The Cuba of today, split into fifteen provinces in mainland and the one offshore island of Isla de la Juventud, plus a host of small keys scattered around the archipelago, didn't start out as it stands today. Once upon a time, shortly after the Spanish conquerors discovered the Caribbean island, of the fifteen provinces there were only seven initial settlements or "villas" as the Spanish governors who founded them called them at the time.
These towns or "villas" have special historical and cultural value because of their long-standing position as important centres of trade and their status as main cities or regions of the very beginnings of colonial time. This is what inspired me to write about them on this post, because they have a rich heritage that none of the other more modern cities in Cuba can equate.
So join me on my journey through time to discover Cuba's earliest settlements and ancient city gems and how they blossomed and flourished (or decayed) through time.
A small background – the colonisation of Cuba
Unlike much larger geographical extensions in America, such as the regions that are now known as Mexico or Peru, which where inhabited by the indigenous tribes of Mayans, Aztecas and Incas, with a culture for violence (anyone watched Mel Gibson's Apocalypto?) and skilful warriors; the tiny island of Cuba was inhabited by the peaceful Tainos, a gentle-natured group of pacific people who were happy to live and let leave in their paradise island. As such, they were in clear disadvantage to the well-armed Spanish troops who found them very easy to eradicate to the point of extinction due to their lack of weapons, poor defensive ability and non-fighting culture. It's not that they didn't put up a fight, but sadly, not a very effective one.
And so, shortly after discovery, colonisation began in Cuba, kicked off by the first Spanish Governor to be appointed in the island, Don Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, who founded the first settlement of all – the mesmerisingly beautiful villa of Baracoa, which is also said to be the site where Columbus first landed in 1492 and which he instantly declared to be "the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen".
On relatively pacific terms, from then on, colonisation was carried out throughout other parts of the country, founding the remaining other six villas from 1511 to 1515, moving from east to west and back to east again. These seven villas, for the most part remain practically intact (with Havana being the most developed of them all, but yet a fine example of city lost in time).
Baracoa – where indigenous Taino traditions come alive
Largely unknown to most tourists that visit Cuba today, this beautiful province is easy to overlook. In fact it is no longer a province nowadays, but a city within the province of Guantanamo. So captivatingly tiny and secluded this piece of land is, that were it not for it being the first city to be founded in the island, and also the place that plays homage to the legendary Taino rebel, Hatuey, the only one to pose a significant threat to the Spaniard conquerors, Baracoa would remain virtually unknown to most nationals and completely off the tourist radar (which it largely is and still remains, with the exception of a small, but growing number of national visitors and holidaymakers who are showing a growing interest in this surprisingly rich little town).
Small and quaint, the geographical site where Baracoa stands became the favoured hotspot by Cuba's first Spanish Governor, Don Diego Velazquez, to found the first settlement in the island back in 15th August 1511, over 500 years ago. Five centuries have passed and yet little has changed in this amazingly well-preserved city.
Located on the island's north-eastern end, this was Cuba's first capital, where the first bishopric was established. Baptised under the official name of Villa de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion de Baracoa boasts stunning flora and fauna that causes much jaw-dropping among visitors. The presence of its iconic table-top mountain, El Yunque, has an almost mystical presence over the city and its panoramic bay.
At the time, as the island's first official settlement, the construction and layout of the city paved the way for all the others soon to follow. However, out of all the seven villas, only Havana and Santiago de Cuba have some remains of the edifications that were initally conceived for Spanish America. It wasn't the case for the others, where actual stable dwellings weren't erected until the 18th century, following a pattern that would forever mark the urban network of these cities.
