Situated on Cuba’s north-east coast about 200 kilometres east of Bariay where Columbus first set foot in the New World and where today we can see a monumental park to celebrate the meeting of the two cultures, Baracoa is where Diego Velasquez established Cuba’s first Spanish settlement, or Villa, in 1511. He considered it his capital and headquarters from where he began his conquest of the island. Returning east in 1515 after having founded Havana, he decided to establish Cuba’s capital and his residence as governor in Santiago, effectively abandoning Baracoa to its own devices.
Washed by the Atlantic Ocean, breathing winds arriving directly from Africa, surrounded by luxuriant hills and irrigated by seven rivers, the city’s location could be considered, in our terms, a paradise on earth. It’s just that paradises rarely offer more than primitive subsistence. Such was the destiny of Baracoa, geographically incommunicable with the rest of Cuba, its only resource being as an ideal hub for French and English smugglers. Dispersed among the surrounding hills were tiny indigenous communities who had survived the initial Spanish incursion.
This situation changed in the first months of 1800 with the arrival of French and Creole settlers fleeing the insurrection of African slaves in neighbouring Saint Dominique, the French half of La Española. Apart from their entourage of slaves and servants and their French culture, these visitors brought with them expertise in cocoa and coffee production and soon discovered perfect localities among the hills where to set up small plantations. Half-a-century later, the city became the secretive landing point of personages soon to become the leaders of Cuba’s wars of independence, after which it sank back into another century of isolation and oblivion saved only by the rapidly increasing prosperity of its natural neighbour, the city of Holguín, 250 kilometres west reachable only via the coastal mining city of Moa then inland along the mountain foothills. Transit along the road Baracoa-Moa has always been very problematic due to regular flooding either by the sea and/or the rivers which demolish the asphalt and destroy the bridges. As for getting to its other neighbouring city, Guantanamo, there was no other way than trekking over the mountains along paths known to very few until, in the early 1960s, a spectacular 70 kilometre mountain pass was built connecting Baracoa with a point on the coast due south, an extraordinary feat of civil engineering but a frightful drive for the inexperienced visitor. Today, with far better communications, shouldered by the immense Humboldt Nature Reserve, swaying to its characteristic folk music, Changüí and the Tumba Francés, and offering exclusive culinary experiences, Baracoa has become another of Cuba’s “must see” tourist destinations.
Among Baracoa´s historically significant artefacts is the Parra Cross, a crucifix planted by Columbus during his first voyage west and safely housed in the city’s Cathedral. And equally significant is a small monument dedicated to the cacique Hatuey, burned at the stake by the Spanish and considered the first ever native rebel of Latin America. It is curious that (coincidence?) this monument faces the entrance to the Cathedral housing the Parra Cross.
Sitting on a navigable river leading into the Caribbean Sea and nestling among the lower reaches of the Sierra Maestra, Bayamo is a short distance from the central plains. Established by Diego Velasquez as Cuba´s second Villa, the city grew initially as a flourishing market-place for trade in contraband goods of all kinds, origins and destinations, while being sufficiently inland to enable it to prepare against attacks by pirates. At one point, its prosperity, and the consequential influence of its Creole aristocracy, was comparable to that of Santiago.
It was precisely the sons of this aristocracy, dispersed among the plantations of Eastern Cuba, who first kindled the political flames which led to independence from Spain. 1868 saw the first liberation of slaves, the raising of what became Cuba’s national flag, the composition of its national hymn called “La Bayamese”, its slogan “Viva Cuba Libre” and its motto “Patria o Muerte, Venceremos” (Fatherland or Death, We Shall Win!”). In the first days of the following year, Bayamo, weakly defended by the Spanish, was taken over by the insurrectionists and declared an independent city administered for the poor. When the Spanish forces closed in to retake the city, the residents set light to it, a fire which destroyed most of their homes and, unfortunately, sent them homeless into the countryside. Nevertheless, this gesture gave force to the subsequent declaration of the Ten Year War, the first of Cuba´s three successive wars of independence. Bayamo is known to Cubans as the “Heroic City”.
