As appealing, intriguing, even beckoning as Havana may be to her foreign visitors, there is life beyond the capital city.
Cuba the island lies like a sharp nosed fish with a flat whale-like flipper tail between the Atlantic and the Caribbean. At her western end, close to her “nose,” Havana looks out on the Gulf of Mexico. Some 500 miles to the east, on her flipper tail are Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba, gazing toward Port au Prince, Haiti, and Kingston, Jamaica, respectively.
Few Cuba visitors head for “Gitmo” , a heavily secured, longtime U.S. Navy base which has played a prominent role in America’s Middle East wars. But, Santiago de Cuba is another story. While smaller in population and, therefore, in geographic size, her history, her architecture, her cultural color, nonetheless, can rival Havana’s.
Santiago de Cuba, the “de Cuba” – or of Cuba – to distinguish her from Santiago in the neighboring Dominican Republic, actually is Cuba’s second largest city in what once was Cuba’s Oriente Province. Fidel and Raul Castro, as well as other Castro siblings, were born in Oriente. And it was to Oriente area that Fidel returned after earning a law degree from the University of Havana to stage one of his “revolucion’s” early but unsuccessful attacks on an army barracks at Moncada.
The history of Cuba’s Santiago, however, dates back much farther. The city was founded in 1514, a few years before siting of the settlement on the island’s north coast that would become Old Havana. Two years later, the little community burned to the ground. It was rebuilt, according to its official history, in the same location and by 1518 well known Spanish explorers were anchoring their fleets in her harbor. Hernan Cortes, for one, plotted his expedition that ultimately would take him to the coasts of Mexico from what then was a Spanish colony. Two decades later, Hernando de Soto is said to have dropped anchor at Santiago de Cuba before sailing westward , eventually to offload herds of livestock and hundreds of conquistadors on the west central coast of La Florida – in what would become the Ruskin area – for his final, fatal expedition up the peninsula in 1539.
Cuba’s Santiago was the island colony’s first capital until late in the 16th century. The very first dwelling for human habitation in the Americas was built here. The island’s first cathedral was erected here in 1528. Santiago de Cuba claims the first copper mine to be dug in the Americas.
Settled by the expansionist Spanish, plundered by the French in 1553 and then overrun by the British in 1662, Cuba’s Santiago boasts architecture reflecting the various influences. From baroque to neo-classical, its elaborately balconied colonial homes and buildings for other functions are as worthy as Havana’s from the historian’s perspective, if fewer in number. The city also offers a waterfront district of tin-roofed stilt dwellings at and over the shoreline reminiscent of many old, old seaports, steep streets rising from its waterfront and wooded parks that would arouse the interest of American environmentalists.
Racially mixed but perhaps more distinctly so than in Havana – Africans from Haiti, French, Spanish/Cuban – Santiago de Cuba’s culture also reflects their native practices: the traditional dances from which salsa evolved, a July street carnival heavily accented with the conga, and santaria, the African-Cuban religion from which stems “vodun.”
The province also is home of the Baconao Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere Reserve. Baconao contains several features : a prehistoric valley of life-size dinosaurs and other creatures sculpted in stone, numbering in the dozens; a botanical garden from 1860, its sections color coded and offering unique scents; an aquarium nearly 100 feet deep with a submarine tunnel and a dolphinarium; a great rock more than 80 feet high, weighing an estimated 63,000 tons with stone steps and a breathtaking panoramic view; the old farm where the Castros rested before the Moncada attack; a lagoon with a Taino (pre-Columbian Indian) village reproduced, plus wildlife refuges and old coffee plantations.
At the opposite end of the island, west of Havana in Pinar del Rio is another such biosphere reserve, Sierra Del Rosario with its Las Terrazas Community. Built on the rolling hillsides deforested in the early1800s by French coffee plantation owners, the biosphere encompasses some 25,000 acres now, much of it replanted . It also offers adventure, comfort and new experiences for the visitor.
Among its features is a canopy tour, the only one in Cuba. The arrangement consists of five platforms atop wooden towers of varying heights and connected by steel cables. Strapped onto a seat, visitors get a birdseye view of the landscape as they descend along 800 meters of tight cable.
This biosphere also has a self-contained “eco-community” called Las Terrazas, named for the terrace-style reconstruction designed to stop soil erosion following the coffee plantation deforestations. In an idyllic setting of wooded lands, winding unpaved lanes and mountain backdrops, more than 225 households exist in the community which puts its total population at 1,000. The community has its own schools – kindergarten through secondary level – medical services, stores, a gym and a cafeteria. In addition, it has its own electricity, gas, telephone, sewage, and potable water systems. It is touted as a long functioning, successful example of sustainable development that does not upset ecological balances.
The community’s commercial district includes a library, museum, motion picture theater, bakery, and a bazaar, as well as artists’ studios and restaurants.
Visitors with an appreciation of the reserve and its objectives are welcomed in the biosphere. Hotel Moka offers 26 air conditioned rooms, complete with television, room service, pools and tennis courts. Visitors also can stay in the village, sharing the LasTerrazas lifestyle.
Boat rides, water bikes and kayaks can be arranged on the Palmar or San Juan lakes. Swimming and horse back riding are available in prescribed areas as is hiking, with a guide.
The biosphere experience likely is another option closed to native Cubans such as those living in Old Havana, but for visitors compelled to get out of the city, it is yet another aspect of Cuba, equally appealing, intriguing, beckoning.
© 2011 Melody Jameson
Next week: final installment: Cuba past, Cuba’s future
Part Two: Getting in touch with my inner Cuban
Part Three: Looking like home
Part Four: Eating Cuban