Despite the generic belief that in Cuba all of the Taino population was completely wiped off, it is precisely in Baracoa where the longest surviving strain of Taino can be found and witnessed in the traits of some its inhabitants. While there are no Cubans with pure Indian blood, there are many in this region who inherited their genetic traits and very much resemble the original. In fact, Baracoa is full of Taino culture and folklore – it's called Cuba's archaeological capital for a reason as it is home to over 60 archaeological sites. As the only place in the island where you can find Taino descendants, many original Taino traditions still live on here, and only here, where locals still enjoy making handmade casabe (cassava bread), where you can still see original Taino thatched huts in the village of Boca de Miel and where you can find out about the local Taino hero, Hatuey.
Hidden from the world for years and years, Baracoa remained completely inaccessible by land or sea for centuries. As a result it remained closed off to the world for over 400 years amidst isolated tropical wilderness. This helped it not only preserve its traditions, but it also made it all the more special, quirky, intriguing and surreal. It wasn't until the 1960s that the city opened to the rest of Cuba with the opening of La Farola, a viaduct that connected the city of Guantanamo to Baracoa.
Now a slowly growing tourist destination favoured by locals for its stunning natural beauty, Baracoa hasn't been developed like a major tourist hotspot like other of the initial villas, such as Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba, so it retains its virgin allure practically intact. There's only four hotels in all of Baracoa, all of them small and none going above the 3-star category, so it's obvious how remote and closed to the world this place still is. Its wonky streets are to be walked; its vibrant Caribbean laidback way of life is to be experienced and its cocoa, coconut and coffee-growing inhabitants are to be loved. Sampling the local flavours is an absolute must, as the cuisine here includes ingredients found nowhere else on the island.
Places not to miss during a visit to the first of Cuban cities include the flat-topped mountain of El Yunque (which you can climb), its archaeological museum "Cueva del Paraiso", its cathedral, Parroquia Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion (don't forget it's the oldest church in Cuba, which has also been recently restored after years of neglect) and "Casa de la Trova" for an atmospheric encounter with authentic Cuban troubadors playing traditional music.
Baracoa is an eco-lover's dream, with great biodiversity and amazing seaside vistas. With all the beaches running along Bahia de Miel being virtually secluded, here you can enjoy a piece of practically untouched paradise and have it all to yourself.
The most beautiful (but also most touristy) of these, Playa Maguana, is located 20 kilometres north-west from Baracoa, fringed by coconut palms and glistening, powdery-soft white sands. There's even accommodation here in the form of small and intimate wooden huts at Villa Maguana, a beautiful place to stay facing two uninterrupted kilometres of isolated beach cove. Playa Nibujon, on the other hand, is even more secluded, with no tourist in sight and mostly frequented by locals, yet just as beautiful as the former. Both are found within World Biosphere Reserve of Cuchillas del Toa, a World Heritage Site since 1987.
Bayamo – the birthplace of Cuban nationality and "the city of horsecarts"
The city of Bayamo is one of beautiful harmonious architecture, rich culture and a history of brave inhabitants and fighters. Founded on 5th November 1513, under the initial name of San Salvador de Bayamo, this little talked-about city has some delightful surprises for the curious traveller. Of great historical importance during Cuba's independence wars, the city of Bayamo is largely unknown to tourists and has remained little explored by many Cubans. Its unique attributes haven't been exploited to the benefit of the tourism industry; yet much is to be seen, experienced and discovered.
So important and crucial has this city been throughout the island's history and battles of independence against Spanish rule that Cuba's national hymn, La Bayamesa, was written and composed here, by rebel Perucho Figureredo, while mounted on his horse and minutes before engaging in battle. The whole song is six stanzas long but only the first two of these are sung and included in Cuba's official hymn.
No wonder then that Bayamo has been dubbed "the birthplace of Cuban nationality", with such rich traditions and long history of battles that helped shape up this country up to this day; this is one city that has witnessed many victories and many losses. It was the place where Creole Cubans first fought against the Spaniards in 1868, making this the first capital of the Republic in Arms. Such a patriotic land this is that that the bayamese preferred burning it to the ground before handing it over to the Spanish troops. It is in Bayamo in fact, that every 20th October the Day of Cuban Culture is celebrated.
