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Tourist Itineraries in Eastern Cuba: 505 Years of Santiago de Cuba Culture


Tourist Itineraries in Eastern Cuba: 505 Years of Santiago de Cuba Culture

The old Moncada Barracks converted into the 26 de Julio School City. Photo: René Silveira Toledo

Aida Liliana Morales Tejeda and Omar López Rodríguez, Office of the Conservationist of the City of Santiago de Cuba

At present the world of tourism is directing its interests towards the modality of cultural itineraries or cultural tourist routes, as one of the fastest growing tourist territorial resources. They are thus valued for the development of heritage as well as for the smokeless industry. International organizations such as UNESCO and ICOMOS have taken an interest in these modalities.

Our country has not been immune to these new proposals. Eastern Cuba is a vital geographical and cultural space to develop this tourist modality. The eastern region of the Cuban archipelago forms the head of the alligator, an animal whose resemblance is attributed to it. It is the widest portion of an island that is characterized by being long and narrow. Important orographic systems are concentrated in it: the Sierra Maestra mountain range, that runs along its southern coast, the Sierra Cristal, in the center east, and Maniabón heights, to the west. The rugged geography unifies and strengthens the social psychology of belonging of the eastern population, it has an enviable intangible wealth of customs, traditions, natural, historical, cultural and anthropic resources that make it one of the fundamental epicenters of the Cuba destination.

Santiago de Cuba was the island’s capital for more than 400 years; at present it continues to be a center of attraction and confluence of all the residents who are proud to belong to this region. The celebration of the 505th anniversary of the founding of the township of Santiago de Cuba is an opportune moment to value its historical role and its cultural significance in an encompassing territory that we call Eastern Cuba.

Since colonial times this vast area was an administrative unit with various names: Eastern Department, Santiago de Cuba province and Oriente province. After the 1976 political-administrative division, it was turned into five provinces: Las Tunas, Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo. Numerous and diverse elements unify and distinguish them, but without a doubt, history plays a relevant role in this part of Cuba. The five provinces concentrate 109 National Monuments, and 5 World Heritage Sites that include one in the category of Intangible Heritage.

The tourist routes or tours include interpretive circuits, thematic itineraries that intertwine stories about a specific theme, whether based on an event, manifestations of architecture, history, religiosity. In this sense, the eastern region has valuable potential yet to be developed in all its dimensions.

From Santiago de Cuba, the Coffee Trails

One of the most attractive routes is the one resulting from the archaeological landscape of the first coffee plantations in the southeast of Cuba, which links the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo: both share the remains of more than 170 coffee plantations, fostered by French immigration since the late 18th century and much of the 19th century. Deployed both in the Sierra Maestra and in the Sagua-Nipe-Baracoa mountain range, they are exponents of the most flourishing and productive coffee belt of the time. Declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, it is capable of generating multiple interpretative circuits that meet the requirements of the most varied types and modalities of tourism, as it combines architectural, archaeological, landscape and cultural values.

It is possible to admire the vestiges of a productive culture through the ruins of the old coffee plantations, the construction of bridges, imposing aqueducts, road systems that masterfully take advantage of the rugged topography, as well as the proper use of rivers, streams and springs. Since the 19th century, many travelers who made excursions to these sites were amazed by the paradisiacal nature that is interrelated with the work of man, the built gardens are impressive, but also the large forests with exuberant vegetation and fruit trees with exotic fruits capable of satisfying the most unsuspected desires. Ancestral traditions linked to the process of planting, harvesting, and processing coffee are maintained. Getting to these mountains will be a genuine and unique encounter with some of the best of our cultural heritage. Meanwhile, if you travel through the Gran Piedra mountain range, a huge volcanic rock, 51 m long, 25 m wide, with a calculated weight of 63,000 tons, which is located on top of a mountain 1,225 m above sea level, you will find a natural lookout point from where you can see a beautiful landscape of the Sierra Maestra and the coast of the Caribbean Sea.

Tourist Itineraries in Eastern Cuba: 505 Years of Santiago de Cuba Culture

Sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin of Charity. Photo: courtesy of Mintur

Likewise, the Ruta de la Virgen is a landscape that unites the provinces of Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. It starts from the Bay of Nipe, where the image of Our Lady of Charity was found in 1612, to El Cobre, a mining town where the national sanctuary is located and where Cuba’s Patron Saint is venerated, declared a National Monument in 2012. It is an extensive geographical landscape of around 160 kilometers and includes several municipalities, towns and hamlets, where the sea, plains and mountainous areas are combined in perfect harmony. Part of the natural, archaeological and historical sites traditionally linked to the discovery and first veneration of Our Lady of Charity, such as Cayo de la Virgen (the site of an obelisk) are preserved; Barajagua la Vieja (parish where Our Lady of Charity was deposited, rebuilt and with a beautiful image of the saint on the outside), among others. The described path represents the early process of cultural interaction between the three races: indigenous, Spanish and African, and the devotion to Our Lady of Charity constitutes the central and foundational myth of Cuban culture.

El Cobre as a town is exceptional from the aesthetic point of view, due to the excellent combination of the surrounding relief, characterized by the rugged profile of the mountains and the cultural complex personified by the urban settlement and the basilica of Cuba’s Patron Saint. Three fundamental elements are identified: religion, linked to the cult of Our Lady of Charity; mining, through the existence of the first copper mines in America, exploited as of the 17th century; and the beginning of runaway slaves representing patriotic symbolism and the most important slave protests in Cuba. Materiality and spirituality are embraced in the exclusivity of the symbiosis between chromatic diversity, the imperishable traces of the slave rebellion and the national identity of a religious veneration that sustains the faith and hope of a people rooted in their customs and folklore.

