious, such as the beards left by some of the rebels who survived the guerrilla war in the Sierra; an object belonging to Castro´s mother; and earth collected by Cuban soldiers who fought in Angola. There is a guestbook for visitors to peruse and sign.
The Virgen del Cobre
According to legend, in 1606 three slaves who worked in the copper mines of El Cobre were saved in the Bay of Nipe, off the north coast of Cuba, by the statue of a black Virgin Mary holding the Holy Child in her arms. They had been caught in a storm while out in a boat and would have drowned had not the Virgin, whose image was floating among the waves, come to their aid. In reality, it seems that the statue arrived in Cuba by ship from Illescas, a town in Castile, upon the request of the governor Sanchez de Moya, who wanted a Spanish Madonna for the village of El Cobre.
Whatever the truth, in 1612 the Virgen de la Caridad was given a small sanctuary and immediately became an object of veneration for the locals, who continued to attribute miraculous powers to her. The devotion for this Madonna has always been very strong, even among non-practising Catholics. Her figure is associated with the Afro-Cuban saint Oshún the goddess of rivers, gentleness, femininity and love, who is also always depicted as a beautiful black woman wearing yellow.
Now that the Santería religion is widespread in Cuba, the sacred image of the Virgin of El Cobre and the more profane, sensuous image of the beautiful African goddess are often combined in prayers and discussion, and set beside each other on rustic home altars, often without any apparent awareness of contradiction.
Santiago de Cuba
This is perhaps the most African, the most musical and the most passionate city in Cuba. In 1930 the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca likened it to “a harp made of living branches, a caiman, a tobacco flower”. Except for the cars and some modern buildings, Santiago has not altered much. This is a city where the heat – and the hills – mean that people move to a slow rhythm.
Yet it is a lively, exciting place where festivities and dancing are celebrated with fervour, never more so than during July’s Carnival. Santiago’s citizens also take pride in the fact that Santiago is called the “Cradle of the Revolution”. Sandwiched between the Sierra Maestra mountains and the sea, this is the second city in Cuba in population size. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through Santiago causing much devastation.
The city centre spreads out in chaotic fashion around Parque Céspedes in a maze of narrow streets. Any visit to the historic centre of Santiago must start in Parque Céspedes, the main square. From here, visitors are inevitably draw along Calle Heredia, the most popular and festive street in the town. Every house bears signs of the city’s great passions: music, dancing, carnivals and poetry.
At certain times, including the first half of July when the Fiesta del Caribe is held, this street becomes a stage for amateur artists. Traditional son music, on the other hand, can be heard in the courtyard of the Patio Artex at No. 304, while No. 208, the former “Cafetín de Virgilio”, became the Casa de la Trova in 1968, and local and foreign bands can be heard playing here day and night. Photographs of great cuban musicians past and present such as El Guayabero and Compay Segundo cover the walls.
West of Parque Céspedes
The picturesque area southwest of Parque Céspedes, called Tivolí, and the deep bay can be seen from the Balcón de Velázquez.
Destinations in Cuba: Western Cuba
Artemisa – Pinar del Río – Isla de la Juventud – Cayo Largo del Sur
The western region of the mainland Cuba is characterized by swathes of cultivated fields and, at tiimes, extraordinarily beautiful scenery. The main attraction here is Viñales Valley, where unusual limestone outcrops (called mogotes) loom over lush fields of tobacco. Off the coast, scattered islands with stunning white beaches offer a peaceful refuge from the bustle of Havana.
According to the inhabitants of Santiago, Pinar del Río and Artemisa provinces are the least “revolutionary” parts of Cuba. They form the island’s most rural region, populated by white farmers who have never been known for their warlike passion, although western Cuba was the scene of several battles against the Spanish in the late 1800s, and in 1958 there was a revolutionary from here.
This part of Cuba was colonized in the 16th and 17th centuries by Europeans mainly from Canary Islands. Historically, Pinar has preferred to concentrate its efforts on producing what they claim is the best tobacco in the world. Tobacco fields are scattered among the Sierra del Rosario and Sierra de los Órganos ranges, which are barely 600 m (1,970 ft) above sea level – not high enough to be mountains yet tall enough to create a breathtaking landscape. Palm trees mingle with pine trees, and delicate wild orchids thrive where the conditions are right. These low mountains provide excellent walking territory. The Sierra del Rosario is now a UNIESCO world biosphere reserve, as is the Guanahacabibes peninsula in the far west. In both areas, the emphasis Is placed on conservation-conscious ecotourism.
