Camagüey


Camagüey is the largest of Cuba's 14 provinces and is an excellent place to break your journey if you are crossing the island from one end to the other. The attractive countryside is flat and fertile, with cattle roaming the grasslands which are dotted with Royal palms. The colonial capital city of Camagüey is recommended for a stay of a few days, as there is much of historical importance and lots of sites of revolutionary interest from the 19th and 20th centuries. Significant restoration works are taking place in the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on churches, plazas and mansions. Culturally, Camagüey has lots to offer, with an excellent ballet company and lots of music and art. Camagüey has been politically and historically important since the beginning of the 16th century. Many generations of revolutionaries have been associated with Camagüey and several key figures are commemorated, the most notable being Ignacio Agramonte, who was killed in action in 1873. However, most tourists head instead for the north coast to Santa Lucía beach resort for sun, sea and sand. This is another of Cuba's remote hotel developments and it can be difficult to organize worthwhile excursions unless you have a car.


Ins and outs

Getting there

All major routes pass through Camagüey province and as the city is squarely in the middle, it is well located as far as communications are concerned. The international
airport
is 9 km north of the city and you may be lucky enough to find a bus that will bring you into Parque Finlay, otherwise you will have to catch a taxi, state or private, CUC$5. Most tourists arriving at the airport are taken by bus straight to their resorts on the north coast, not into
Camagüey. There are
flights
 from Havana and international scheduled and charter flights, although these vary with the season. The
railway
station is just north of the centre, within walking distance of several hotels and
casas particulares
, and on the main line from Havana to Santiago. The bus station is further out, the other side of the river from the centre, with several daily buses from Havana and Santiago, as well as good connections with neighbouring towns.

Getting around

The active will be able to
walk
to most sites of interest in the city, otherwise you can pick up a
bicitaxi
. Note that many streets have two names, one an old colonial religious name and the other a replacement from the early 20th century. People use both . Many provincial towns and Playa Santa Lucía can be reached by
bus
, but check your return journey before setting off.
Car hire
is available, or you can arrange for a Cuban to drive you in his car.


Tourist information

All the main hotels have tourist agencies who can provide information, although their main aim is to sell tours.
Casas particulares
are usually better informed than agencies in Camagüey and often more helpful.


History

The capital of the province was originally called Puerto Príncipe, until 9 June 1903. The village of Santa María de Puerto del Príncipe was first founded in 1515 at Punta del Guincho in the Bahía de Nuevitas, but the site was unsatisfactory for development because of a lack of water and poor soil fertility. In 1516 the first settlers moved to Caonao (an Amerindian word for gold or place where gold can be found), an aborigine chiefdom near the Río Caonao. However, in 1527 enslaved Amerindians rose up against the Spanish colonizers and burned down the town. The settlers then moved again, further inland, between the Río Tínima and the Río Hatibonico, where the village was finally established.

Moving inland was no protection against pirate attacks. During the 17th century, as the settlement became prosperous on the back of raising livestock, and later sugar, it was the target of the Welshman Henry Morgan in 1668 and of French pirates led by François Granmont in 1679. However, despite the looting, the town continued to grow throughout the 18th century, although its architects took the precaution of designing the layout to foil pirate attacks. No two streets run parallel, and this creates a maze effect, which is most unlike other colonial towns built on the grid system. On 12 November 1817, Fernando VII, the king of Spain, declared Puerto Príncipe a city with a coat of arms.

Several revolutionary events of the 19th century are remembered in Camagüey. In 1812 eight black slaves fighting for independence under the command of José Antonio Aponte, were executed. In 1826, revolutionary Agüero Velazco was hanged in what is now Parque Agramonte. Joaquín de Agüero y Agüero and his followers took arms against the colonial power in 1851, but their movement failed and they were executed by firing squad. In 1868, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes initiated the struggle for independence, many Camagueyans supported him, including Ignacio Agramonte, Salvador Cisneros Betancourt, Maximiliano Ramos, Javier de la Vega and others who are remembered in street names, monuments and museums.