The vast eastern region was the site of the beginning of the Cuban independence wars in the 19th century. Many are the important sites related to them. It was here that Carlos Manuel de Céspedes gave the cry for independence at his La Demajagua sugar mill. An itinerary where nature, trekking and historical tourism would be correctly linked in the route from Playita de Cajobabo to Dos Ríos, closely related to the life of National Hero José Martí. It includes the site where they landed on April 10, 1895 and the camps where they spent the night, located in territories that correspond to three provinces: Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Granma. In addition to getting acquainted with the vicissitudes that these combatants faced, it will be possible to experience passages that José Martí captured in his Campaign Diary, such as the recipes of the farmers’ traditional sweets, fruit and timber trees, the beauty and majesty of the fields of eastern Cuba with their rugged topography.

Tourist Itineraries in Eastern Cuba: 505 Years of Santiago de Cuba Culture

Mausoleum to José Martí, where his remains are found, in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. Photo: René Silveira Toledo.

Eastern Cuba is a reservoir of other sites linked to National Hero José Martí, in this case the proposed route is closer to funeral tourism. The sister provinces of Granma and Santiago de Cuba have the Marti funeral route featuring a pilgrimage through sites declared National Monuments, from Dos Ríos, the place where Martí fell in battle, the Remanganaguas cemetery, the first burial place, the Palma Soriano park, the local monument Mamoncillo Francés―where Spanish soldiers hid José Martí’s body to avoid it being rescued by the Mambí fighters when it was being taken to Santiago de Cuba to be buried―and the old San Luis Rural Guard Barracks. Thus, firsthand, you will be able to get to know actions carried out by Cubans for more than a century for the preservation of these places, in addition to beautiful traditions and how, thanks to the humility of the farmers and simple people of the well-known Via Sagrada (Holy Way), Cuban history is renewed every day.

The Loma de San Juan Urban Historic Site, declared a National Monument, was the scene of one of
the main land battles of the Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1898. Photo: Vicente González Díaz

An event of international importance was the 1898 Spanish-Cuban-American War, in which the eastern region and especially the former province of Oriente played a leading role. For those interested in underwater tourism, they can immerse themselves in history and visit the wrecks corresponding to the ships of the Spanish armada sunk along the coast of the province. From the bay of Santiago de Cuba to the base of the Turquino, some of their parts are even visible from the Granma highway, a unique landscape with the constant interaction between the sea and the mountains. It is of interest to visit the landing sites on the beaches of Daiquirí and Siboney, as well as the scenes of the most important battles, converted for almost a century into significant historical parks that house commemorative constructions representative of the three contending armies: Cuban, Spanish and U.S., always in interaction with the exuberant surrounding nature.

The Rebel Route, as is called the one that can be carried out between the buildings, sites, and areas linked to the last stage of the liberation feat, declared a National Monument and which includes the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Guantánamo and Holguín. A prominent site is the farm house where Fidel and Raúl Castro Ruz were born, in Birán, an area that today is part of the province of Holguín; it features great attractions as it is very close to the Sierra Cristal, among them the cavern where during the 1895 war the Mambí newspaper El Cubano Libre was published, and which in the stage of national liberation was part of the Frank País II Eastern Front.

Tourist Itineraries in Eastern Cuba: 505 Years of Santiago de Cuba Culture

The Granjita Siboney. Photo: René Silveira Toledo

The Route begins in the city of Santiago de Cuba with those sites linked to the assault on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, buildings of high heritage value and some of architectural value, where you can see firsthand the momentous events in which the youth of the Generation of the Centennial played a prominent role: the old Moncada Barracks (converted into the 26 de Julio School City), the Granjita Siboney (now a museum), the Vivac (former royal prison of Santiago de Cuba and the place where Fidel Castro was taken after being taken prisoner after the assault), the Palace of Justice, Abel Santamaría Park, Boniato prison.

A second stage would be linked to those places that are part of the stage from the landing of the yacht Granma until January 1, 1959. It would begin in Las Coloradas beach, then the foothills of the Sierra Maestra where important combats took place. A nature of great beauty, with numerous rivers and from where magnificent views can be observed, it constitutes an exceptional lookout point to contemplate the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

The flora of the area presents a marked endemism and great diversity, in this sense being considered an area of ​​national significance. A type of vegetation unique to the Cuban archipelago, which has great scientific and conservation interest, appears here. In this wide geographical setting, where the Desembarco del Granma National Park and the Pico Turquino are located, are the Comandancia (rebel forces’ headquarters) in La Plata and the scenes of the Rebel Army’s most important battles, where history vibrates in monuments, museums and in its affable and industrious inhabitants.

Santiago de Cuba has the honor of being the city from where, on January 1, 1959, the triumph of the Revolution was proclaimed to the world, one of the most glorious pages in Cuban history. This city has welcomed other important events, among them, awarding the city in 1984 the title of Hero City of the Republic of Cuba and the Antonio Maceo order.

Our country is committed to healthy tourism that, while contributing to leisure and recreation, enables the spiritual and intellectual growth of those who visit us. Today, after several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are preparing for the arrival of tourists to Cuba, with new responsibilities.

May these lines serve as homage and tribute to the Hero City and its citizens who live, day by day, building a better city, open to the world and increasingly embellished.

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