Ecotourism is less of a priority on Cayo Largo, a long-established island resort with lovely sea and sand, m and numerous hotels. This island forms part of the Archipiélago de los Canarreos, in the Caribbean sea, which is made up of 350 cayos or keys. Ll these are uninhabited apart from Cayo Largo and Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), a large island with a rich history and second-best dive spot in Cuba.
Exploring Western Cuba
The extraordinary tranquility and agreeable climate of Western Cuba make it a lovely area for a relaxing break. However, there is also plenty to do. Besides walking and house riding, there is the provincial capital of Pinar del Río to explore, while tempting coral beaches are easily accesible off the north coast. More effort is required to reach remote María La Gorda, in the far west, but keen divers are attracted to this diving centre. Isla de la Juventud attracts divers and visitors interested in curious attractions, from painted caves to the one-time prison of Fidel Castro. The Valle de Viñales hotels and bed and breakfasts make the best bars for a stay in Western Cuba.
Getting Around destinations in Cuba
The motorway (autopista), connects Havana, Artemisa and Pinar del Río (about a two-hour drive), and another slower, but more picturesque, road follows the northern coastline. From Pinar a road runs southwest to Guanahacabibes. There are one-day tours that start off from Havana and include Soroa, Pinar and Viñales, but not beaches: information is available at touristic offices.
The best way to get to Isla de la Juventud and Cayo Largo is by air from Havana (40 mins). There is also a catamaran service to the former from Batabanó, the trip takes two hours. Excursions can also be booked to the two islands; departures are from Havana or larger towns.
Sierra del Rosario
This area of 71,750 acres (25,000 ha) of unspoiled Cuba has been declared a biosphere reserved by UNESCO. Woods consisting of a tropical and deciduous trees and plants cover the Sierra del Rosario range, which is crossed by the San Juan river with its small falls. The area is home to abundant, varied fauna: 90 species of bird as well as many different reptiles, and amphibians. The walks here are lovely (permission is needed from the resort area), on paths lined with flowers, including wild orchids.
The town of Soroa lies 250 m (820 ft) above sea level in the middle of tropical forest in the Sierra del Rosario region. It was named after two Basque brothers, Lorenzo and Antonio Soroa Muriagorri, who, in around 1856, bought various coffee plantations in the area and soon became the proprietors of the entire territory. One of the estates in the valley, Finca Angerona, was in the 19th century the setting for a legendary love story involving the French-German Cornelius Sausse, who built the farm in 1813, and aHaitian girl, Ursule Lambert.
Soroa, today, is a small town with a hotel (Villa Soroa) and a number of tourist attractions. The most photographed is the Salton, a spectacular waterfall on the Manantiales river, a 20-minute walk from the Villa Soroa. But the major sight here is the Orquideario de Soroa, an orchid garden which has the been declared a parden national monument.
It has one of the largest orchid collections in the world, with more than 700 species, 250 of which are endemic, in an area of 35,000 ha (86,500 acres). The park, often visited by Hemingway, was founded in 1943 by a lawyer from the Canaries, Tomás Felipe Camacho. He had orchids sent He had orchids sent here from all over the world in memory of his daughter, who had died at the age of 20 In childbirth, and his wife who died shortly after.
Outside the town is the Castillo de las Nubes, a medieval-like construction built in 1940 for Antonio Arturo Sanchez Bustamante, the landowner of this area. The Castillo boasts marvellous views over the Sierra del Rosario.
Most of the farmers in the Sierra del Rosario region live in communities founded by a government program in 1968. The best-known of these is Las Terrazas, whose name derives from the terraces laid out for the hardwood trees that are now a characteristic feature of the area. The 1,000 inhabitants make a living by maintaining the woods and from ecotourism, which has increased since the building of the environmentally friendly Hotel Moka. The hotel makes a good starting point for guided walks in the reserve, all of which are fairly easy and take no more than two hours to cover. Also open is the restored 19th-century French coffee plantation of Buena Vista, which has a restaurant.
Most of the trails are excellent for birdwatching, with plenty of endemic Cuban birds such as the zunzun hummingbird, the tocororo and the cartacuba.
