Eastern Cuba

Shaped like a giant whale’s tail, Eastern Cuba extends across a huge portion of country. The region is home to Cuba’s largest mountains and oldest city, and was instrumental in the early years of the Revolution. Eastern Cuba has a huge proportion of Afro-Cubans and feels more Caribbean than anywhere else in Cuba. A trip here offers travelers an interesting contrast to the rest of the country.

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Desembarco del Granma National Park

Located at the southwesternmost tip of Cuba, the Desembarco del Granma National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that protects virgin woodland and saltwater lagoons. It’s also the spot where Fidel and a band of revolutionaries landed in Cuba on December 2, 1956 after their exile in Mexico.

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Duaba Natural Park

The Duaba Natural Park is located just outside the town of Baracoa. This beautiful park is best known for the flat-topped mountain of El Yunque.

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Chorro de Maita Aboriginal Museum

Set just 4 miles (7 km) from Guardalavaca, the Chorro de Maíta Aboriginal Museum is a must-see while staying in Guardalavaca. This small museum houses an impressive aboriginal burial site.

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Baracoa

Baracoa is one of the most remote destinations in Cuba. This small town borders the northeastern coast and is surrounded by some seriously scenic areas.

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Holguín

Holguín is Cuba’s fourth-largest city. Located along the Carretera Central in eastern Cuba, Holguín is home to several pleasant plazas.

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Bayamo

The town of Bayamo played an important role in the Ten Years War. It’s not very touristy, and will appeal to travelers with a keen interest in history.

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Gibara

Gibara is a small fishing town set along Cuba’s northeastern coast. It’s an unsung destination, but Gibara will appeal to travelers who like non-touristy places, fresh seafood, and coastal settings.

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Guardalavaca

The gorgeous beach at Guardalavaca is set 34 miles (55 km) northeast of Holguín. Guardalavaca is much smaller than other beach resorts in Cuba, but it’s one of the prettiest and most authentic coastal destinations in the country.

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Santiago de Cuba

Santiago is unlike anywhere else in Cuba. It’s home to the country’s largest Afro-Cuban population and was the birthplace of the Revolution. Its isolated, eastern setting helped influence its distinct cultural character and significant historical context. It’s a lively, fast-paced city that is older than Havana. Needless to say, it’s a fascinating place to visit.

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Pinares de Mayarí

Pinares de Mayarí is touted as a top ecotourism destination in Cuba. In reality, it’s an aging resort set in a remote pine forest. Even so, if you’re looking for peace and quiet in a natural area, this could be a good place for you.

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Santo Domingo

The small town of Santo Domingo lies amidst the forested Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba. The setting – with tall mountains, lush forests, and clear streams – is lovely, and the area is home to Fidel’s rebel headquarters at La Comandancia de la Plata.

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A little more about Eastern Cuba

Eastern Cuba begins near the town of Holguín and extends all the way to the easternmost point of Cuba at Punta Maisí. The region is much more mountainous than anywhere else in Cuba—the southern coast is engulfed within the massive Sierra Maestra, a mountain range that is home to Pico Turquino, the largest mountain in Cuba. Pico Turquino stands at 6,476 feet (1,974 m) and can be climbed on a two-day trip. The coastal areas of Eastern Cuba are also gorgeous, and host some spectacular white- and black-sand beaches. National parks protect a significant amount of the region and are home to thriving forests, coastal ecosystems, and a rich range of species. Ecotourism opportunities exist in several destinations, including Pinares de Mayarí, Baracoa, and Santo Domingo. In these places, you can hike, bird watch, and visit waterfalls.

The region is steeped in history and will appeal to travelers who are interested in learning more about the forces that shaped Cuba. The town of Bayamo played a big role in the fight for independence from Spain, and Santiago was essentially the birthplace of the Revolution. You can hike to Fidel’s rebel hideout at La Comandancia de la Plata, which is set deep in the Sierra Maestra near the community of Santo Domingo. Eastern Cuba is also home to Cuba’s oldest town, Baracoa, which dates to 1510 and was where Christopher Columbus first set foot in Cuba in 1492. Going back even further, this area was settled by the Taíno, an aboriginal group that arrived in Cuba from Hispaniola around AD 1100. There are excellent museums near both Guardalavaca and Baracoa where you can learn about Taíno culture.

This region has religious significance as well. Santería is strong here, especially within the city of Santiago. You’ll often see followers wearing colored beads that signify which saint they are aligned with, and there are whole streets of the city that are devoted to selling objects used in Santería ceremonies. You may even be able to observe a Santería ceremony, which is a fascinating and powerful spectacle. Eastern Cuba is also home to El Cobre, a church that is associated with the patron saint of Cuba and is an important pilgrimage site for Cubans.

A trip to Eastern Cuba would not be complete without spending a few days in Santiago. Older than Havana, Santiago is the second-largest city in Cuba and is steeped in Afro-Cuban culture. The city has a much different feel to it than anywhere else in the country, and is home to fascinating historical sites that date from Spanish and Revolutionary times. You could happily spend a handful of days listening to trova music, visiting historic attractions, and soaking up the Caribbean culture of Santiago. It provides a nice contrast to Havana.

Some of the country’s most beautiful drives are found in Eastern Cuba. The road from Marea del Portillo to Santiago is stunning—it’s almost like Big Sur, a place where the mountains meet the coast. Portions of the road are in poor shape, but the route leads alongside dramatic cliffs and massive mountains. The road from Santiago to Baracoa is equally beautiful. This route leads past coral coves that are perfect for swimming and eventually winds into a steep ascent through the mountains, a portion of road known as La Farola.