Land and environment

Camagüey is the largest province in the country covering more than 14,000 sq km. It is mostly low lying. Its highest point, at 330 m, is in the Sierra de Cubitas to the north of Camagüey city. The Atlantic north coast is broken by a series of large coral cays, which make up the Archipiélago de Camagüey. There are long sandy beaches, crystal-clear water and fantastic diving on the reef, but so far there has been little development except at Playa Santa Lucía in the east. Behind the protective cays, the land is marshy, until it rises gently to the Sierra de Cubitas where there are caves and rocky spurs. Nuevitas is the main port on the north coast and there is considerable heavy industry in the area. The southern, Caribbean coast of the province is mostly swampy. There is a fishing port at Santa Cruz del Sur, but otherwise little habitation in the wetlands. Offshore, the sea is dotted with tiny uninhabited cays. Previously one of Fidel Castro's favourite fishing spots, the cays are now visited mostly by scuba-divers on liveaboard boats.

Beef and dairy farming occupies much of the land and many of the province's traditions revolve around cowboys and their activities, such as rodeos. There are also many poultry farms in the central part around Camagüey and Minas. Sugar cane is grown in the north and south of the province, with sugar mills near Florida, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Brasil, Vertientes, Batalla de las Guásimas and Cándido González. Several other mills have been demolished as the economy moves away from the monoculture of sugar. There are also rice fields in the west around El Trece and El Alazán. Some citrus is grown and processed in the north near Sola.


City centre

Colonial buildings of the 17th to 19th centuries are interspersed with more modern constructions of the 20th century and walking around the city will reveal many architectural gems being used for everyday purposes. There are plazas, museums and churches being restored to attract tourism, but this is not a tourist city. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2008, UNESCO reported that 'the town developed on the basis of an irregular urban pattern that contains a system of large and minor squares, serpentine streets, alleys and irregular urban blocks, highly exceptional for Latin American colonial towns located in plain territories. The 54-ha Historic Centre of Camagüey constitutes an exceptional example of a traditional urban settlement relatively isolated from main trade routes. The Spanish colonizers followed medieval European influences in terms of urban layout and traditional construction techniques brought to the Americas by their masons and construction masters. The property reflects the influence of numerous styles through the ages: neoclassical, eclectic, art deco, neo-colonial as well as some art nouveau and rationalism.'

Santa Iglesia Catedral
is on the south side of Parque Ignacio Agramonte. Construction was started after the town fire of 1616 with the intention that it should be the largest parish church in Puerto Príncipe, with two chapels and a cemetery. In the 19th century the chapels were demolished and a different shape was given to the building in 1875. In 1937 the sculptor Juan Albaijez carved a statue of Christ, which was placed inside the church. After being closed for some time for renovations it reopened in 2001 with a newly painted exterior and very smart interior. The Parque has also had a facelift, with lots of marble and a cleaned up statue of Ignacio Agramonte on horseback. The Casa de la Trova is on the west side of the square, together with the library. One block away is the
Casa Natal de Nicolás Guillén Batista
. The building may have been the poet's birthplace, but he only lived here until he was two. The building is now used as an art and cultural studies school although staff are very happy to show you round and there are a few pictures and some of his poems on the walls. Another famous son of Camagüey is remembered at the
Casa Carlos J Finlay
. Born in 1833 in the city of Puerto Príncipe, as it then was, Finlay was of French and Scottish descent and studied in Philadelphia, Havana and Paris. As a result of his scientific research in the 1870s, in 1881 he was the first to come up with the theory that a mosquito of the genus Aedes was the vector for yellow fever and that the mosquito population should be controlled. From 1902 to 1909 Finlay was the chief health officer of Cuba and his findings were used to control the spread of both malaria and yellow fever during the construction of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the 20th century. He died in Havana in 1915.

A couple of blocks south of the Parque is
San Juan de Dios
, another national monument, built in 1728 as a church with a hospital attached, the first hospital in the village for men. It also contained a home for the aged. Apparently this is the only church in Latin America that has the Holy Trinity as its central image. The
Plaza San Juan de Dios
was created at the beginning of the 19th century when two houses were bought to make the plaza. At around this time the San Juan de Dios church tower was moved to the front. On 12 May 1873 the body of Ignacio Agramonte was deposited in the hospital for identification before being taken to the cemetery. In 1902 the hospital was closed and later converted to a military infirmary. It was used to house the homeless after the hurricane in 1932 and was inaugurated as a modern hospital in 1952. Cobblestones were laid in the plaza in 1956. The hospital building changed hands several times before the
Centro Provincial de Patrimonio Cultural
occupied it. The plaza is closed to traffic. There is a small handicraft market,
Tienda Caracol
, and a couple of restaurants.