The delightful set off natural pools known as the Banos de San Juan, make for another interesting walk along the San Juan river. There are picnic tables, a restaurant and some basic cabin accommodation on the banks of the river, for those wanting to stay the night.
PINAR DEL RIO
This small island, with its white sand beaches, an offshore coral reef and mangroves, is the most geared up for tourists in the Los Colorados archipelago, and the only one with diving facilities. Despite this it is still unspoilt and is home to several species of bird and the surrounding waters have an abundance of fich e,pecally marlin.
Parque Nacional La Güira
At the heart of what was, prior to the Revolution, one of the largest agricultural estates in Pinar del Rio, Parque Nacional La Guira comprises the landscaped grounds and former residence of the landowner Don Manuel Cortina, a successful lawyer and notable politician.This was one of the first properties to be nationalized after Castro’s rebel seized power and Corona was forced to leave Cuba in 1959, fleeing charges of worker exploitation and ending his days in Miami, where he died in 1970. The large park, though it lay derelict for many years, is still in fairly good shape and includes the ruins of a medieval-style residence and an English garden with a small Chinese temple and statues of mythological figures including sphinxes and satyrs. About 5 km (3 miles) east of the Guira park is San Diego de los Banos, a peaceful village on the slopes of the Sierra de los Quemados, which has retained its colonial atmosphere. The village is a major tourist and therapeutic centre. Springs in the area sulfurous water that was said to help cure rheumatism and skin diseases. Unfortunately they have now been closed for several years.
Don Manuel Cortina also owned a nearby cave, the Cueva de los Portales, discovered in the 19th century. This old hiding place was used by the natives as a refuge from the massacres that were waged by the Spanish in the early 16th century. During the missile crisis in 1962, the cave became the headquarters of Che Guevara’s Western Army, some of whose personal effects are on display. Plaques indicate where he played chess and slept.
The small area between Pinar del Rio, San Juan y Martinez., San Luis produces very high quality tobacco. Good growing conditions are the result of a series of factors: for example, the Sierra del Rosario protects the plants from heavy rainfall, and the sandy red soil in which the tobacco plants grow is well drained and rich in nitrogen. This is a unique environment; in fact, the former landowners who left Cuba in 1959 have tried in vain to reproduce the miracle in Nicaragua, Honduras, Santo Domingo and the US.
On the road from the provincial capital to San Juan), Martinez, the prestigious Hoyt de Monterrey plantations can be visited. Here plants are protected from the sun by cotton cloth in order to maintain the softness of the tobacco leaves. There are also curing houses, windowless storehouses where the leaves are left to dry on long poles.
Pinar del Río
In 1778, when the Cuban provinces were founded, the town of Nueva Filipina was renamed Pinar because of a pine grove in the vicinity, on the banks of the Guama river.
Nearby, General Antonio Maceo fought a number of battles in 1896-7 that were crucial to the Cubans`victory in the third war of Cuban independence.
Today, the pines no longer grow here, but the clean air and colonial atmosphere of Pinar del Rio are unchanged. The town has long been a centre for the cultivation and industrial processing of tobacco. The most striking aspect about the historic centre of this small, orderly and peaceful town is the abundance of columns: Corinthian or Ionic, simple or decorated. Not for nothing is Pinar del Rio known as the “city of capitals”.
The most important buildings lie on the arcaded main street, Calle Marti (or Real). In the Cultural Heritage Fund shop, at the corner of Calle Rosario, visitors can buy local crafts as well as art reproductions. In the evening, the Casa de la Cultura (at No. 125) hosts shows and concerts of traditional music such as punto guajiro (from guajiro, the Cuban word for farmer), which is of Spanish derivation, and is generally characterized by improvisation.
At Nos. 172, 174 and 176 in Calle Colon, there are three unusual buildings designed by Rogelio
Perez Cubillas, the city’s leading architect in the 1930s and 1940s.
This somewhat extravagant building is a mixture of Moorish arches, Gothic spires and Baroque elements. It was built in 1909 for a wealthy physician who had travelled widely and who wanted to reproduce in his new residence the architectural styles that had impressed him the most. In 1979 the mansion was transformed into a Museo de Historia Natural Antonio NICinez Jimenez (natural history museum) named after Tranquilino Sandalio de Nodas, well-known land surveyor in this region. The museum illustrates the natural and geological history of Pinar and has on display stuffed birds and animals, including the tiny Cuban zunztin hummingbird. and a crocodile more than 4 m (12 ft) long, as well as rare plants and butter flies. In the inner courtyard are sculptures of prehistoric animals.
