church_town square_trinidad_7018Cuba Tourist Board

By Judi Lees

Those who think Cuba is all about beaches and mojitos need to think again. True, this finger of an island located in the Caribbean just south of Florida boasts myriad silvery beaches but it is also a virtual outdoor museum of colonial towns and cities. A visit to Cuba should include exploration of some of its historical sites, many of which are well lauded as they are among the country’s nine listings on UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

Take Trinidad. Declared a World Heritage site in 1988, it is renowned for its splendid, well-preserved colonial architecture. The historic city centre covers 55 blocks and includes more than 1,200 buildings. As visitors meander along the cobbled streets a tapestry of history unfolds. Weathered facades have a majestic beauty enhanced by wrought iron detail and heavy wooden doors. The pastel-coloured homes are typified by red terracotta roofs and some elaborate brick work.

Founded in 1514, Trinidad is among Cuba’s oldest cities. The historic heart of the city is Plaza Mayor which is also the location of the town’s famous museums, housed in what once were the wealthy landowners’ homes. Most of these buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries when this region was affluent thanks to the sugar plantations in nearby Valle de los Ingenios.

Trinidad is dubbed “the museum city” and visitors can spend hours in this picturesque plaza lined by the Museum of Colonial Architecture, the Museum of Anthropology Guamuhaya and the Romantic Museum. The latter is housed in the Brunet Palace that features a balustrade courtyard, frescoes and the original marble floor dating back to 1812.

Fortaleza de JaguaCuba Tourist Board
Located on the southern coast, Cienfuegos’ nickname, Pearl of the South, hints at its beauty thanks to its location at the entrance of Cienfuegos Bay. Its remarkable collection of Neoclassic buildings is also believed to be the best in the Caribbean.

The city was settled by the French in 1819, led by Don Louis de Clouet, a wealthy businessman from Louisiana who promoted the region that became affluent thanks to crops of sugar, citrus fruits, cattle and coffee. The French influence along with these same exports from the province of Cienfuegos still remain today and coupled with its rich cultural background make Cienfuegos a must-see.

Broad and majestic streets lead to Marti Park, an idyllic place to pass time as well as to admire the sights. A granite compass marks where the first French settlers began building the city and it boasts Cuba’s only ‘Arco de Triunfo’. The perimeter of this picturesque park is lined with impressive and well-restored structures including government buildings, the Terry Theatre, Purisima Concepcion Cathedral, Town Hall and Ferrer Palace. Be impressed by the cathedral’s exquisite stained glass windows. Perhaps most eye-catching is Ferrer Palace, constructed by a wealthy Catalan, Jose Ferrer Sires, it boasts an elaborate balcony overlooking the park.

Don’t miss Jacqua Fortress, at the entrance to the bay, which was erected by the Spanish king Philip V in the 1740s. The fortress was built to repel attacks from pirates. Visitors will enjoy a small museum that exhibits information about this early-day castle-like fortress.

In 2005, Cienfuegos was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Talk about a claim to fame, Baracoa is believed to be where Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492. He wrote in his logbook that it was “the most beautiful place in the world” – pretty high praise. Today Baracoa still lives up to these plaudits for many.  Set on a remote northeastern shoreline, the colonial village sits in lush rainforest and is edged by pristine beaches. Its most famous landmark is El Yunque, a distinctive table-topped hill.

Founded in 1511 by the first governor of Cuba, the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Baracoa is the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba and was its first capital; it is also known as Ciudad Primera, “First City”.

When in this historic town, it is a rite of passage to stroll the Malecon. A shorter version of the famed one in Havana, it leads to a park with a statue of Christopher Columbus that is hand-hewn out of a huge tree stump. Legend has it that Columbus put a cross, ‘Cruz de la Parra’ in the sands of what is now the Baracoa Harbour.

At the small church with the long name, ‘Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion’ the wooden cross – or what is left of it – can be viewed. Worshippers apparently take pieces off the cross and while it has been carbon dated to the time of Columbus, it is also indicated that it did not come from Europe. In any case, it is all that exists of the 29 crosses that the explorer erected in the new world.

Parque Ignacio Agramonte_0030Cuba Tourist Board
Camaguey is the capital of Cuba’s largest province of the same name. It is the country’s third largest city but quite possibly one of its least known; a shame because it is culturally rich and a delight to explore. Its maze of narrow streets, said to be the narrowest in Cuba, were deliberately designed to confuse pirates.

