Head to eastern Cuba for people and culture
If Cuba is shaped like a swimming crocodile, its eastern mouth smiles to travellers looking for the proverbial something different.
Nowhere are the locals warmer than in Baracoa, Cuba’s most isolated town hidden beyond dense tropical jungles near the eastern tip of Guantánamo Province. Charmingly dishevelled in a time warp, the town is a tourist-free haven for music lovers. The Casa de la Trova is perfect for afternoon mojitos, with different bands playing every night.
La Tumba Francesa
One of Cuba’s rarest musical gifts is La Tumba Francesa, an Afro-Cuban style of straight-backed dancing, conga-style drumming, and call-and-response singing introduced by slaves from Haiti. Travellers lucky enough to witness a rare live performance are privileged, as the UNESCO heritage-listed art form is endangered.
The turquoise waters of Holguín attract both resort vacationers as well as pilgrims following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro, who was born to a wealthy sugar farmer in the village of Birán. His well-preserved childhood home is open to visitors, many of whom are surprised to find that El Comandante grew up amidst wealth, not poverty. The best time to visit Holguín is May for the Romarías de Mayo festivities.
The Wild East
Among the scenic eastern towns nearly wiped out by Hurricane Ike in 2008 is Gibara, a coastal fishing village that is bouncing back thanks to recent government investment. Off the beaten tourist trail, the town has few hotels, but homestays (casa particular) are a comfy option. Gibara hosts the Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre (festival of low-budget cinema) every April.
Guide Juan Sanamé Rivero raises his machete (“the baby”) and chops open a ripe cocoa pod, lifting out the soft seeds used in the artisanal production of cocoa at Finca Duaba, a lush farm five kilometres from Baracoa, where Rivero hosts tours of the cocoa trail. After sampling “the drink of the gods,” guests can stay on site in colourful riverside bungalows.
The most romantic way to explore Cuba is on the back of a vintage Harley Davidson. “It gives you a sense of freedom. Thanks to the climate, you can ride all year long and enter deep into the countryside,” says Ernesto Guevara, youngest son of the fabled revolutionary Che Guevara. Biker trips are offered by his company La Poderosa Tours, named after the Norton 500cc immortalised in Che’s famed book The Motorcycle Diaries.
Ernesto Guevara’s top 3 biker discoveries
1. The jungles of Topes de Collantes
2. The revolutionary city of Santa Clara
3. Viñales, heartland of Cuban tobacco
Text and photos Silja Kudel