Museo Provincial de Historia
This museum illustrates the history of the province from the Pre-Columbian period to the present. On display is a major collection of 19th-century arms, colonial furniture, works by local painters, including a huge landscape by Domingo Ramos (1955), and mementos of the musician Enrique Jorrin, the father of the cha-cha-cha.
A Neo-Classical gem and the city’s pride and joy, this theatre is named after the romantic poet Jose Jacinto Milanes. It started out as the Lope de Vega theatre, which first opened in 1845 and was then bought in 1880 by one Felix del Pino Diaz. He totally renovated it, modelling it on the featro Sauto in Matanzas (see p162). Its name was changed in 1808.
This simple but functional structure has a rectangular plan, a linear facade and a portico with tall columns. Its opulent, thie-level, U-shaped wooden auditorium has a-seating apt ay of about 500.
Fabrica de Guayabita Casa Garay
Since 1892 the Casa Garay has produced Guayabita del Pinar, a liqueur based on an ancient recipe. It is made by distilling brandy from the sugar of the guayaba (guava), which is
grown in this area. Guided tours of the small factory finish up at the tasting area, where visitors can try the sweet and dry versions of this popular drink.
Fabrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatien
This tiny cigar factory, housed in a former 19th-century jail, is open to the public. Visitors can watch the 70 or so workers making
Trinidad cigars. These and other cigars are sold in the small shop. The factory is also a training school for torcedores (cigar rollers).
Vinales, whose name derives from a vineyard planted here by a settler from the Canary Islands, was founded in 1607.
This small town, the economy of which always has been based on agriculture, is now the subject of government protection as an example of perfectly preserved colonial settlement. The main street is named after Salvador Cisneros Betancourt, a 19th- century nationalist and one of the signatories of the 1869 Cuban constitution (see p48). It is lined with many colonial houses with characteristic arcades, which make useful shelters from the hot sun and any sudden violent tropical rainstorms.
The town’s most important architecture is in the main square, the Parque Marti, on which stand the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (1888), and the former Colonia Española (diplomatic headquarters of the Spanish gentry), which is now the town’s Casa de la Cultura.
Viñales also boasts a minor architectural gem, the Casa de Don Tomas, built in 1887-8 for Gerardo Miel y Sainz, a rich merchant and agent for a shipping line. The building was blown down in the 2008 hurricane, but then rebuilt true to the original.
Valle de Viñales
A unique landscape awaits visitors to Viñales Valley.The mogotes. the characteristic, gigantic karst formations that resemble sugar loaves, are like stone sentinels keeping watch over the corn and tobacco fields, the red earth with majestic royal palm trees and the farmhouses with roofs of palm leaves. According to legend, centuries ago some Spanish sailors who were approaching the coast thought the profile of the mogotes they glimpsed in the fog looked like a church organ. Hence the name, Sierra de los Órganos, given to the network of hills in this area.
Mural de la Prehistoria
On the face of a mogote the Cuban painter Leovigildo Gonzalez a pupil of the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera, painted the history of evolution (1959-62), from ammonites to HOMO sapiens, The mural, restored in 1980, makes use of the cracks in the rock to create special effects of light and colour.
Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás
This is the largest network of caves in Cuba and the whole of Latin America. With its 46 km (29 miles) galleries and up to eight levels of communicating grottoes, the Gran Caverna is a speleologist´s paradise. In the 19th century, the Cueva de cal farmers for festivals.
Cueva del Indio
This cave, discovered in 1920, lies in the San Vicente Valley. The first part of the tour here is on foot through tunnels with artificial lighting Then a small motorboat takes visitors up the underground San Vicente river for about a quarter of a mile.
Palenque de los Cimarrones
In the depths of Cueva de San Miguel, past the bar at its mouth, is a spectacular cave that was once a refuge for runaway African slaves (cimarrones). It now houses a small museum and a pleasant restaurant.
The Structure of a Mogote
The mogotes are among the most ancient rocks in Cuba, and all that remains of what was once a limestone plateau. Over a period lasting millions of years, underground aquifers eroded the softer limestone, giving rise to large caverns whose ceilings later collapsed. Only the hard limestone pillars, or present-day mogotes, were left standing.