Rich in varied architecture where some beautiful buildings that survived the fire still stand for the admiration of passers-by, some places to visit in its historic centre include the former Convent of Santo Domingo which has been converted into a theatre, the birthplace of the "father of the Cuban nation", Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (now a museum) and La Catedral del Santisimo Salvador, a huge, ochre-coloured 16th century marvel that once succumbed to the 1869 fire but which has been rebuilt several times over the years.
Other places that are worth a visit in Bayamo include the ruins of the former plantation Pilar de Jucaibama, the pretty Parque Cespedes, which is the focal point of the downtown area, and the Casa de la Nacionalidad Cubana where the "Fiesta de la Cubania" is celebrated every year.
And you can't miss the traditions that the Bayameses have kept of still using antique horse carriages to move through the city. It will add to the experience if you take a ride in one of these.
Trinidad – the smallest, most colourful and picturesque of them all
With a perfect, centric location in the island's south-eastern region, Trinidad became the third villa to be founded and one that flourished and enjoy a privileged status as one of the biggest sugar cane producers in the island.
Unlike the other two previously mentioned villas, Trinidad has enjoyed a huge touristic appeal since its declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, together with its Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). As such it's big on the tourist map and many visitors to the island make an effort to include a visit here as part of their itinerary.
Founded in the first quarter of the year 1514, this tiny in size (but big in glory and splendour) town, over time attracted rich sugar lords who soon became wealthy members of the aristocracy, building grand colonial mansions that have withstood the test of time with quality imported materials from Europe and beyond. You can still admire these timeless feats of colonial architecture inside out, as most have been converted into museums and welcome visitors.
Five centuries withstanding the passage of time, something happened to Trinidad that left it immune to the outside world, unchanged through time, untouched by the progress of humanity and the advances of technology, with every building immaculately preserved, each tradition still living on and horse carts still being the main mode of transport.
Strolling along Plaza Mayor will give you an eerie sense of having stepped various centuries back in time, with its tall palms rising high towards the sky, its perfectly manicured gardens, its narrow cobbled streets and the statue of Terpsichore, Greek Muse of music, song and dance of presiding over the Plaza Mayor.
Starting off with no more than 40 families in total, this small village flourished during early 19th century, thanks to the sugar industry boom that made some of its inhabitants incredibly wealthy, something easy to spot in the sumptuousness of their immaculately preserved mansions which are now converted into magnificent museums.
Visiting Trinidad nowadays is easy and straightforward, with many tour agencies and tour operators offering daily half-day or full-day trips here from major beach resorts like Varadero, the keys in the Jardines del Rey archipelago, Santa Lucia or Havana. But if you'd like to linger longer here, there are a few fantastic hotels to stay at and some pretty amazing "casas particulares" where you'll feel fully immersed in a different era; some owners have preserved this colonial houses so well that you'll feel as though you've actually stepped a few centuries back in time.
Sights not to miss include El Museo Romantico (Romantic Museum) also known as Palacio Brunet (Brunet Palace), the Plaza Mayor, the church Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad (the Church of the Holy Trinity), the Trinidad Architecture Museum, the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial (the Museum of Colonial Architecture), and, of course, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). Nature lovers will enjoy a hike up the Salto de Caburni waterfalls or a visit to the nearby Ancon Beach.
Sancti Spiritus – cobble upon cobble of beauty and tradition
Founded in June 1514, shortly after Trinidad, this city was moved in 1522 towards the shores of the Yayabo River in search of a better location for trade, which it maintains up to this day.
In its new location, eight kilometres from the original foundation place, the first edification to be built here was the church Parroquial Mayor, which was finished 60 years later in 1680. It had to be rebuilt a few times since it fell victim to repeated pirate attacks over the years. A compulsory stop on any visit to Sancti Spiritus, many claim that this church's interiors are almost identical to those found in the Villa de Alcor church in Huelva, Spain.