Casa Jesús Suárez Gayol
, now the
Museo Estudiantil Camagüeyano
, was the home of one of the Cuban guerrillas who lost his life in Bolivia alongside Che Guevara. The museum has exhibits about Camagüeyans, particularly students, who were active revolutionaries in the struggle for independence.

East of the cathedral along Luaces is the
Parque Martí
, also known as the
Plaza de la
Juventud
. The
Sagrado Corazón de Jesús
, on Luaces, overlooking the Parque Martí, is a beautiful neo-Gothic church built in 1920. It used to have wonderful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the gospel, but most were destroyed by stone throwing after the Revolution. Restoration work started here in January 2001, with a new roof among other works. Good progress is being made on the church and a building on the west side of the square is also shored up with timber supports prior to its renovation.

North of Parque Ignacio Agramonte, if you walk up Independencia, you come to Plaza Maceo, a busy junction of several roads with shops, banks and places to eat. One block north of here is the
Plaza de los Trabajadores
.
Nuestra Señora de la Merced
, a National Monument on Avenida Agramonte on the eastern edge of the Plaza de los Trabajadores, was built in 1747 as a church and convent at what was then the edge of town but is now in the centre. Over the years it has been transformed into a baroque church and a diocesan house. In the courtyard there are abandoned cannon used by the Spanish military in the 19th century. In 1906 a fire burned the altar, which was reconstructed in Spain in a neo-Gothic style. As the city expanded, the cemetery had to be closed, but the catacombs can still be seen. The entrance is either side of the altar; you will be followed by a warden down the steps into the mini-museum. The original wooden cross on the bell tower was moved into the catacombs in 1999. You can also see bones, skulls and several 18th-century artefacts from the church. The ceiling of the church shows early 20th-century paintings in a swirling pre-Raphaelite style, although it badly needs to be restored. On the walls are four 17th-century and eight 18th-century paintings, but the most important treasure in the church is the Santo Sepulcro, a silver coffin, constructed in 1762 with the donation of 23,000 silver coins. Before the Revolution, it was carried in procession along the streets of Camagüey; now it is kept inside the church. The church has been under restoration for many years and is still not completed. It has an external clock, which was the first public clock in Camagüey, and a library. There is always someone around to show visitors the church and provide information.

Also on the square is the
Museo Casa Natal Ignacio Agramonte
. The museum is for students of revolutionary history. Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz, one of the national heroes of the struggle against the Spanish, was born here on 23 December 1841. Agramonte, a lawyer and cattle rancher, led the rebellion in this area and in July 1869 forces under his command bombarded Camagüey. However, he died on 11 May 1873 after being wounded in action. When he took up arms against the colonial power in 1868 shortly after finishing his studies at university in Spain and Havana all his goods were confiscated by the state. The ground floor and courtyard of this lovely house were turned into a market while the second storey was occupied by the Spanish council. Later the ground floor became a bar and a post office. In the second half of the 20th century the house was restored and now the top floor is a museum exhibiting objects relating to the life of this revolutionary, while other rooms are used for lectures, art exhibitions and offices.

East along Ignacio Agramonte is the tiny Plaza de la Solidaridad, formerly Plaza del Gallo, little more than a junction of five roads.
Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
is on República esquina Ignacio Agramonte on the edge of the Plaza. It is the oldest church in town. In 1697 the Presbyterian Velasco started the construction of a hermitage which was concluded in 1701 and transformed into a parish by the bishop Diego Evelino de Compostela. In 1733 the current church was started, although construction was not finished until 1776. The outside is of brick, while inside there are attractive painted friezes on the arches, a carved wooden roof and a painted cupola (which needs renovation).

Quinta Amalia Simoni
,
was the family residence of the woman who became the wife of Ignacio Agramonte. The Spanish set fire to the house during the Ten Years' War, damaging most of its opulent furnishings such as the Carrara marble, and it never fully recovered its former glory. After the war, the Simoni family had their property restored to them, but Agramonte's widow and two children lived there only intermittently, spending much of their time in the USA. The house with its six neo-classical arches has been recently restored and in 2005 was opened as a museum. It is considered the symbolic home of the Camagüeyan family and activities take place for local women and children.


