Cuba is split into two: The Occident and The Orient. Most people will go to the Occident, such as Havana, Vinales, Varadero, or Trinidad, but what people don’t know is the other side of the island is an exact replica, BUT BETTER.
Santiago de Cuba: Birthplace Of Cuba
This city was so amazing it needed its own blog post. Read more about it here.
Holguin: City of Parks
Everyone describes Havana as a city stuck in time, but that’s because they’ve never been to Holguin. While Havana actually isn’t stuck in time, it’s deteriorating with time, Holguin is perfectly preserved from the 50’s with fresh paint on the exteriors, ice cream parlors on every corner, and a fresh breeze from the sea cooling the hot Cuban air. It is also a city surrounded by any art form with centers for film, dance, fashion, and painting. I saw a full on kids fashion show in the streets. The City of Parks has seven blocks of open-air parks with sculptures, murals, and trademark Caribbean colorful colonial buildings where tourists and Cubans alike congregate.
How To Get To Holguin
The Viazul bus is the best way to get to Holguin from Santiago de Cuba for 11CUC. However, you can fly direct from Havana. You can also take a taxi collectivo from Santiago de Cuba for 25CUC/person. Listed here are prices of other places you can travel to/from Santiago de Cuba with timetables.
Arriving In Holguin
Be aware that the Viazul bus from Santiago de Cuba goes to Havana and stops at lots of cities along the way. However, the bus drivers don’t always announce when you’ve arrived at a city. When the bus stops, you’ll need to ask which city you’re in to see if you should get off. Holguin is the second stop from Santiago de Cuba.
Once you arrive, you can take a taxi or bicitaxi for less than 3CUC to the center of town. Or you can walk, it is not THAT far, but if you have luggage, better to spend the few dollars.
Where To Stay In Holguin
Casa Ulises has a few rooms for rent and a slew of people working for him. The rooms have good showers and AC, although very basic. For 20CUC/night, I really didn’t care, and you could probably negotiate for lower. It is a pleasant 5-minute walk from the center.
He can be reached here: Ulises Cuenca Santos
Email: email@example.com, Phone: (01) 52 566483 or (53) +24426485; Address: Jose A. Cardet No. 249 entre Marti y Luz Caballero, Holguin, Cuba.
What To Do In Holguin
Lomo la Cruz is what everyone will recommend. It is a sort of pilgrimage, up 500 steps to a cross on a hill, which is sort of a trademark of Holguin. At night, you can see a trail of lights going up. It is also accessible by taxi if you don’t want to walk. The best part is the tiny art gallery inside the building at the very top. You can buy original Cuban paintings for 8-10CUC.
Cayo Saetia used to be the private hunting grounds of Fidel and Raul Castro. Various animals such as ostriches and zebras were imported from Angola (Cuba’s long-time ally) and used as their private vacation home where they received guests for many years. Tourists can now go visit. Cubans in Holguin will tell you that Cuban citizens are not permitted to pass, but it has been open to Cubans for a few years now. I, in general, boycott these places and animal tourism so I didn’t go.
But the best things to do near the city are day trips to Guardalavaca and Gibarra
Guardalavaca: The Varadero Of The East
Guardalavaca means “guard the cow” and references a time when the Spanish and pirates would raid the coast and steal cows. The extremely blue and pristine beach has made the city completely set up for tourism. Christopher Colombus described it as the “most beautiful place he’s ever laid eyes on,” but he’s a fuccboi and also said this about Hispanola, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and the Bahamas, so amongst other reasons, we can’t trust him. BUT CONFIRMED, indeed, it is beautiful.
Things To Do In Guardalavaca
Playa Esmeralda is where you’ll find resorts and swimming with dolphins, which I did not to do because idk what screams more basic than a resort that offers swimming with dolphins.
Playa Guardalavaca is a more local beach. You can buy food, beers, and mojitos on the beach for tourist prices. However, if you walk across the street from the beach, there are local stands with meals for 1CUC.
There is also an indigenous museum nearby called Chorro de Maita that you can get to for an extra 12-15CUC. I didn’t go.
How To Get To Guardalavaca
You can go by taxi collectivo for 10CUC/person/each way. But if there are two of you, I recommend renting a private taxi for 40CUC/day (which is the same price) so you can stop at the fruit stands along the way.
