During May 2017 I traveled 3 weeks through Cuba with my girlfriend, from Havana all the way to the far east, to Baracoa and back again. Follow our steps here!
The capital of Cuba and the embodiment of the caribbean island: monument of colonial times and the age of pirates, famous for its cigars, the rum, the music, the old American cars… The buildings in the Old Town of Havana, the touristic centre, are mostly restored, while the living quarters of the city look much more run-down, with crumbling buildings everywhere. On the western border of the Old City lies the famous Malecón, the beach promenade, which is full of Cubans come night and which connects the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Havana.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza, built from 1558 to 1577 as a defense fortress against the pirates.
Two of the most important museums of Havana: (left) the Museo de Bellas Artes Cubanos, which shows great paintings and sculptures by Cuban artists. (middle and right) The Museo de la Revolucion tries to inform the visitor about the history of the Cuban Revolution, but is rather random in its exhibiting style.
The 2 historically most important churches of Havana: (left) The Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana was built between 1848 and 1887. The baroque facade was designed by famous Italian architect Francesco Borromini. (right) The Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís, once one of the highest buildings in Havana, was built in 1608 and received its baroque exterior in the 18th century.
In 1775 the fortress Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Jagua was built close to where Cienfuegos stands nowadays, as protection against the pirates. Cienfuegos, the “pearl of the south”, how it is called, was founded in 1819 by French settlers, who came from North America to Cuba. It is one of the youngest cities in Cuba. The Old City, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, is full of magnificent colonial buildings and still breathes French colonial flair. As in the rest of Cuba, many of the colonial buildings were restored with the money from UNESCO.
Cienfuegos is, compared to other Cuban cities, very tranquilo, laid back. This is mostly thanks to the lesser amount of taxi drivers and Cubans harrassing you and trying to sell you cigars or other souvenirs. Especially considering the proximity to Havana, where a lot of tourists land, Cienfuegos is a must-see on every Cuba journey.
Cienfuegos has a big pedestrian area in its middle, which makes for relaxed shopping. The main square of the city, the Parque José Martí, is flanked by magnificent buildings like the Catedral de la Purísima Concepción (1869) or the Triumphal Arc (1902), which was dedicated to the Cuban independence.
Der Playa Rancho Luna ist mit dem Taxi nur 20 Minuten entfernt.
Trinidad is a phenomenon. Time in the city seems to have stopped ticking in the 19th century; the cobblestone streets, the magnificent villas and other renovated colonial buildings let the visitor refeel Trinidad’s colonial heritage.
Trinidad was founded by conquistador Diego Velázquez in 1514 as the third city on Cuba. Until the 19th century the city was rather insignificant. After the arrival of French refugees from Haiti, where the slaves rebelled against their colonial masters, Trinidad soon became one of the most important cities of the country. The French settlers built 50 small sugar mills in the closeby Valle de los Ingenios; until the half of the century a third of all sugar in Cuba was produced in Trinidad. The resulting wealth out of the sugar and the slave trade can still be seen in the city today.
As sugar cane lost importance in the late 19th century and additionally because of the devastation of the sugar fields during the independence wars, Trinidad entered a period of insignificance. From 1950 onward Trinidad bloomed again as the first waves of tourists arrived. Until today the old sugar and slave city is one of the touristic centres of Cuba, but in spite of the huge amount of tourists Trinidad is a sight not to be missed.
From the tower of the Museo Histórico Municipal (1827-30), which is housed in the former palace of the sugar baron Cantero in the city centre, you have a panoramic view over the city and the closeby mountains.
Lust-4-Life-Highlight: Horse Riding in the Valle de los Ingenios
Eager Cubans offer you different tours in the old city, mostly a trip on horse to the closeby Valle de los Ingenios, where sugar was cultivated in former times. A great way of getting to know the nature around Trinidad.
Most tours use undernourished, often sickly looking horses, but there are already alternatives.
The trip typically includes a small stop for a demonstration of the production of sugar cane juice (Jugo de Caña), which you can also try of course, for a little money. The main attraction of the tour is the waterfall with a clear swimming pool, where you can spend some time. All in all the tour lasts for about 5-6 hours.
There are a couple of old sugar plantations in the Valle de los Ingenios which you can visit. The most popular one is the plantation of Pedro Iznaga (16 km outside Trinidad), founded in 1750, with the Manaca Iznaga, a tower in the middle of the plantation, which was used for supervise the slaves working the fields.
If you plan to go to Sancti Spiritus after Trinidad, you can take a taxi and negotiate a short stop at the plantation.
Sancti Spiritus, which lies about 70 km away from Trinidad, is far less known than its famous neighbor, with a fraction of the former’s tourists. It was founded in 1514 by Velásquez as one of the first cities (villas) on Cuba. During the sugar booms Sancti Spiritus became wealthy, but never famous.
Even though Sancti Spiritus is not as impressive as Trinidad, it still has a beautiful, recently renovated old town to offer, with colourful houses, old colonial buildings and very friendly inhabitants. Here I had a feeling just like in other touristic countries when visiting a non-tourist city: the locals here don’t try to rip you off, as is the case in most other places in Cuba.