Just two years after having been founded as Villa Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe in 1514, the tiny population moved inland and settled in the territory of a Taino cacique. In 1527, this settlement was destroyed by the natives forcing them to move even further inland where, at about seventy kilometres from the coast, they finally established their Villa’s residence between two rivers, the Hatibonico and Tínima. In 1534, the population was still only about twenty persons, and records show that quite quickly a number of mixed-race mestizos, Indios and blacks could be counted among them. By the end of the century, they had built a church, the mayor´s residence and two convents. Apart from a terrible fire in 1616, life was reasonably quiet until Henry Morgan´s men attacked the city, sacked it and destroyed most of the buildings. When almost rebuilt, another attack, this time by French pirates, met with resistance and the villa survived. However, part of the success of defeating the pirates was that the city had been expanding haphazardly and had become a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys going in different ways and interspersed unexpectedly with plazas and gardens. The attackers found it easy to enter the city but almost impossible to get out. Trapped in the maze, they could easily be defeated. Today, the tourist, map in hand, can only scratch his head and humble himself to ask help from the amiable inhabitants.
The city is placed in the centre of an extensive area of fertile plains, ideal for the development of sugar plantations and cattle ranches. Meat, hides and dairy products quickly became an important source of its prosperity, in part thanks to the immigration of Spanish-speaking farmers during the 1820s escaping the dire situation in Santo Domingo.
Some years earlier, Spain had moved its most important juridical institution of the Americas, the Audienza Real, Royal Tribune, from Santo Domingo to Puerto Principe, so giving the city a certain prestige. In the main, these Dominican immigrants were sufficiently liberal and educated to integrate well with the residents of the Villa and became a clear component of the personality which still distinguishes the people of Camagüey, as it was renamed in 1903.
Cayo Santa Maria
Cayo Santa Maria is the largest of a 13 kilometre-long string of narrow cays on Cuba’s north coast creating an idyllic landscape of mangroves, low scrub, dunes and some of the most fabulous white-sand beaches in the world washed by crystalline waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Historically more or less uninhabited and visited only by pirates and fishermen, in the late 1990s a causeway was finalised connecting the cays with the mainland, a feat of civil engineering stretching 48 kilometres out into the sea in full respect of environmental concerns. In 2001, the first 4-star hotel opened its doors both to sun-and-sea lovers and to other top-end hotel developers. Today, apart from a strictly controlled nature reserve at their farthest point, these cays house around twenty hotels, mostly 5-star.
Ciego de Avila
Ciego de Ávila was founded in 1577 and for around three centuries its economy was primarily cattle rearing and agriculture until, as elsewhere in Cuba, sugar-cane production began to develop, helped immensely by the surrounding fertile plains and the introduction of the steam locomotive facilitating the transport of cane to centralised sugar mills. Almost without exception, these plantations and mills were in the hands of American investors, a situation which caused resentment among the Cuban population. The Avileños, as the inhabitants are called, subsequently became a driving force behind the wars of independence from Spain. The city’s architecture is a striking mix of past wealth and cultural eccentricity along with modest, yet proud, urban subsistence. While sugar production in recent decades has declined significantly, the province’s economy is strengthened by the concentration of international tourism on its northern coast, the King’s Gardens comprising Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo.
Cienfuegos, known as the “Pearl of the South”, is in some ways strikingly different to Cuba’s other principle cities. Situated at the base of a large bay opening into the Caribbean Sea, it was founded by French settlers in 1819 and accorded the title of Villa by the Spanish Crown as late as 1829. Since then, it has exploited its location to become Cuba’s second most important port and principal refinery. Equally important is that the development of the city centre with wide, well-organised streets and plazas and its eclectic neo-classical and French-inspired architecture is sufficient for UNESCO to have awarded it the title of World Heritage Site in 2005. The city’s clean spaciousness has bred a pleasant, laid-back, elegant population.