Probably the most unheard of in this list of foundation villas, Sancti Spiritus may not be as strikingly beautiful and well-preserved as Trinidad, but this is a city that has not lost the beauty of its past. In fact, where it not for its rivalry with Trinidad and having to play second fiddle to this city, this would be a mandatory stop on any Cuba traveller's bucket list. Therein lies part of its beauty, the fact that it's the only place in Cuba (and probably the world) that can rival Trinidad yet it's not tourist-trodden...yet. So the time to see it would be, well, pretty much...now!
The villa of Sancti Spiritus experienced an economic boom during the 17th century and as such it grew into a quiet and clean city, of seemingly endless, winding cobbled streets where life moved at the joyous and tranquil place of a colourful provincial community. Places to take snaps of as you stroll along the pretty cobbled streets, include the city's colourful boulevard and the Parque Serafin Sanchez.
Its greatest architectonic feature is the bridge over the Yayabo River, the only one of its kind to have survived in Cuba. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century and it's a solid structure made of limestone, sand and bricks. It was in this city that Cuba's national dressing attire for men, the "guayabera" was born, an item first used by the peasants that worked close to the Yayabo River. Its name derives from the shirt's many pockets, which came handy for filling with delicious guava fruits.
Sancti Spiritus' colonial origins are evident in its layout and buildings and these are delight to discover. The almost complete lack of tourism in Sancti Spiritus makes it a joy to discover; here you can quietly get served in a restaurant and soak up the atmosphere at your own pace, with no pushy guide recommending you "casas particulares" to stay at to earn commission. Here you are pretty much left to your own devise to explore and discover on your own, and that's the wonder and appeal of this place.
Nature is a major draw here too; in fact Sancti Spiritus earns more tourist attention from its wildlife-spotting opportunities than for its historic sites. Most holidaymakers (local or international) exploring Sancti Spiritus head south to Presa Zaza, the island's largest man-made lake, a few miles off the city centre. Forget any preconceived images you may have of dirty shores and oily waters though. This artificial lake is now a pristine wetland, home to many species of waterfowl and fish. It's blossoming nature and wildlife is so attractive in fact that it is a preferred spot for hunting and fishing.
Camaguey – the "city of tinajones", Cuba's largest province
Moving back towards the East, right next to Sancti Spiritus, the next villa to be founded by the Spanish conquerors was Camaguey. Believed to be founded sometime between early 1514 to around mid 1515 (the dates sometimes contradict themselves) there many different hypothesis about the establishment of the city and the exact place where it was created help add to the mystique of this unique villa.
As Cuba's largest province, Camaguey's historic centre is also the largest and best preserved on the island, earning it the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site and no doubt it's a place to fully dedicate an entire day of walking around and exploring.
Originally named Santa Maria del Puerto Principe, its uniqueness lies in the extravagant urban layout it boasts. Camaguey is pretty much like a wonderful maze, a rather odd labrynth of narrow cobbled streets of peculiar winding patterns. Legend has it that this is the result of centuries fighting off the ruthless looting of pirates like Henry Morgan which led to the settlers' developing a design to confuse invaders and protect its residents. What you have as a result is narrow alleys and sinuous streets that are somewhat reminiscent of a Moroccan medina.
The best way to explore Camaguey is on foot by simply wandering around. Designed to confuse and irritate pirates, you'll sure enjoy its untypical grid pattern that twists and turns in unexpected ways, opening into different squares. Along the way you will spot many "tinajones" which are huge earthenware jars, that you will find everywhere lining the streets. Know as the "city of tinajones" for a reason, they initially served the purpose of collecting rainwater during a drought, now they are the city's most distinctive decorative item.
A good way of starting a walk in Camaguey's historic centre is to kick off from the main streets of Republica and Marti and make your way between the intersections. There are shady cobblestone squares to be found along the way, breathtaking old churches and the iconic Ignacio Agramonte Park, named after the local hero and revolutionary leader of Cuba's first War of Independence against colonial Spanish rule.