I hired Denis Gurri for two days to explore the regions surrounding Holguin. His telephone number is (53) 54788982 and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He was really helpful. I got sick and he even took me to the hospital and waited until I was done.
Gibarra: Seaside Fishing Village
Gibarra is a charming little fishing town that reminded me of small towns in Italy. The most excitement it sees year round is the international film festival called Cine Pobre. It is a 30-minute drive from Holguin and worth about 3 hours of your time. There’s basically nothing to do except eat some amazing seafood, walk the malecon, and check out the view.
Baracoa: Chocolate Capitol
Baracoa, is an indigenous word, attesting to the original Taino peoples who populated this part of the island. Shortly after the first Spanish conquest, the first city was built here and became the first capitol of Cuba.
Now, Baracoa is the chocolate capitol. The perfect elevation and temperature allows chocolate plants to grow, along with sugar and coffee. These plantations were started by 100 French families that fled Haiti during the revolution. Geographically, this city is at the very tip of the east side of Cuba and in 2016 was hit by a hurricane. Because of this, fallen palm trees and rolling hills of forest dominate the very green and lush area. This city was the poorest city I observed in all my travels to Cuba, with many homes built with wood and corrugated roofs rather than the typical multicolored concrete buildings. However, the landscape was incredible, reminding me of my childhood driving through the jungles of Hawaii. The greenery was so thick it could choke you.
How To Get To Baracoa
There are three ways to get to Baracoa from Holguin. By camion, taxi collectivo, or Viazul bus. Camion is longer because it makes various stops along the way and also carries many people at a time, however it is the cheapest way costing about 2-3CUC. Taxi collectivo takes about 5 hours and is the fastest way to get to Baracoa. It drops you from casa to casa and you can also make stops along the way. The price is 100CUC for the car, so price per person depends on how many people fill the car. Viazul bus takes 12 hours by bus because it first goes to Santiago de Cuba and then onto Baracoa. However, the price is considerably cheaper, something like 11 CUC.
I went by taxi collectivo, but because it was low season there weren’t any other tourists going to Baracoa.
The drive from Holguin to Baracoa via Moa is a treat in and of itself. There is the Alexander Humbolt National Park on the way that has a perfectly preserved jungle and costs 1CUC to enter and 10-15CUC for a 5-hour hike around the forest. You can also take a boat to see a reserve of manatees in the bay. Although Alexander Humbolt never made it to Baracoa, he is considered the second person to have “discovered” Cuba (although there were aborigines living there pre-contact called Tainos) so the park is named after him.
For 67 kilometers after, the road turns into gravel and dirt so the end of the trip is a little bit slow and rough.
Arriving In Baracoa
Once you arrive at the bus station, there are people waiting to sell you a room in their casa and will compete with each other for price. If you arrive by taxi collectivo, the taxi will take you to the casa that he recommends. However, he gets paid a commission for his service so the price will be a bit higher.
Where To Stay In Baracoa
Casa Eloida has a beautiful garden, 3 rooms, and a terrace. I walked into her house after a bad experience with a previous casa, and found her and her husband studying the Bible early Monday morning with birds chirping and yellow flowers cascading over the walls. So basically I felt like I was walking into a very safe space. You can find her at:
Address: Calle Marti #304, Baracoa, Cuba
Telephone: (+53) 2164-1980 or (+53) 21645629
I can also tell you that if your taxi driver drops you off at Casa Jose Angel, you should maybe turn around? He’s an alcoholic and will definitely lie to you knowing his air conditioner doesn’t work and when you confront him about it, he will insult you and not refund your money. But your choice.
What To Do In Baracoa
La Cascada Yunque is a natural flowing river and the water is see-through and drinkable. They call it sweet water. The cost is free to Cuban citizens and 8CUC for foreigners. The hike into the park is stunning with palm trees lining the river and the river flowing through steel colored stones. To get to the waterfall, one must hike 40-mins on a pretty straight dirt road, then jump down through the rocks to the river, then cross the river (the water comes above waist high), and then you arrive at the waterfall. The water is so clear and fresh, not cold but not hot. If you feel something crawling on your foot it is probably a shrimp. Also, wear tennis shoes and a bathing suit because I wasn’t prepared for the river crossing at all.