Guamá is the name of a small tourist venue on the banks of Treasure Lagoon deep within one of Latin America´s largest swamplands, the Zapata Peninsular. Just 150 kilometres south of Havana and extending a full 4,500 square kilometres, it has been approved by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve thanks to its almost pristine condition as home to a wealth of flora and fauna. Apart from its attraction to environmentalists and nature tourists, Guamá also shows the reconstruction of a pre-Columbian native village. Legend says that its name is derived from when, fearful of invasion by savage, gold-seeking colonists, the Taino natives convinced themselves to throw all their precious possessions into the lagoon. Thus “Treasure Lagoon”.
Guanahacabibes juts into the Gulf of Mexico at the extreme tip of western Cuba at a point called the Cape of Currents where the strong incoming oceanic currents of the Atlantic clash with those rising from the Caribbean Sea. This extensive peninsular with the unpronounceable name of Guanahacabibes is now a national park and a UNESCO-protected Biosphere Reserve thanks to its unique ecosystem. Inland, its vast, semi-arid, almost impenetrable vegetation is dotted with small lakes and water holes while the coast is mainly stretches of sharp, black rocks called “dogs’ teeth” interspersed with white-sand beaches backed by cliffs full of caves.
Going back about 6,000 years, the first humans to occupy Cuba were the aboriginal, hunter-collectors known to the Spanish as Guanahatabibes whom the Siboney and Taino invaders later pushed into this area, of little interest to anybody. And so it stayed right through to the early colonial period, virtually uninhabited, simply somewhere to hide.
Very slowly, the occasional migrant ventured into the peninsular and a few tiny settlements began to appear, almost totally isolated one from the other, their only resources being precious wood and charcoal. But then new arrivals came by sea, small fleets anchoring in the coves, their crews resting up on the beaches; pirates and corsairs of every nationality, scanning the horizon for the tell-tale sails of a Spanish ship taking advantage of the gulf currents to reach the Atlantic, laden with treasures destined for Havana and Spain. Together, these brigands formed a new market for land-based desperados from Spain, the Canary Islands and Central America who moved into the peninsular ready to supply the pirates with meat, crocodile skins, wood and water in return for clothes, tools, gunpowder, rum and tobacco.
A map of the peninsular shows a string of beaches and coves traditionally named after their French, Dutch, English and Creole pirate and corsair occupants. With the gradual demise of piracy during the 19th century, the residents of the peninsular returned to their isolation hidden away in the impenetrable peninsular. It wasn’t until after the popular revolution of 1959 that any endeavour to seek them out and invite them to take part in modern society began. They had lived for around three centuries with no state institutions, no churches, no doctors nor teachers yet had looked after themselves, held themselves to be catholic and had kept alive the traditional cultures of their family founders of centuries ago. A living example of a stateless society.
Today, Guanahacabibes, now a protected area part of the province of Pinar del Rio, is an attraction for nature tourism and has an internationally recognised scuba-centre, Maria La Gorda, offering courses and excursions for divers among one of the world’s best preserved coral reefs scattered with ancient wrecks.
Havana: Possibly no capital city in the world has so many songs sung to it or about it, even by its younger generations. Its charm is undeniable, contagious, a mix of exuberance, creativity, indifference and defiance. While there are no signs of exorbitant wealth, squalor and extreme urban poverty are equally absent. The generalised low standard of living, in the eyes of a consumer-society visitor, is contradicted by the health, cleanliness and dress of the city’s ethnically-mixed inhabitants along with their seeming lack of stress.
The Villa de San Cristóbal de la Habana was first set up on Cuba´s south coast by order of Diego Velazquez in 1514 but soon afterwards re-established on the north coast where it stands today. It was probably named after the saint of seafarers, San Cristóbal, and that of the local Taino chieftain, Habaguanex. The choice of location was thanks to its immense deep-water bay extending inland like a bag accessed from the open sea only through a narrow but deep neck flanked by a high cliff atop of which a fortress was built in 1538, El Castillo del Morro. Shortly afterwards, the Fortaleza da la Real Fuerza was constructed a short way into the bay itself.
