The eastern province of Santiago is home to some of Cuba's most rugged terrain. Its most dominant geographical feature is the Sierra Maestra mountain range which runs from Niquero near the Gulf of Guacanayabo to east of Santiago de Cuba past the Gran Piedra National Park. The country's highest elevation, the Pico Real del Turquino, forms part of this range.
The area is noted, among other things, for its sugar production and is also an important provider of citrus fruits and tobacco. It is , however, most famed for its history of rebelliousness, being part of Oriente, an area known as the cradle of the Revolution. These days it has been earmarked as a prime tuorist destination and, with its beautiful physical setting, it seems destined to become one of the most popular and visited areas of Cuba.
The Baconao Park, in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, is a perfect formula for leisure, in combination with the attractions of its well-preserved nature.
The sea, the mountains and legends get together in an offer that those who chose this region of the Cuban archipelago, as their destination to spend their vacations after a long working season, cannot refuse.
Baconao's traditions date to the time of Cuba's discovery. Its very name is related to a young aborigine who belonged to one of the pre-Hispanic tribes living in that region.
History mentions a magic tree called "bacona", which cast a spell on the young Indian, enabling him to play music with the lagoon's shells, a gift that was passed to the trees when the boy died.
The park's options include the possibility of enjoying the region's typical rural setting (campesino), which covers every single detail, ranging from houses - the popular "bohío" (thatched hut) - to furniture, including the "taburetes" (a typical Cuban chair).
All this is complemented by horse-riding excursions in direct contact with nature, and visits to the ruins of old French coffee plantations.
The remnants of coffee dryers, mansions and even a colonial cemetery can be found in the region, creating an atmosphere that is full of history and mystery.
Baconao also has an aquarium, which allows visitors to learn about the Caribbean's marine fauna in its tanks and tunnels.
Dolphins and seals put an excellent show for both children and adults, exhibiting their abilities, in a sort of pause that is both necessary and refreshing, with a 30-meter-long tunnel under the sea where visitors can see the fish in their own habitat.
Baconao's facilities also include such singularities as the Land Transport Museum, which exhibits over 2,000 miniature vehicles, along with an exhibition of vintage cars.
The ancient fauna is also represented in the park, especially in the so-called Valley of Prehistory, where visitors can enjoy life-size stone replicas of animals that lived on earth millions of years ago.
Add to this Cuba's traditional gastronomic offer, with typical dishes such as roasted pork and the so-called "congrí oriental" (rice and black beans), and a delicious cup of coffee made the old way.
Baconao Lagoon reflects the shadows of Cuba's pre-Hispanic inhabitants on the replica of a Taíno village, where vacationers are welcomed at a restaurant serving seafood and where music is played in the famous "órgano oriental" (eastern organ).
In order to complement the park's many offers, several hotels, including the Bucanero and the Club Amigo Carisol Los Corales, provide a safe haven to travelers and contribute to filling any emptiness left, if any, after a wonderful tour of Baconao.
Caletón Blanco (White Inlet), as the name suggests, is an area where sandy inlets abound. This is a zone where there are not wide beaches, that is why the inlets stand out and make even more beautiful this region’s landscapes. On the front side, they have the sea, on the back the colossal view of the Sierra Maestra, outlining a sight unique in its natural beauty.
Chivirico is a picturesque village with a population of about 15,000 on the South coast of Cuba about half an hours drive west of Santiago de Cuba. Chivirico has many street vendors hawking all kinds of local specialties from pushcarts that resemble popcorn wagons.
As well as hotels Los Galeones and Brisas Sierra Mar there is of a small (two room) island hotel called Cayo Damas just a few miles outside of Chivirico.
The city & municipality of Contramaestre lies on the main highway roughly midway between Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo. The 610 sq km of Contramaestre municipality has a population of about 100k.
The name Contramaestre means "a foreman, vigilante or master of factory workers", but here the word was used when "the master" tributary of River Cauto was discovered here in the 16th Century, and called Rio Contramaestre.
The recommended route to Hotel Villa El Salton is via the rather spiffing (newly tarmaced 2010) scenic road from Contramaestre City.
Eighteen kilometres west of the city this sanctuary looms before you like a misplaced Disney prop as you make the descent into the village itself. This village will not detain you for too long as, apart from the church, there is nothing of any interest to see. When you visit the area you will be approached by kids trying to sell you 'diamonds' which are in fact pyrites churned up during the mining operation.
La Mula is at the mouth of Rio La Mula (AKA Rio Turquino), on Cuba's South coast 124km west of Santiago de Cuba. Rising abruptly up to 1974m (6476 ft) from La Mula is the majestic Sierra Maestra mountain range. To add to the drama, to the south of La Mula is the Cayman trough. The sea floor drops abruptly downward to 7686m (25,217 ft) to Cayman Trough. At the bottom of which are the world's deepest & hottest volcanic vents & "black smokers".
But just 15m down & 30 metres from La Mula shore, snorkelers will be delighted to discover the well preserved shipwreck of a Spanish Navy Giuseppe Garibaldi-class armored cruiser, the Cristobal Colon (1897).
The Rio La Plata river gives its name to both the historically important small settlement, La Plata, at its mouth, & the Comandancia La Plata, at it source.
La Plata was the site of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution's first victorious skirmish against Batista's government troops on 17th January 1957. The Museo de la Plata is open Tue to Sat for $1 CUC.
The Comandancia General La Plata was Fidel Castro's rebel army's principal command post from 1958. The preserved wooden cabins are nowadays best reached by a ridgetop trail from Alto de Naranjo, high above Hotel Villa Santa Domingo. The later is only reachable by car from the North, the Granma Province side.
Las Cuevas, & its visitor centre, lies between La Mula & La Plata, & is the starting point of the awesomely steep & beautiful trail to Cuba's highest mountain peaks, Pico Cuba (1872m) & Pico Turquino (1972).
Cuba's second city is hot, hilly and exhausting but at the same time seductively languid. Built on a sequence of hills overlooking a large bay with the Sierra Maestra in the background, it is certainly one of Cuba's most picturesque cities. Its colourful streets sweep up and down steep hills, making walking through the city, although pleasant, a little tiring if done in long stretches.
Santiago City has a singular vibrancy, its predominantly mulatto people, a mix of Spanish, French from Haiti and huge numbers of Africans, are persistently friendly. And their reason for being is music and dance.
Santiago de Cuba has plenty to offer for sightseers, blessed as it is with a host of interesting museums, buildings and places.. including the Moncada Barracks, Emilio Bacardi Museum, The Cathedral, Morro Castle, La Maison and Calle Heredia
It is a popular place for Cubans and it's a good place to come to meet people and make friends, The beach itself is black sand and largely unappealing and the hills around the village of Siboney were once a stronghold for anti-Batista rebels.
A further 18km east along the coastal road is the village/beach resort of Sigua, this is largely frequented by Cubans. You are guaranteed to receive a warm welcome and locals will even offer to catch you a nice fish for your dinner in return for a couple of dollars.