Mogotes generally have only a thin covering of soil, but those in the Sierra de los Organos are covered with thick vegetation. Some ted to life on their c endemic es; plant species have adapted to life on their craggy crevices; these include the mountain palm tree (Bombacopsis cubensis), and the cork palm (Microcycas calocoma).
Maria La Gorda
The best-known bathing spot on the southwestern coast owes its name to a sad legend. A few centuries ago, a plump girl named Maria was abducted by pirates on the Venezuelan coast and then abandoned here. In order to survive, she was forced to sell herself to the buccaneers who passed by. The place still bears her name today.
The extraordinary beauty of the coral reefs – populated by sea turtles, reef sharks and other rare species of tropical fish -makes these 8 km (5 miles) of coastline with fine white sand and a warm, transit’, ent sea a real tropical aquarium. The reefs are also easy to reach, lying just a short distance from the shore (the coral and fish can even be seen without swimming under water).
From the jetty opposite the diving area, a boat takes divers twice a day to the various dive sites. Areas of particular interest include the so-called Black Coral Valley, a wall of coral over 100 m (328 ft) long, and the Salon de Maria, a sea cave at a depth of 18 m (60 ft), which is the habitat of rare species of fish.
The peninsula of Guanahacabibes, named after a Pre-Columbian ethnic group, is a strip of land 100 km (62 miles) long and 6-34 km (4-21 miles) wide. In 1985 it was declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO, to protect the flora and fauna. Access to the inner zone, in the vicinity of La Bajada, is therefore limited. Permission to visit is granted by the park rangers at La Bajada, and visits to the park are made in visitors’ vehicles and then on foot with a local guide.
The mixed forest of deciduous and evergreen trees contains about 600 species of plants and many animals, including deer, boar, reptiles and jutias, rodents similar to opossums that live in trees. Among the bird species are woodpeckers, parrots, humingbirds, cartacuba and tocororo.
Cabo San Antonio, the western tip of Cuba, is identifiable by the 23-m (75-ft) high Roncalli light-house, built in 1849 by the Spanish governor after whom it was named.
Isla de la Juventud
The naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (see p189) described this island as an abandoned place, Robert Louis Stevenson allegedly based his novel Treasure Island on it, Batista wanted to turn it into a paradise for rich Americans, while Fidel Castro repopulated it with young people, built universities and changed its name to the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth). With a surface area of 2,200 sq km (850 sq miles) and 86,000 inhabitants, this is the largest island in the Archipelago de los Canarreos. Comparatively few tourists venture here, but there are a few interesting sights and the diving is excellent.
Surrounded by hills that yield multicolored marble, the small, peaceful town of Nueva Gerona was founded in 1830 on the banks of the Las Casas river by Spanish settlers who, together with their slaves, had left countries on the American continent that had won their independence.
The town is built on a characteristic grid plan and the modern outskirts are in continuous expansion. A good starting point for a visit to Nueva Gerona is Calle 39, the graceful main street flanked by colored arcades. Here can be found the local cinema, theatre, Pharmacy (which is always open), post office, hospital, bank, Casa de la Cultura and numerous bars and restaurants. This street ends at the Parque Central, Nueva Gerona’s main square, where the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores stands.
First built in Neo-Classical style in 1853, this church was totally destroyed by a cyclone in 1926 and rebuilt three years later in colonial style.
South of the Parque Central, the former City Hall building is now the home of the Museo Municipal. It displays many objects and documents concerning pirates and buccaneers -the main protagonists in the island’s history – as well as the inevitable photographs and mementos of the Revolution. Another museum, the Casa Natal Jesús Montané, is dedicated solely to the struggle against Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.
The Museo de Historia Natural Antonio Nunez Jimenez, covers the geological and natural history of the island, and there is a fine planetarium here as well, the only one in the world where the North Star can be seen together with Southern Cross.
A few kilometres outside of town is the rather forlom American cemetery. In the early 1900s, the America declared La Isla part of overseas possessions; they only relinquished sovereignty in 1925. Ecotur can arrange visits.