In 1561, the Spanish Crown decreed that Havana be where the galleons coming from their New World possessions gathered to form massive treasure-laden armadas ready to cross the Atlantic, the Indias Fleet, with destination Seville. In 1563, Havana became the island’s de-facto capital.
By the end of the 16th century, Havana had become Spain’s maritime hub handling all the gold, silver, spices, precious stones, silks, alpaca wool, skins, ceramics, noble hardwoods, cocoa and potatoes acquired one way or another from its colonial possessions in East Asia and the Americas. Only one event seriously shocked the city and the Spanish Crown; the Siege of Havana of 1762 by the British.
Two years later, the British left and a new age of prosperity opened for Havana. The city was racing towards being one of the world’s richest and most cosmopolitan colonial cities.
Part of Cuba’s attraction to today’s tourists is undoubtedly its heritage of fascinating buildings built throughout the island during this colonial period, a mixture of neo-classical Spanish architecture with strong baroque influences resulting in an exotic style known as “Cuban Baroque”.
A six-month war between Spain and the USA in 1898 concluded with the Paris Peace Treaty, signed on the 10th of December, by which Spain surrendered all its overseas colonial territories to the USA: Puerto Rico, Guam, its possessions in the Philippines, and Cuba, as an independent nation. The Treaty also stated that the future condition of the native populations of these territories would be decided by the US Congress. Just to make the situation clear, on the 3rd of March 1901, Washington forced the president of Cuba, Tomás Estrada Palma, to sign a permanent treaty, named the Platt Amendment, according the USA direct control of Cuba’s political and financial affairs under the threat of continued military occupation by US troops. So Cuba entered the twentieth century, now an independent republic but as a virtual colony of the USA.
Fourteen years later, World War One began. This was a “Fat Cow” period for investors because Cuba not only supplied the USA with sugar, cigars and nearly all the coffee it drank, it was also more or less the only nation to supply sugar to both sides of the European conflict. Havana became a city of millionaire Cuban creole “Sugar Barons” and US investors all spending their wealth in art, architecture and urban infrastructure. The splurge continued up to the US depression of the 1930’s and the crash in the price of sugar. However, this was compensated in large part by the US “Prohibition” or “Dry Law” which, while banning alcoholic beverages throughout the USA incidentally turned Havana into a liqueur warehouse run by the Italian-American mafia to supply their establishments in the US. Havana was enjoying a wave of millionaire tourism drawn by the casinos, luxury hotels, night-life and world-class entertainment all owned by the entrenched American mafia. The “Mobster Money Boom” was getting fatter everyday through drugs, prostitution and gambling with the full backing of the fascist dictator, Batista, his generals, creole lackeys and Washington. The party came to an abrupt end in December 1959 with the overthrow of Batista at the hands of Fidel Castro and his rebel forces and the constitution of the socialist republic it is today.
However, the turbulent half-century leading up to that moment left Havana a fascinating architectural patrimony with eclectic examples of all the then-fashionable styles from art-nouveau and art-deco to Bauhaus and influences of the early modernism movement. Not to mention the impressive fleet of 1950s Classic Cars still plying the city’s streets. Literally a museum in motion.
Holguín: Although not a so-called “Villa”, this city is today one of Cuba´s most important provincial capitals. Lying just 30 kilometres inland from Gibara, an important port for 18th century trade in sugar and slaves, the area had been occupied by Spanish colonists since 1545 but not officially declared a city until 1752. One hundred years later, it had already established over 70 sugar refineries, almost 800 tobacco fields and hundreds of colonial farmsteads, all employing slave labour. This prosperity drew not only the attention of marauding pirates and corsairs, it also attracted settlers from other parts of Cuba and Latin America and subjects of Spain and the Canary Islands, a human cocktail which shaped its characteristic multi-ethnic, multi-cultural personality.
Las Terrazas: This community is hidden among the forested Sierra del Rosario, a range of mountains which, along with the Sierra de Los Organos, form part of the Guaniguanico range which extends the whole length of western Cuba from the peninsular of Guanahacabibes almost to Havana. The plains south of them were occupied by overspill from the capital as early as 1616 but didn’t attract much investment until the 18th century with the arrival of mainly French planters from Santo Domingo, Louisiana and other French possessions in the Caribbean drawn by the exceptional micro-climate offered by the Sierra for coffee plantations.
