When we talk about colonial times in Cuba we refer to four centuries during which the dominion of the Spanish crown extended over the largest island in the Caribbean Sea and other territories of the New World.
These colonial cities of Cuba have preserved, over time, that picturesque, romantic –and at the same time stately– halo that gives them their own status as cultural relics; they are loaded with legends, traditions and imposing architecture.
Today, its historic centers are considered World Heritage Site, for being guardians and witnesses of one of the most determining periods in the history of Cuba.
The first villages founded in Cuba were seven: Baracoa, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Puerto Príncipe, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo and Havana. Almost all of them were located along the coast to facilitate foreign relations, particularly with Spain.
They all followed the same system: an open plaza, the Plaza de Armas, on whose sides stood the church, the barracks and the City Hall. The streets, very narrow, converged towards said square, and in them the private houses were raised, whose conditions varied according to the wealth of their owners.
If you are thinking of travelling to Cuba, you cannot miss this selection of colonial jewels:
1 San Cristóbal de la Habana, wonder city:
Adolphe de Cassagnac
«Havana is a city of war, fortified as the Spaniards fortified in other times, that is to say, in a formidable and elegant way (...) No city I know of: neither Paris, nor London, nor New York, can give an idea of Havana. Havana has an aspect, a color, a noise that are peculiar to it; viewed by day, it is of strange grandeur, seen at night it is mysterious and poetic (…) »
Old Havana had several temporary settlements, until the pilgrimage ended next to a safe and beautiful port, then called "Puerto de Carenas."
Cruising the routes of conquest, stopover on the roads of colonization, the cradle of all dreams. Havana was soon appreciated by friends and coveted by enemies; corsairs and pirates assaulted it before it was twenty years old.
The royal treasures began to make their scale here too and the need for defense was imminent. The Crown drew up a plan of fortifications that is preserved today: Tres Reyes del Morro fortress, at the entrance to the port canal and, in front of it, on the other side of the canal, San Salvador de La Punta which, together with the Real Fuerza and San Carlos de la Cabaña, formed the city's defensive maritime triangle.
Perhaps what most defines and helps to understand the colonial Havana and its development is the fact that this was a walled town. The wall that protected the city by land divided Old Havana from a more modern, cosmopolitan, eclectic Havana.
The squares around which the colonial life of Havana was nucleated are essential spaces in a tour of old Havana, because in them you can find the best of art and architecture in colonial Havana.
The Plaza de Armas, was the first hierarchical place that grouped the political, military, religious and civil functions of an emerging population; San Francisco Square, named after the establishment of the religious order of that name that, was settled in 1575 with the construction of a humble convent, which by the first third of the 18th century already had one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
The Plaza de la Catedral, which, from the end of the 18th century, hosted the church that the Jesuits built, then procclaimed as a cathedral.
The Plaza Vieja, is an eclectic, colorful and lively square, with bars and paladares in which to taste a delicious cocktail or a Creole meal.
2 Trinidad, where time seems to have stopped:
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, it is a town with numerous and well-preserved works of architecture, both domestic, public and religious. It also exhibits beautiful wooden balustrades, trellises and handcrafted decorations.
The houses of the city feature a decorative neoclassical ornamentation, expressed in murals, moldings, wooden frames and in the whimsical shapes that the iron forgers managed to print on it, so that it would become one of the city's greatest charms.
Very close to the town of Trinidad, located 12 kilometers to the northwest, stands Torre Iznaga, an architectural work of the Cuban XIX century, declared a National Monument. It is one of the ancient monuments of the Valle de los Ingenios, another must-see site if you want to explore the traces of colonial history through the ruins of old sugar mills.
Trinidad also has a traditional drink, dating from the colonial period, precisely from the 19th century: the canchánchara. So don't miss the tradition of coming to La Canchánchara Tavern to taste this refreshing and unique traditional drink based on brandy, honey and lemon, while you walk through the labyrinthine streets of this colonial relic.
3 Camagüey, the city of tinajones
The foundation of the town of Camagüey, called Santa María del Puerto Príncipe took place in February 1514.
About twenty squares and parks characterize the city, also known for its large houses with high props, its artistic bars and windows and its typical overalls.
It was the custom of the colonizers to build a square in the vicinity of the churches, so the first square arose with the Cathedral (today Agramonte Park), as well as in 1697 those of Santa Ana and la Soledad, sites of historical meetings, recreation and children's games.
If you arrive at this colonial jewel of colorful houses and lively squares, remember to taste its traditional dish, which is of course a typical delicacy of the Cuban cuisine: ajiaco.
4 Santiago de Cuba, the vibrant eastern city:
In July 1515, Governor Velázquez established the seventh town in the bay of Santiago de Cuba.
Its historic center, featuring Céspedes Park, is delimited by an architectural set of high value, made up of the Diego Velázquez House-Museum, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the old Town Hall (today the seat of the provincial government) and the Casa Granda hotel.
In its surroundings there are other sites of great historical and cultural interest, such as the Casa de la trova and the Bacardi museum, in whose rooms the history of the Catalan Facundo Bacardí is exhibited, who acquired a small distillery in Santiago de Cuba and managed to find an industrial formula to transform “the fierce drink of corsairs” into an exquisite rum, world-renowned.
But in this vibrant eastern city there are many more attractions, closely and directly related to its colonial past. The Virgen de la Caridad, surnamed del Cobre for having its sanctuary in that urban center of Santiago. It was placed almost immediately among the religious preferences of Cubans, representing in the Afro-Cuban syncretic cult to Ochún, a symbol of femininity, fresh waters and joy.
The peaceful, marbled beauty of Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is another experience worth living in the city. This is one of the most important funeral monuments in Latin America, founded in 1868, where the mausoleum of the National Hero José Martí is located, and the remains of Fidel Castro rest.
In the middle of the bay of Santiago we find Cayo Granma, a beautiful little island that boasts one of the best sets of Cuban wooden architecture, being worth a visit to taste a delicious fresh lobster, caught and prepared by a local.
5 Remedies: between history, turquoise waters and parrandas:
A short drive away, a road over the sea, 45 km northeast of Santa Clara and 9 km west of Caibarién, will take you to the warm and transparent waters of the network of cays to the north of the province: Cayo Santa María, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Las Brujas - and there you will find Remedios, one of the colonial jewels of Cuba.
This is a small town, perfect for a quick visit when in Cuba to spend a few relaxed days with your couple. Excellent seafood, interesting history, charming beaches just a few minutes away by car and a lot of tranquility, in a romantic atmosphere.
Its entrance and exit street leads in any way to the Parroquial Mayor of San Juan Bautista which is considered one of the most significant churches in Cuba, due to the exquisite elegance of its baroque altars.
So, if you are thinking of organizing a trip to Cuba, whether to travel with your family, with your group of friends or with your classmates, with your couple or even in your honey moon, on your own or in one of our tailor made trips, don't miss any of our recommendations to travel to Cuba without complications and to know about the evolution of COVID-19 situation in Cuba.
Article written by Gabriela Rodríguez, independent Cuban guide.
Video produced and edited by Javier Ernesto Hernández-López.