Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba. Photo: BluesyPete
At the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, musical pilgrims pay homage to Campay Segundo, the man associated with the renaissance of Cuban music in the late 1990s when the Buena Vista Social Club recordings were released. Segundo’s gravestone features a Panama Hat, a guitar and 95 flowers, one for each year of his life, with the inscription, “Las Flores de la Vida,” referring to The Flowers of Life that he left to the world in the form of his songs, including the classic “Chan, Chan.”
There are not too many tourists in the cemetery, as those who visit Santiago, possibly on a day trip from their all-inclusive resort, have time to visit the buildings in the Historic Centre Square of the city, learn about the stories associated with Revolution Plaza, and then have lunch and a visit to the Castillo del Morro, the fortress on the coast. They would most likely not have time to wander and take photos of the colorful and sometimes ramshackle colonial buildings lining the hilly streets, or participate in a session of Afro-Cuban drumming and dancing, or spend an evening at the iconic Casa de la Trova where singing, salsa, cigars and cerveza (beer) dictate the atmosphere.
The cities, towns and countryside east of Havana and Veradero include a ton of things to do and see that many travelers miss out on. Here are eight tips on how to get the most out of Eastern Cuba.
1. Try accommodations with a difference.
The growth of boutique hotels throughout Cuba offers visitors unique experiences, usually just steps from major attractions. For example, in the tiny town of Gibara in Holguin province, the Hotel Ordoño, part of the Encanto (Enchanted) Hotel group, is a carefully restored love story between Felipe Ordoño and Isabel Cano—including the terrace Felipe constructed after Isabel’s death, to watch over her grave. Today the terrace provides amazing views of the town and the Bay. In Camaguey, the hotel Avellaneda is around the corner from the Street of Cinemas and the art galleries for which the town is famous.
2. Foodies take note.
If you just venture to Havana and Veradero, the thought of foodies celebrating the cuisine may seem out of place. But in Eastern Cuba, the mainstay dishes of seafood, chicken and pork (along with vegetarian offerings) take on a whole new meaning of freshness, flavor, creativity and umami.
3. Lower your travel expectations.
The road infrastructure in Cuba varies from very good (major highways) to two-lanes full of pot holes. In the rural areas, where horse carriages (along with the odd ox-cart) serve as taxis, buses and farm transportation, the passage is slow-going and rest stations are fairly spread out. Go with the flow and enjoy the fields of sugar cane or grazing cattle.
4. Take in the arts.
As we were enjoying a delicious lunch at the hotel Camino de Hierro in Camaguey, serenaded by a group of singers and musicians, a couple got up and danced a seductive, slithery salsa. They seemed to represent the spirit of a city that’s a treasure trove of cafes, art galleries, colonial buildings supported by candy cane columns, historical museums and the Contemporary Ballet. Music, both traditional and modern can be found in restaurants, street corners and in the Wifi parks throughout the city. The town of Trinidad and the city of Santiago also ooze musical delights wherever you go.
5. Bone up on history.
Like many countries, Cuba celebrates its heroes, from the Wars of Independence against Spain to the Revolution that began in the 1950s against the Batista government, and up to the present. Town squares feature statues, walls of buildings portray the face of Che Guevara and other heroes, and highway and roadside billboards celebrate the ongoing revolution and the attitude toward the United States and the embargo. Nothing to worry about in terms of safety. Relax and take the opportunity to learn more about the country.
6. Catch the niche markets.
While legislation forbids the export of the classic 1950s cars you see everywhere, it’s not unusual to visit a store or gallery and see vintage antiques and Coca Cola paraphernalia as decorations. The Botanical Garden in Camaguey is a dream destination for tree lovers and for nature lovers and birders; Cuba has 368 species of birds, including 25 that are endemic. Other special interests include dancing, drumming, photography, water activities, hiking, fishing, festivals, cooking, Spanish lessons, and even following the path of Fidel at the original Castro family homestead in Biran, and on to his activities in the Sierra Maestra Mountains during the Revolution.
7. It’s a people place.
Engagement with the locals is the key to success at any destination and Cubans makes it easy. It’s actually rare to be on the street or in a restaurant when a local does not smile and say hello, or ask where you come from, and expect the same questions from the visitor. It’s important to remember that not everyone who says hello has an ulterior motive.
8. Drink it all in.
Yes, it’s true that if you want the best Mojito or Pina Colada or Cuba Libre then Cuba’s the place to be. While cocktails are making a comeback in many parts of the world, they’ve been front and center in Cuba since the days of Ernest Hemmingway’s legendary binges at Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio. It’s that combination of Cuban Rum, fresh ingredients, artisanal passion and respect for tradition and taste that make the drinks so appealing.
Eastern Cuba is much more than beaches and all-inclusive resorts. As travelers seeks to connect with the destinations they visit, collect unique selfies, post incredible stories and encounters, and come back from their holiday with the word “memorable” etched in their minds, Cuba will factor large.