Over the following century and a half, exploitation of the forest for wood and charcoal and cleared for growing coffee was uncontrolled, extensive and devastating.
The devastation of the Sierra del Rosario is shown by a study of 1960; only 17% of the forest was still standing and the Sierra’s biodiversity reduced by 40%. Just a few years after the popular revolution of 1959, a project was put into motion to reforest the Sierra and establish a self-reliant, sustainable community. The community, Las Terrazas, was formed by eighty-or-so volunteer families who set about to build their homes on cleverly-levelled terraces around a natural lake and establish basic community services such as clinic, school, shops and social centres and infrastructure such as electricity, water and roads.
Once settled in, they began to reforest the surrounding hills; 5,000 hectares were prepared and seven million trees planted, all species endemic to Cuba. In 1985, UNESCO declared the Sierra del Rosario a Biosphere Reserve. While access to the reserve is strictly controlled, its success and natural beauty attracts visitors from all over the world, from nature tourists, bird-watchers and cave explorers to ecologists and sociologists.
María La Gorda
María La Gorda: 70 kilometres from Sandino, its nearest town, María La Gorda is a tiny paradise perched at the southernmost tip of the Guanacahabibes Peninsular surrounded by sea and tropical wilderness. Beyond its beach are platforms of corral, deep rifts and wrecks, a dreamland for snorkelers and scuba divers. The hotel’s wooden bungalows are submerged in the woodland while the main building is home to one of the West Indies’ most important international scuba centres.
Sancti Spíritus: Was founded in 1514 by Velasquez on the banks of a small river in central Cuba then moved 8 kilometres in 1522 to its final location on the River Yayabo, just 50 or so kilometres inland from the south coast and 80 kilometres east of Trinidad. One of Velasquez’ companions during his early expeditions was a rich Basque merchant, Francisco Iznaga, who settled in the area and established what was to become a highly influential family of all the area for the following four-and-a-half centuries. The city’s distance from the sea seems to have saved it from the pirate attacks which so cursed most of the other colonial villas while its extensive, irrigated plains and soft hills permitted it to develop very successful sugar plantations and sheep rearing and, more recently, rice paddies in the Yayabo delta.
The opulence of the city’s gentry is shown in the impeccable taste of the 18th and 19th century colonial buildings and decorative artefacts which demonstrate access to Europe’s most exclusive materials and craftsmen. Among its notable buildings are the Mayor Parochial Church dating back to the 16th century, Cuba’s first church and so one of the first Christian churches of the Americas, the Iznaga family residence of the early 17th century and a 90-foot-long bridge spanning the Yayabo River for over three centuries.
Santa Clara was founded in 1689 by a small group of families of Remedios escaping the constant invasion of pirates and corsairs. Taking advantage of the extensive, fertile plains of central Cuba, its economy was initially cattle rearing and agriculture and, later, extensive sugar-cane plantations which became extremely profitable during WW1 in Europe. This prosperity, which induced a notable immigration of workers from Spain, was however rather short-lived and the city fell into a state of urban subsistence still evident today in its areas of poorly constructed and maintained housing. Since the 1959 Revolution, the city, now provincial capital, has made significant progress in areas of education and the arts, scientific investigation and light industry. It now also oversees the tourism pole of Cayo Santa Maria to which it supplies agricultural products and hotel staff. Santa Clara is historically known as where, in December 1958, the Rebel Forces effectively demonstrated to Batista that he had no possibility of defeating the revolutionary insurrection “El Che” Guevara’s guerrillas had occupied the city and were holding down Batista’s army. Batista sent a train full of soldiers to confront El Che and his men, but, just as the train was entering the city, a tractor was placed across the tracks which derailed the train. Batista’s soldiers had no choice but to surrender themselves, and their arms, to the revolutionaries. Just outside the city stands a large monument to Ernesto “El Che” Guevara.