On the road that connects the capital with Playa Bibijagua, a popular beach of black sand frequented by the inhabitants of Nueva Gerona, is Cuba’s most famous penitentiary. Originally built by Gerardo Machado (see p50), it was modelled on the famous panopticon in Joliet, Illinois (US), and converted into a museum in 1967. The prison consists of tiny cells in the interior of four enormous multistory round cement blocks. In the middle of each stood a sentry-box from which
guards could keep a close watch on all the prisoners. Guards and prisoners never came into con-tact with one another. Guards circulated in underground galleries, keeping constant watch over the prisoners above.
It was in the Presidio Modelo that the organizers of the attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago, led by Fidel Castro, were imprisoned in October 1953. They were liberated In an amnesty in May 1955.
At the entrance to the first pavilion is cell 3859, where Castro, despite his isolation, managed to reorganize the revolutionary movement, starting with the defence plea he made in court, History Will Absolve Me.
Exploring Isla de la Juventud
Unlike other islands in the Archipielago de Canarreos, there are no grand luxury hotels on the Isla de la Juventud. Asa result it seems to have a more genuine Cuban atmosphere, and the tourist industry works alongside other island activities **taut pressure. The island is not new to habitation, unlike other cayos which have only recently seen housing development and retains vestiges of five centuries of Cuban history. The town of Nueva Gerona and its surroundings make a good starting point for a visit followed by the southern coast The main hotel is in the southwestern part of the island, while the eastern tip has some fascinating ancient cave paintings by Siboney Indians.
Casa Museo Finca El Abra
On the edge of the Sierra de las Casas is an elegant vita where, Is 1870, the 17-year-old Jose Marti was held for nine weeks before being deported to Spain for his separatist views. Part of the building is now a museum with a display of photographs and documents relating to the national hero´s presence on the island. The rest of the villa is occupied by the descendants of the original owner, a rich Catalan.
The 56 dive between Punta Francés and Punta Pedernales lie at the end of a shelf which gently slopes down from the coast to a depth of 20-25 m (65-82 ft), and then abruptly drops for hundreds of meters. This vertical wall is a favorite with passing fish, which literally nib shoulders with divers. While dives on the platform can be made by beginners, those along the shelf are more difficult and suited to divers with more experience.
Numerous great dive sights are peppered along this stretch; the following are among the most fascinating. La Pared de Coral Negro, which has an abundance of black coral as well as sponges as much as 35 m (115 ft) in diameter; El Reino del Sahara, one of the most beautiful shallow dives; El Mirador, a wall dive among sponges and large madrepores; El Arco de los Sabato, the domain of tarpons; and Cayo Los Indic’s, where shipwrecks can be seen on the seabed at a depth of 10- 12 m (33-40 ft).
The low-rise Hotel Colony accommodates almost all of the scuba divers who visit the island. It overlooks Playa Roja, the large, palm shaded beach named for its spectacular scarlet sunsets. The nearby sea is green and translucent, with a sandy floor that is often covered with swathes of the aquatic plant Thalassic Testudinum. In the mornings a van takes guests from the hotel to the nearby diving centre, the Centro Internacional de Buceo, where all kinds of diving equipment can be rented (although it is advisable to take a 3 mm wet suit with you). From here boats take visitors to the dive sites. At noon, lunch is served at the jetty next to the stunning beach at Punta Frances.
The boat trip from Hotel Colony to Punta Frances, also known as Costa de los Piratas. is a wonderful excursion. Participants don snorkels, masks and fins to accompany divers exploring a French pirates cave and then trek to see nesting American crocodiles.
East of Hotel Colony known as La Cañada, where Ecotur can arange a guided walk through pine, palm and mango forests. The walk passes the “Jacuzzi of the Gcds”, a freshwater stream where walkers can bathe and ends at the park ranger’s house where home-roasted Iamb and coffee is served.
Formelly cailed Jacksonville, this fishing village was founded in the early 20th century by a small community from the British colony of the Cayman Islands. Even now, a few of the villagers speak English as their first language. The settlers introduced the Round Dance, a typical Jamaican dance, which blended with Cuban music to create Sucu Sucu, a dance very popular among locals.
This breeding centre is working to protect the endangered Cuban crocodile, and has 46 reptiles on site. Initially, the intention had been to release the crocodiles back into the wild, but as the hybrid American-Cuban crocodile threatens the Cuban crocodile’s distinctiveness as a species, a liberation may never occur.