If you want to find out more about the legacy of this extraordinary fighter, born into a wealthy family but dedicated to fighting alongside poor rural rebels, you can visit his birthplace, now a museum displaying some of his possessions such as a grand piano, lavish furniture and personal items.
Beautiful colonial churches to visit include La Iglesia de la Soledad, where Agramonte was baptised and got married, La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced and the church of Sagrado Corazon de Jesus. Squares to visit and absorb include the Plaza del Carmen and Plaza San Juan de Dios, which, with its vibrant blues and bright colours, is somewhat reminiscent of a Mexican square. If you can and there are performances during the dates of your stay, you should not miss the chance of enjoying some world-class ballet at the grand Teatro Principal, another beautiful colonial structure in town.
But away from the city centre there's much to explore and discover too. In fact many tourists only know Camaguey because they head straight to the north towards its coveted beach resort of Santa Lucia, while the pristine Jardines de la Reina archipelago comprising idyllic keys home to stunning corals and amazing marine life, cradle the province to the south.
Santiago de Cuba – the Hero City
Cuba's original capital, Santiago reigned as the island's most important city from its foundation in 1515 until 1589 when the title was passed to Havana. The "santiagueros" naturally aren't happy to play second place to Havana and with good reason too, as they are a historic city in more ways then one and equally culturally rich in countless ways.
High up on every tourist's itinerary of places to see in Cuba, Santiago usually takes second or third place in terms of historic, iconic cities to see in the island (battling it out with Trinidad for the second post, and always behind Havana). But why should you see it? What makes Santiago a compulsory stop on your Cuba travels? Well, for starters, Santiago is the proud cradle of much of Cuba's famous rhythms, most famously the "son", a form of traditional Cuban music much loved around the world and which was made internationally famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.
Then, we can't forget the fact that this city receives the official title of "Ciudad Heroe" or Hero City, a recognition it received in 1984 to represent its important historic heritage as this city was the location of key events that developed over the course of Fidel's Cuban Revolution. Its inhabitants are also said to be the most patriotic and loyal to the revolution.
The second largest city in the island in terms of population the "Capital of History and Heroic City" was made the island's first capital during the early years of colonisation thanks to its strategic geographical position, bathed by the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. The architecture to encounter here has the distinctive Spanish seal, with many beautiful pieces to admire, such as the Teatro Heredia and the Catedral Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.
Other fantastic places not to miss paying a visit to in Santiago include the Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, the Diego Velazquez Museum and the Emilio Bacardi Museum (where you can learn more about the legendary Bacardi family, who were originally from Santiago de Cuba but who fled the country after the triumph of the revolution.)
Another amazing historic and cultural site to include in your itinerary of Santiago is the colonial castle and fortress, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, also informally called Castillo del Morro and beautifully set overlooking the bay and guarding the city from pirate attacks. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has been cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American architecture.
In the beautiful Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, there's a mausoleum dedicated to the national hero and apostle, Jose Marti. But you should visit this cemetery not only to see the mausoleum itself, which is the grandest of them all, but to admire the whole cemetery's grandiosity and outstanding architecture. Second only to Havana's Cristobal Colon Cemetery in terms of size, importance and grandiosity, the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia in Santiago is the resting place of many historical figures as well as members of Cuban aristocracy. Grand tombstones to look out for include Cuba's first president, Tomas Estrada Palma, Emilio Bacardi y Moreau, from the famous rum dynasty and international Buena Vista Social Club celebrity, Compay Segundo.
To immerse fully in Cuban history and better understand the role of this city in the Cuban Revolution, a visit to the Moncada Barracks (Cuartel Moncada) should be mandatory. This military barracks are famous for being attacked on 26th July 1953 by members of Fidel's group of revolutionaries, an act that although unsuccessful, marked the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. You can still see the bullet-ridden façade of the building, which was Cuba's second-most important military garrison at the time and which still shows very visible signs of the fierce battle.