West of the centre

Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana
, along General Gómez, was started in 1697 with a single nave. Over the years it was gradually enlarged with a tower added in the middle of the 19th century.

Nuestra Señora del Carmen
, on the west side of Plaza del Carmen, was started in 1732 by Eusebia de Varona y de la Torre, who wanted to build a three-nave temple for the Jesuits. However, they did not like its location, which at that time was on the outskirts of the town, so they demolished it. One hundred years later, her heirs with the help of Padre Valencia, built the women's hospital of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, which was finished in 1825. A church was built alongside the hospital, originally with only one tower, but a second was added in 1846, making it the only two-towered church in Camagüey. Part of the church collapsed in 1966 but restoration started in January 2001. The façade has been replastered and work continues inside. The hospital alongside is now the
Sede del Historiador de la Ciudad
. The whole of the
Plaza del Carmen
has been renovated, a task which included housing as well as smart new restaurants and tourist shops. An amusing feature are the clay statues of very lifelike people going about their ordinary tasks: women gossiping over coffee, a man pushing a cart, another man reading a newspaper and a couple with their arms around each other. It's pleasant to sit on a bench with them and watch the world go by.

At the west end of Calle Cristo is
Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje
, built as a small hermitage in 1794 by Emeterio de Arrieta with one nave. In the 19th-century two naves and a tower were constructed. It is rather dilapidated, but the large cemetery behind it is kept very smart with grand tombs. The square in front of the church,
Plaza del Cristo
or
Parque Gonfaus
, is not as interesting as some of the older squares in town as it has no buildings of architectural interest and even the benches are broken.


North of the centre

Museo Provincial Ignacio Agramonte
, first built as a cavalry barracks in 1848, was converted into the
Hotel Camagüey
from 1905-1943, but there are still cannon, water troughs and
tinajones
in the garden. After considerable restoration the museum was inaugurated on 23 December 1955 (the anniversary of Agramonte's birth). There are exhibitions of archaeology, with copies of drawings and artifacts found in the caves of the Sierra de Cubitas , natural history (lots of dusty stuffed animals and birds), paintings and furniture of the 19th and 20th centuries, but nothing special.

At the far end of Av de los Mártires is Plaza Joaquín de Agüero (Plaza de Méndez), the second largest square in the city. Joaquín de Agüero and his followers were shot by a firing squad here on 12 August 1851. In 1913 a monument was erected to honour the heroes.


East of the centre

The
Parque Casino Campestre
, on the eastern side of the Río Hatibonico, was the first place in Cuba to hold cattle shows. In the 19th century it was used for fairs, dances and other social activities but in the 20th century its purpose and structure was changed. Trees have been planted and there are monuments to independence fighter Salvador Cisneros Betancourt, to the Unknown Soldier, and to teachers. Next to the park there is a monument erected in 1941 to Barberán and Collar, the first pilots to cross the Atlantic at its widest point, in a flight from Seville. It took them 39 hours and 55 minutes.


Around Camagüey

Without your own transport, it may be easier to take an excursion . There is a
Crocodile farm
, where endangered species are preserved. On the farm there is also an Amerindian village and you can visit a cave which is a burial site. You can take a boat trip on the Río Máximo and watch a santería ritual being performed.

There are walking tours of the
Sierra de Cubitas
, a protected area 35 km north of Camagüey, where you can visit caves with Amerindian drawings and see much endemic wildlife and lots of birds. The tour lasts all day and is hot and tiring, minimum eight people, two expert guides, take a hat, good walking boots and lots of water.

A road heads northeast out of Camagüey past the airport through pastures and chicken farms to the coast. The first town of any size is
Minas
, with a population of about 20,000. There is no reason to stop here except to see the
Fábrica de Instrumentos Musicales
, where they make and sell violins, guitars and percussion instruments.
King Ranch
, 80 km from Camagüey on the way to Santa Lucía, offers rodeo, horse riding and cheap accommodation.

Some 54 km southeast of the city is
Najasa
and
Hacienda La Belén
, www.ecoturcuba.co.cu.
This is a protected area of geological and biological diversity, including caves and the second finest forest reserve in the country. The Hacienda is a stud farm and offers horse riding through the reserve and the forest. Birdwatching is good on the trails where you can see the tocororo, the national bird, as well as other protected endemic species. Tours of the area include a visit to a typical farmer's house, and the Gaspar-Najasa caves.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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