Remedios: This small town was initially founded in 1513 as Villa San Juan de Los Remedios at a point just five kilometres from Cuba’s north coast. Seeing that the founding population was simply a handful of families and the surrounding area offered little more than subsistence, it is possible that their initial prosperity was through facilitating smuggling. In fact, they managed to build one of the most beautiful churches of Latin America, small but magnificently adorned, set in a plaza with park surrounded by elegant mansions.
The villa’s location and its obvious wealth were an invitation for pirates and corsairs who hardly left the population time to rebuild between one attack and the next. It was after an attack in 1689 by the savage French corsair, known as El Olonés, that half the population decided to pack up and set up their villa further inland soon to become Santa Clara.
The original Remedios faced almost three centuries of oblivion before being revitalised during the last years of the 20th century by tourism fascinated by its architectural heritage and its laid-back population.
Nearby is the fishing town of Caibarién and its fascinating Locomotive Museum.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba: Velasquez founded this port city as a Villa in 1515, set up his personal residence there and declared it the capital of Cuba. And with good reason. Backed by the Sierra Maestra mountains, the city is built on one bank of a large bay the mouth of which is overlooked by a high cliff where a fortress was erected in 1638. No uninvited vessel could enter the bay without being shot at. In fact the only access to the city, other than along a stretch of bleak coastline opposite the cliff, was a long trek through the mountain forests. The bay itself, with its narrow neck and small islands, was ideal for shipbuilding, repairing and refurbishing ships, transhipping and trading goods. The city stretches up from its port to a central area where all administrative and official business was carried out. A large plaza there is surrounded by sumptuous mansions, the cathedral and Velasquez’ residence.
Two years after having been sacked and largely destroyed in 1554 by the French corsair, Francois Le Clerc, Santiago lost its title as Cuba’s capital to Havana, probably in part due to the Crown’s opinion that Santiago was climatically and militarily too unstable. While remaining the country’s second most important and populated city, Santiago has never fully retrieved its political prestige.
The population of Santiago, also known as the “Heroic City”, is characterised by its creative, somewhat defiant attitude and is clearly far more Caribbean than European. In fact, one could say that Santiago is where “it all began”.
This tiny town hidden away among the hills just twenty kilometres west of Santiago became, and has remained, one of the most important and significant places in Cuba. One day, around 1612, three young slaves, two Indios and an African, were sent from a town a little further north, Barajuaga, to get salt from the salt flats on the shores of the Bay of Nipe on the northern coast. While rowing back with their boat laden with salt, a storm came upon them and they almost sank. But, as the weather calmed, they noticed something floating on the waves near them. They reached it and pulled it aboard. It was a small female statue standing on a slab of wood on which was written “Soy La Virgen de La Caridad” (“I am the Lady of Charity”). The boys were amazed that the statuette’s clothes were dry and they rushed with it back to Barajuaga where they gave it to the local priest. He recognised it as a “Madonna” and rapidly built a rustic temple for her. But the first night, she disappeared, only to return the following morning. This happened three times, so the priest decided to give the statue to the bishop who then sent it to the mining town, El Cobre. Once there, it was solemnly placed in the local church. But she continued to disappear. One afternoon, a girl was attracted by a light in the sky above a small hill just outside the community. She went to it and found the Madonna sitting in a cleared space on the hill. The population understood that the Madonna had chosen where she wished to live, so they built her her own sanctuary.
Rebuilt and restored, the sanctuary is still a place of worship and pilgrimage for Cubans, even those living abroad. While her real title is Nuestra Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre, she is commonly known as “La Cachita”. Behind her sumptuous apparel, her skin colour is that of a “mulata”, neither white nor black, and for this she has always been a symbol for all Cubans, of whatever racial origin. Followers of the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria, see her as their Orisha (goddess) Oshun, whose colour is yellow, and all Cuban visitors bear her sunflowers. In 1916, Pope Benedict XV declared her Patron Saint of Cuba. Pope Paul VI acknowledged her Sanctuary as a Minor Basilica in 1977. Pope John Paul II solemnly crowned her during his visit in 1998 and, in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI honoured her with the Golden Crown.