Cuevas de Punta del Este
Punta del Este, on the southeastern tip of the Island, has a stunning white sand beach. It Is, however, most famous for Its seven caves, which were discovered In 1910 by a French castaway who took refuge here. On the walls of the caves are 235 drawings made by Siboney Indians in an age long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The drawings in the largest cave – a series of red and black concentric circles crossed by arrows pointing eastward – probably represent a solar calendar. The complexity of these drawings led the Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz, who studied them in 1925, to call them the Sistine Chapel of the Caribbean. Protect yourself against mosquitoes – the caves are full of them.
History of the island
The Taino and Siboney peoples knew of the Isla de la Juventud long before Columbus discovered’ it in 1494 on his second journey (see p43). The Spanish crown licensed the island to cattle breeders, but in practice handed it over to pirates. Because of the shallow waters, heavy Spanish galleons were unable to approach the island, while the buccaneers’ light vessels could land there. This meant that figures such as Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Oliver Esquemeling and Jacques de Sores were able to exploit it as a hiding place I. booty captured from Spanish ships.
After Nueva Gerona was founded in 1830, the island was used as a place of detention for Cuban nationalists, including Jose Marti. Its use as a prison island continued for 50 years in the 0h century; construction of the Presidio Modell, began in 1926. In 1953 Batista turned the island into a free zone where money could be laundered. The dictator also wanted to turn it into a holiday paradise for rich Americans, but his plans failed. On New Year’s night in 1958, as Castro’s barbudos were entering Havana, a group of soldiers in the rebels’ army took over the island during the opening ceremony of the Hotel Colony, and arrested the mafiosi in the hotel.
In 1966, after a devastating cyclone, the Cuban government decided to plant new citrus groves on the island which would be worked by students from Cuba and around the world. The idea was such a success that in 10 years the island’s population grew from 10,000 to 80,000.
Cayo Largo del Sur
This island is a wonderful holiday destination for those who love sun, sea and sand. It is 25 km (15 miles) long and has a surface area of 37.5 sq km 115 sq miles). There are no extremes of climate here. It rains very little, the temperature is 24° C (75°F) in winter and w less than 30°C (86° F) in summer. The e and fine as talcum powder, and coast is flat, the sand as hit the sea is clear and calm. It is safe for scuba dg, and the island offers other sporting activities such as fishing, sailing, tennis and surfing. If you prefer not to swim, you can walk for miles in the shallow water.There are no villages here except those built for tourists, with comfortable hotels, as well as restaurants, bars, discos and swimming pools.
Playa Sirena: This 2-km (1.5 mile) beach is very tranquil. Sheltered from the wind, the sea is calm all year around.
Playa Lindamar is a shell-shaped beach, 5 km (3 miles) long and sheltered by white rocks, with hotels and bathing facilities.
Playa Paraiso is very secluded, nude sunbathing possible.
Combinado is a marine biology centre which is open to the public.
Marina Cayo Largo is the point of departure for boat trips to several scuba diving sites. In shallow water there are coral gardens populated by mutticoloured fish, and a black coral reef 30km (19 miles) long. Fishing equipment can be hired in the watersparts centre.
Playa Blanca is the longest beach on the island at 7.5 km (5 miles), is surrounded by white rocks and divided from Playa Lindamar by a rocky point.
Playa Los Pinos exclusive holiday resorts, with family bungalows and cottages, are concentrated on the southwest coast.
Playa Tortuga: This beach in the eastern part of the island is popular with nature lovers: it is a nesting area for marine turtles and has become a natural reserve for Chaelonidae (species of marine turtle), which are also raised at Combinado.
Playa Los Cocos: The coconut palms along the shore provide some shade here and the shallow water makes it ideal for children. The nearby coral reefs and shipwrecks attract scuba divers.
Visiting the Nearby Islands
The small cayos nearby offer many natural attractions. Cayo Rico, an island surrounded by brilliant green water and fringed with beaches of sand as fine as sugar, is only a few minutes away by boat. The seabeds, which are especially rich in lobsters and mollusks, are fascinating and can be admired from glass-bottomed boats. While various species of fish abound at Cayo Rosario, which is a scuba diver’s dream, the only inhabitants of Cayo Iguana, just off the western tip of Cayo Largo, are the harmless iguanas, which can be as much as 1 m (3 ft) long. Cayo Pajaro is the craggy habitat of ocean birds, while Cayo Cantiles is rich in flowers, birds and fish.
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