Guantánamo

Guantánamo, the capital of the most easterly and most mountainous province of the same name, has one major difference from other Cuban colonial towns. The large influx of Haitian, French and Jamaican immigrants in the 19th century means that the architecture has much less of a Spanish colonial feel; the narrow, brightly coloured buildings with thin wooden balconies and wrought ironwork are more reminiscent of New Orleans than Madrid. This is also reflected in the local musical rhythms, notably the Tumba Francesa, a colourful folk dance tradition originating in Haiti, based in the centre of the town. The city is close to the US naval base of Guantánamo (which cannot be easily visited from Cuba). It is so little a part of the town that you will not, except in conversation, come across it unless you make a specific trip to Mirador de Malones to view it through binoculars. The range of the Montañas de Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa runs through the province, ending at the Atlantic Ocean on the northern coast and the Caribbean Sea to the south. The area is notable for its many endemic species of fauna and flora and it is one of the most beautiful parts of the island.

Ins and outs

Getting there

There are
flights
from Havana six days a week, which then turn around and head straight back again. Guantánamo is some 80 km from Santiago on the Baracoa road. Víazul have buses from Santiago
 to Baracoa via Guantánamo. The
Víazul
bus is usually full at weekends and it can be difficult to get on another bus if you want to break your journey in Guantánamo, so seat reservation in advance is essential.
Train
services should be daily to and from Santiago, but you can't rely on them.

Getting around

The town is small enough to walk around but there are horse-drawn
coches
for longer distances. A taxi or organized excursion is required if you want to go to one of the look-outs to see the American base. A number of streets have had their names changed, but locals often do not even know the official title. Avenida de los Estudiantes is known as Paseo, while Bartolomé Masó is known as Carretera.

Best time to visit

It is hot any time of the year, but humidity increases in the summer months and the risk of storms is higher from September to November.

History

The town of Guantánamo was founded in 1819 and was called Santa Catalina del Saltadero del Guaso until 1843. It lies north of the Bahía de Guantánamo, between the Jaibo, Bano and Guaso rivers which flow into the bay. Guantánamo is a pleasant, fairly well-restored colonial town. The US naval base was established at the beginning of the 20th century, when Cuba was a protectorate of the USA following independence from Spain, in the area known as Caimanera at the mouth of the bay. Although the USA relinquished its right to intervene in Cuban affairs in 1934, it retained its naval base on a lease which expires in 2033. Cuba considers the occupation illega but has taken no action to eject American forces. In early 2002, the US base came to the world's attention when al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners were transferred there from Afganistan under heavy guard to await military trial following the war against the Taliban. Huge metal cages were built to incarcerate the prisoners and security at the base was tighter than ever. There was international condemnation of the treatment of the prisoners, who were not awarded the status of prisoners of war and while being held outside US territory were therefore outside the rule of the law. In 2009 the new US President Barack Obama promised to close Camp Delta, where the prisoners are held, bringing to trial or repartriating the remaining prisoners. There was no mention relinquishing the base to Cuba.

Sights

The central square is the
Plaza Martí
, shaded by laburnum trees, with a church, the Parroquial Santa Catalina de Ricci, in the centre. The two roads running north-south either side of the plaza, General Pérez and Calixto García, contain some of the most attractive colonial houses. The post office and the
Casa de la Cultura
are on the west side and the
Tumba Francesa
on the east. Two kilometres north, the
Plaza de la Revolución
has a modernist carved stone monument to the heroes of all the wars of independence. The
Museo Provincial
, housing artefacts from the history of Guantánamo, is in a former colonial prison built in 1861-62. There is also a small museum near the Plaza de la Revolución which contains the space capsule in which the first Cuban went into space. South of the centre is the
Casa Natal Regino Boti
. Boti was a notable poet, essayist, historian and artist. He was born here on 18 February 1878 and lived and worked all his life in the same house.

Around Guantánamo

The
Zoológico de Piedra
, is an outdoor museum of carved stone animals, set in a beautiful hillside location with tropical vegetation. Many are bizarre, from tiny stone lizards to huge bison. All are carved directly from the rocks in their natural setting and you can buy miniature replicas from the sculptor, Angel Iñigo Blanco, on the way out. There is a day tour taking in Guantánamo

city,
 La Tumba Francesa, Zoológico de Piedra and Changüí (a traditional form of music played on a farm a short distance from the city while visitors have a good lunch, join in the dance and meet the musicians). The tour is organized by
Havanatur
, with an excellent guide in an air-conditioned minibus.

A trip to the Mirador de Malones
to view the Guantánamo Naval Base can only be done as part of an organized excursion, as the area is controlled by Gaviota. The Cuban military has a command centre here and you will be shown round 'Castro's bunker'. You can see the extent of the base through a US telescope and admire how the other half lives, with its golf course, cinema, McDonalds and other luxuries.

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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