It was founded in the 16th century (there is no definite date as Spanish records are scarce) and the oldest building is believed to be the cathedral that dates back to  1530, two years before Havana was declared the capital.

Attractions include the Principal Theatre, built in 1850, the Puerto Principe Cemetery, the country’s oldest dated at 1814, the Ignacio Agramonte Museum that features history and decorative arts and the Amalia Simoni Manor that showcases art and furniture.

In addition to the labyrinth of snaking streets, the city is characterized by the number of large public squares such as Ignacio Agramonte Park that was originally Arms Square, created in 1528 and San Juan de Dios Square built in the 18th century. 

Law forbids that houses be white so the residences of Camaguey offer a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. The Spaniards were influenced by Moorish design that is evident in the architecture, and many houses have unusual Moorish screens. Tinajon, large earthenware jars used to collect rainwater are seen on pretty courtyards of the houses, another distinguishing feature of this intriguing city.

church_interior_santiago de cuba_1328Cuba Tourist Board
Santiago de Cuba
Cradled between the brilliant waters of the Caribbean and the towering Sierra Maestra Mountains on the southeast coast, Santiago de Cuba boasts culture and history along with its scenic setting. Founded in 1514, it was the country’s capital from 1522 to 1553 and thanks to myriad ethnic influences over the ages, today it is renowned for its historical sites, culture (especially music) and friendly inhabitants.

The Fortress of San Pedro de la Roca, one of its famous sights, sits high on a hillside just outside the city. It was constructed between 1638 and 1700 as protection from pirates. In 1662, English sea robbers took over Santiago for two weeks, looting and destroying sections of the fortification that were then rebuilt. It has been well restored and was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1997.

On January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro made his famous announcement that the Revolution was successful at the Town Hall which dates from the 18th century. Along with the Municipal House of Culture and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba, it is an example of the city’s elegant and ornate historic buildings.

The beautifully restored Hotel Casa Grande is a place to see and be seen. It overlooks Parque Cespedes, the heart of the city where Cubans meet and enjoy some of the music that the city is famous for. A visit to the Tropicana Santiago Nightclub shows off the glamour and liveliness of Santiago. Its Carnival, held in July, is a huge celebration as it typifies the variety of musical influences here.

parque cespedesCuba Tourist Board
Founded in 1513, the colonial city of Bayamo was the second of seven settlements established by Governor Diego Velazquez. It was here that the national anthem was first sung on October 20, 1868 and on January 12, 1869 the citizens burned their city to prevent the Spaniards from occupying it. These events, as well as others, determined Bayamo as the cradle of Cuban nationality and it has been declared a national monument.

Visitors can explore this city that has a reputation for being laid-back and hassle-free on a horse and buggy ride, a Bayamo tradition. Visit the home of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, recognized as the father of the nation as he was the first to free slaves and he fought for Cuban independence. Other sights include the San Salvador de Bayama Parish Church, Himno (National Anthem) Square, Revolution Square, Cuban Nationality House, Museo Nico Lopez and Iglesia Mayor de San Salvador. It was at the latter church that the anthem was sung and a plaque commemorates this. A mural depicts the blessing of the flag by Cespedes. Don’t miss Parque Cespedes, a relaxing square with a wealth of grand monuments and large, leafy trees.

Located on the north coast and founded in 1514, Remedios is one of the country’s oldest settlements and is a well-preserved colonial town known for its tranquility and pleasant inhabitants. Visitors can gather with the locals at Plaza Mayor (Central Plaza) to enjoy the monuments, leafy walkways, gazebo and the surrounding colonial buildings. 

A highlight among Remedios’ colonial architectural gems is the grand church, Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista on the plaza; it has an intriguing story to tell.  The church was renovated between 1944 and 1954 and a discovery was made. It seems that in early days the city was taken over by pirates and gold was hidden under the painted altar. Today beautifully decorated gold altars can be seen in this grand church.

Remedios is the birthplace of the Parrandas Festival that takes place on December 24 and is now celebrated in many places in the world. Considered Cuba’s oldest festival, it began when the priest of Iglesia Mayor was concerned about the absence of worshippers at midnight mass. He encouraged children to go out on the streets and make noise with horns and tin cans to stir people up and lead them to mass. In 1871 the ‘parrandas’ became a recognized festival and part of the Christmas tradition. Visitors can learn more about this lively festival at the Museum of Parrandas which opened in the 19th century.