Santiagueros still proudly call their city "a capital" and they certainly have much to be proud about. Beyond the historical sites, the vibrant culture pulsating in the streets, the longstanding music tradition with melodies spilling out from every corner and the ever-smiling people, there's much natural richness to add to the picture.
For an encounter with Mother Nature, a visit to the Parque Baconao should also be paid. Extending over 848 square miles, this park has been included in UNESCO's list of World Biosphere Reserves and it has many attractions to more than deserve this title. From a Prehistoric Valley with dozens of life-size dinosaur sculptures to the reconstruction of a Taino village, an aquarium with submarine tunnel and dolphinarium as well as beautiful botanical gardens, this park has plenty to keep you occupied for a day.
La Habana - the capital of all Cubans and key to the New World
As the most visited city in the whole of Cuba, Havana needs little introduction. With a name that some experts believe derives from the name of Taino Cacique (Indian Chief), Habaguanex, who controlled the region's indigenous settlement; the city of Havana is fascinating place full of contrasts, puzzling contradictions and the most varied architecture you will find in the whole island.
Despite becoming the island's capital in 1589 after stealing the title from Santiago de Cuba, Havana didn't receive its title as city until 20th December 1592; twenty-nine years after the governor of Cuba moved his official residence from Santiago de Cuba and set up quarters there. By this time the city had become an important hub and trade centre in the Americas and as such it was declared the "Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies".
Where to start in such a place full of wonders, oozing unsolved enigmas from every corner? Well, the historic city centre in Old Havana is a good place to begin, the perfect starting point from which to lay the groundwork and learn more about the city's history before moving onto the more modern and upbeat downtown area. All of the amazingly well-preserved historic centre in Havana has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sites and strolling along its pretty cobbled streets you won't help but fall in love with its pastel-coloured colonial facades, its beautifully kept colonial interiors and the many former colonial mansions now transformed into hotels whilst in-keeping their original features and decor. Just a stay in on of these boutique historic hotels will be an experience on its own, and if you have a hard time choosing one, you can get some help with my dedicated guide to Havana's not so secret gems - boutique hotels for every budget.
Stops to make throughout your walk in Old Havana should be iconic like Plaza de Armas, the city's oldest square, the grand Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, the San Francisco de Asis Square and its cathedral which is now a concert hall, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana fortress and El Morro Castle.
Beyond Old Havana, sites not to miss in downtown include the highly photogenic Plaza de la Revolucion, La Casa de la Musica for an encounter with amazing live salsa-dancing, and the panoramic eight-kilometre-long seawall known as Malecon – a fantastic place for people-watching and more. I've written a blog and photoblog on this iconic landmark if you want to learn more - Sights to spot along the Malecon - a personal guide..
Not only is this city rich in history and culture, not only does it vibrate to the contagious rhythms of salsa and reggaeton pouring from every house, but also this is the only place in the world where you will see modern cars circulating right next to vintage American cars from the 50s, some immaculately preserved and others badly weathered but without having lost any of their retro appeal.
For immersing further into culture, a visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes should be obligatory (in fact this is a place that deserves a blog post of its own, so watch this space in future) as is a visit to the colourful and vibrant Tropicana Cabaret – a must-see legendary dance spectacle like no other.
Out of all the cities in the Cuban archipelago, no doubt Havana is the more modern, more urbanised and the most densely populated, but also the one that shows the starkest contrasts. Here you can see grand colonial mansions standing right next to dilapidated buildings that look as though about to fall to the ground any second, which is sad to witness but makes for rather unique photographs to add to any traveller's collection.
If you want to learn more about Havana, its many nooks and crannies and how to fully explore it by dedicating more than a couples of days here, you can read some of mine and expert Cubaphile Claire Boobbyer's many other blogs on this city.
As Graham Green's once said, Havana is a place where "anything was possible". And to further quote Fico Fellove in The Lost City;
"Habana is very much like a rose, it has petals and it has thorns...so it depends on how you grab it. But in the end it always grabs you."