Trinidad: The third Villa founded by Velasquez, in late 1513, Trinidad was initially interesting because a small quantity of gold was found in a river running through a Taino community at the foothills of Escambray mountain range. When the gold ran out and the Indios more or less worked to death, the colonisers had to invent other sources of income.
The initial wealth gained from gold had attracted craftsmen, while the coast, only ten-or-so kilometres away, plus an abundance of fish, wild game, timber and fresh water helped the population give assistance and provisions to ships of all classes sailing along the coast. A port and a large church were built.
An extensive, fertile, forested valley, the Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) just west of the city later offered the plantation of sugar cane, a production which, from the 17th century onwards, established Trinidad as one of the West Indies’ most prosperous cities, all in the hands of three families; Iznaga, Brunet and Borrell with their hundreds of slaves.
The early 19th century saw its prosperity reach a peak with sugar shipments leaving its port daily direct for North America. This peak, however, began to crumble mid-century due to various factors, primarily its geographic isolation, and Trinidad fell into sharp economic and social decline. The plantations and port stood idle, the fields unattended while the city’s population went hungry. This desolate situation lasted until the 1980s when interest on the part of foreign visitors inspired some residents to open up their homes as hostels and revive local cultures and services. In 1988, UNESCO gave the city and its valley the title of World Heritage Site, an act which opened the gates to an impressive flow of foreigners enjoying Trinidad’s magic.
Yes, Trinidad is somehow magical. Seated near the top of a hill from where one can look out to the sea, it is backed by the Escambray Mountains. During the morning, the sun blazes down on its cobbled streets and plazas while a warm breeze lifts up off the sea. Early afternoon, clouds gather above the mountains and drift over the city born on a cool wind which forces the sea breezes upwards, so lifting the clouds that then need to discharge their moisture. It rains, heavy showers for an hour or so, cooling the city and washing the streets. One wakes up after siesta to a city washed clean and cooled, lit by a bright late-afternoon sun slowly sliding towards a rosy sunset. This climate, little traffic, the absence of contaminating industry and the restored colonial buildings have created a gentle, happy, healthy and well-behaved population who have placed Trinidad as one of the world’s “must visit” cultural tourist centres.
The Escambray Mountains, shared between the provinces of Sancti Spíritus, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos, hold two immense reservoirs, one supplying water and hydroelectric power to the large port city of Cienfuegos while the other, situated lower down, is a nature reserve. However, the main economy of these mountains, other than tourism, are the numerous, small, shaded coffee plantations providing what is considered by connoisseurs as one of the world’s finest coffees.
Viñales: Situated at about 180 kilometres west of Havana and nestling among the forested hills and valleys of the Sierra de Los Organos, Viñales was initially populated by Taino Indians. But it wasn´t until the early 19th century that the area´s natural resources and micro climates drew the attention of European settlers, mainly tobacco growers from the Canary Islands and Santo Domingo.
One could happily suggest that the Valley of Viñales, awarded the title of World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, is a “land of milk and honey” in that it offers more or less everything one needs for a peaceful, healthy existence with fruit, meat and dairy products, eggs, vegetables, wild game, honey, coffee, rice, tobacco, timber, plentiful water and even fish from its coast. Until the recent arrival of foreign tourists, its population was, and to some degree has remained, totally agricultural; labour intensive, eco-sustainable, employing oxen rather than tractors and horses rather than cars. Its tobacco, along with that produced in the plains a little further west, the Vuelta Abajo, is considered the finest in the world for hand-rolled cigars. However, what attracted the first tourists to stay, and return, was its remarkable karstic landscape, a jumble of rocky outcroppings called mogotes, like small mountains of varying heights dating back possibly one hundred million years covered by plants unique to the area and riddled with caves, some having given refuge to small communities of runaway slaves. Today, agriculture has been largely set aside while the younger generations, typically well-educated as most Cubans, serve the wishes of the constant flow of foreign tourists as B&B hosts, guides with horses or ropes and picks for climbers.