If you’d like to continue your hike up the mountain, it is a 5-hour hike there and back and the escalation gets steeper.
Yumuri Canyon Tour
On the way to Yumuri, there are three stops: the kakao plantation, the beaches, and finally the canyon.
Baracoa is where chocolate plants grow wild. The kakao plantation is where the process of chocolate is explained and you get to try the different products made from chocolate and also have the option to purchase. Did you know that pure chocolate doesn’t melt? It was a really interesting explanation.
The beaches are ok. The sand is not really white and there are hustlers along the beach. We skipped it.
Yumuri Canyon is beautiful. The only thing I’ve seen come close to it is the Sumidero Canyon in Mexico. First you’re taken by boat through the canyon and dropped off at a sand bar where you can then go exploring through the jungle. There are people washing their clothes in the river, drinking from the river, playing in the river, and the flora and fauna are actually really interesting. There a tree entirely made of spikes! Your boat captain gives you 30 minutes to swim and then the boat takes you back.
The entire trip all-together is about 3 hours and costs 20 for the taxi and 2CUC/person to enter the canyon by boat or 10 pesos Cubano for Cuban citizens. If you’d like to hike through the canyon, you need to hire a guide for 13CUC at the official government post or you can hire a girl off the street to take you for 5CUC/person. I didn’t do either. All of explanations are in Spanish. If you’d like to have an English-speaking guide, you should book a tour through Cubatur in the center of town and the cost is 20CUC/person. This price includes the entrance fee to the canyon as well.
Museo de Archealogico is at the very top of the city. If you’re looking up at the hill from the Malecon, it is all the way to the left. When you get to the last street at the top, there are stairs and a sign pointing up saying Museo de Archaelogico. The museum is inside of a cave that showcases artifacts of the Taino, the original people of Cuba. Originally from South America, these Native Americans landed in Cuba and created a civilization. During the Spanish conquest, they were all killed or died from disease. Inside the cave are preserved burial grounds of the Taino and also a really nice view of the city. Takes 10 minutes and costs 3CUC for foreigners and free for Cuban citizens. If you have time, it’s definitely interesting, but if you miss it, it’s not a big deal.
If you walk into the center of town, you’ll see dedications to the Taino all around the city. My favorite memorial was the bust of the first warrior of the Americas, Hutuey, in front of the main church in town center who led a rebellion against the Spanish. When he was sentenced to burn at the stake, a priest tried to convert him and he said he’d rather go to hell if the Spanish go to heaven. I think that pretty much attests to how cruel the Spanish were to the indigenous. In my opinion, the position of the tiny bust, defiantly staring at the enormity of the Spanish Catholic church is incredibly symbolic of the history between the two cultures.
The place to be at night on a weekend is La Terraza. To find it: walk to the center of town, follow the music, then look up. The rooftop with people spilling over the top is the place. The cultural show starts at 11 with Tropicana dancers and some Cuban singers, and then after it turns into a club. But get there early because this place gets FAWKING packed. All the mamis and papis are dressed in their best clothes. I saw a couple in matching.denim.outfits. Britney-Justin status. So come in your best, most ridiculous, gear. And as per usual, trying to salsa will just be an embarrassment compared to the Cubans who are just entirely too good and anything else is just shameful.
Normally I don’t give restaurant recommendations because you should eat wherever you want. BUT. I found myself returning back to the same restaurant over and over. The name is La Musa and is on the main boulevard of the city. The owner is the most professional and attentive man, but more than that this is a PRIVATELY owned restaurant so you eating there directly contributes to his family and the people he employs, not to the government.
Life And Culture Of The Orient
Most likely if you’re reading this, you’ve already been to The Occident and know all of this information. But if you don’t, for all info regarding how to get to Cuba as an American, the visa process, how to book accommodations, and life and culture of Cuba, read here! To book a domestic flight from abroad, use Cuba Travel Network. Their customer service was great!
The Orient is much less traveled, with 100 times less tourists and they really look forward to getting tourism. Because they don’t see a lot and are often competing for business, you’ll find prices are really low. As a foreigner with immense privilege, I recommend not negotiating too much on this side of the island.
For airfare, accommodations, transportation, and food not including alcohol or souvenirs was $700 for 7 days.