Example: There was a Raúl Paz concert in the evening in the local theatre. The tickets were sold out by the time we arrived there. But since there were still many Cubans waiting in front, we waited as well. I asked one of them: Maybe there are still tickets. We were the only tourists among all the Cubans waiting, for about 20 minutes. Then there were tickets again, immediatly all the people waiting flocked to the ticket office. I tried to stand in line, which was not really a line, more like a cluster of people. A Cuban women started talking to my girlfriend; her husband is in front of the cluster and gets tickets for us. 5 minutes later she handed us the first tickets they were able to get and refused our money: “It’s a favor.” We got 2 of the last seats available, while our benefactors were standing somewhere along the back wall.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago is the second biggest city of Cuba and eternal rival of the capital Havana. The city lies in the east of the island and is one of the hottest places in Cuba. While there are a lot of amazing sights to be found in Santiago, like the huge colonial cathedral, the oldest house on Cuba or the graveyard where Fidel Castro was buried, it can also be very frustrating. In the mercilessly burning sun the tourist gets harrassed on each step by hordes of Cubans, shouting if you need a taxi, shouting louder. Mabye cigars? Very good price. Read more about it in my travel guide to Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba was founded by Velásquez in 1515. Already during the independence war against the Spanish colonial rulers at the end of the 19th century, Santiago became famous as a revolutionary city, as many families from Santiago joined the struggle (the most famous family being the Maceos). Half a century later the Cuban Revolution started from here, as Fidel Castro unsuccessfully assaulted the Moncada Barracks.
Die große Kathedrale von Santiago: die Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Bereits seit dem 16. Jahrhundert steht an dieser Stelle eine Kirche. Der dritte Neubau, den man heute bewundern kann, wurde zwischen 1815 und 1922 erbaut. Unter der Kathedrale liegen die Gebeine von Diego Velásquez begraben.
The stone upon which Cuba was built: The grave of Fidel Castro is on the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia, a little bit outside the city. Also other Cuban legends like José Martí, the national writer (the big monument to the left), or Buena Vista Social Club singer Compay Segundo have found their last rest here. But even without famous graves the cemetary is worth a visit.
Castillo del Morro
In the course of its history Santiago has repeatedly been the target of pirate raids. As protection against the pirates the building of a fortress was conceived in 1587, but the actual work didn’t start until 1633. The building process was slow and before it was finished it was demolished by the famous pirate Henry Morgan. When the fortress was finished in the early 17th century the pirate era was almost over.
From the fortress you have a grand view over the bay landscape around Santiago. It also is the hottest place I visited in Cuba. Don’t forget suncreme.
Baracoa has had a long history. In 1492 Christoph Columbus landed here and erected a wooden cross, which now is to be found in the church of Baracoa. In 1511 then Velásquez arrived and founded the first settlement on Cuban soil.
Baracoa lies on the far eastern tip of the island, surrounded by mountains. Until the revolution it could only be reached by boat or hiking. During the revolution a road was built through the impassable mountains. Nowadays Baracoa is mostly famous for cacao; a visit to one of the plantations (which were heavily damaged during the last hurricanes) is illuminative.
The atmosphere on the end of the island together with the spectacular landscapes call for a visit, even though it is a long way from Havana.
On the edge of the city stairs lead into the surrounding hills. Here you can find the Museo Arqueológico, which exhibits almost 2000 artefacts of the Taíno tribe in former burial caves of the same tribe. But more impressive than the museum is the panoramic view over Baracoa and the bay you have from the highest level of the museum.
The Malecón of Baracoa may not be as famous and grand as the one in Havana, but especially in the evening hours it has its own magic. If you follow it to its end you will get rewarded with a stunning sunset on clear days.
The mysterious flat-top mountain El Yunque, which you can climb, is only visible in the distance on clear days.
National Park Parque Alejandro de Humboldt
The UNESCO World Nature Heritage Site close to Baracoa was named after the German Natural Scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who was in Baracoa for the first time in 1801.
It is easy to organise day trips to the green national park from Baracoa.
Boca de Yumirí
Another highlight in the proximity of Baracoa is the river tour on the river Yumurí. A trip from Baracoa usually includes a visit of a cacao farm and some time on a beach. You can organise these tours easily and cheaply yourself. Just talk to one of the taxi drivers and make it clear what exactly you want.
Camagüey was founded by Velásquez in 1514. According to the legends the city developed its famous irregular layout in the two centuries during which Camagüey was repeatedly attacked by pirates in order to disorient them. Nowadays the city is known as the capital of the catholic church in Cuba.
The most famous beach and one of the biggest tourist destinations of Cuba: Varadero is often understood as the embodiment of the tourism in Cuba by a lot of travelers. After three weeks of traveling we wanted to spend the last days on the beach. After hearing a lot about Varadero we expected a tourist destination à la Thailand. Not so. Even if the town exists solely for the purpose of tourism there are few things the tourist gets offered. Only two or three shops on the beach offer loungers or drinks; no beachbar which is open in the evenings. In the town there is almost nothing to do, day or night.
But you’re not here for the bars or the shops, you are here for the beach, which is often praised as the most beautiful beach of the carribbean. And of course it is gorgeous: Finest white sand and turqouise, extremely clear water.