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Thursday,  June 13, 2024 12:08 AM 

From Holguin to Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo

From Holguin to Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo
Blake Wolfe

Blake Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and editor, who joined PAX after nearly 10 years in Canada’s newspaper industry. In addition to PAX, his work has been featured in publications such as the Metroland Media group of newspapers and the Toronto Sun.

On a recent media FAM to Cuba, which spanned numerous cities including Holguin and Santiago, tourism Cuba rep Karen Puebla told PAX that Holguin was the fourth biggest market for Canadians travelling to the country, though for families it was often the number one choice. It was quiet, lush with greenery, and surrounded by mountains.

As tour operator Cubatur demonstrated, it was also a great jumping off point for a variety of activities, including visits to Santiago, Bayamo, and aquatic activities. "For people into snorkeling, I always send them to Holguin, because the reef is so close,” says Pueblo.

We enjoyed a VIP experience at Hotel Playa Pesquero, staying in their one-year old premium section, which was adults only. We were greeted by a trio of musicians and numerous human statues, dressed in white with matching body paint, including one angel. There was free wifi in the premium lobby (this is a big deal in Cuba), the rooms were huge with: a walk in closet, Jacuzzi-style tub, and an amazing outdoor shower. There were 56 premium suites and a total of 1000 rooms on the 32 hectare property (the largest resort in Holguin).

They have package deals with all the major Canadian airlines, and it was the ideal jumping off point for a variety of excursions. A little over three hours away was Santiago de Cuba, which Pueblo says is "the most Caribbean" of Cuba's cities. It actually sits on the Caribbean side of the island, unlike Havana, which straddles the Atlantic.

Santiago is also the home of Cuban music, including the "cha cha cha." It was arguably not as pretty as towns like Trinidad or Camaguey, but as the former capital, "it's the second most important city" in the country, and was central to the country's turbulent history. "The first battles between the aboriginal and Spanish people happened here, as well as the First and the Second War of Independence."

We visited Santiago's "most important" site, Revolution Square. The statue of Cuban hero Antonio Maceo dominated the scene, along with giant metal machetes, rising from the ground. Maceo is credited with keeping the revolution alive when many were ready to give up.

We visited several other sites, including the changing of the guard at Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where intellectual revolutionary Jose Marti is buried. Cubans are known to quote him, leading in with "as Jose Marti said..."

Also among the key stops was Moncada Garrison. It's now a school, but it still had bullet holes from when Fidel Castro led a raid to steal weapons on July 26, 1953. It failed (the weapons had been moved) but it's still celebrated every July because it marked the beginning of the revolution.

For clients who want a taste of a small Cuban town, full of colonial architecture and history, Cubatur recommended the small town of Bayamo. It was a little more than an hour and a half away from Holguin (a closer option than Santiago). Last year the government started fixing it up as part of the town's 500th anniversary. The town's Revolution Square paid homage to two important figures.

One of them, Perucho Figueredo, wrote the national anthem there 10 days after the War of Independence started. The townspeople asked him to write something to inspire them to join the revolution. He already had a melody, and while surrounded by the townspeople he wrote the lyrics. "It was very long, so [now] we only sing the first part,” says Betsy Olivares Betancourt of Cubatur.

There were also two museums right off the square, and a boulevard with stores and cafes. For local food we ate at the restaurant La Bodega, enjoying café mambi (with honey), fried plantain, rice with beans, slow cooked beef, and mango purée with strong cheese. "Very traditional."

Click here for part one of this story.