Cuba is considered a rising touristic destination that has more followers every day. Among its main attractions are its seven first cities, that are among the oldest in America, and that keep in a good measure the colonial Spanish air and spirit that they had when they were founded. They have most of the cultural, historic, and architectonic heritage of the country, and they receive millions of visitors every year.
In 1510, eighteen years after the Spanish expedition led by Christopher Colombus first landed in Cuba, the conquest began together with the colonization of most of this island of the Caribbean, a relatively pacific process that gave the island seven cities considered historic and architectonic jewels, that keep their seducing and original characteristics.
Witnesses of Cuba’s evolution, the main part of its architectonic, cultural and historic heritage, the seven oldest cities of this Latin American country are charming cities, real living museums, capable of seducing people with the details they have kept through five centuries of development.
These cities keep throughout time the tangible legacy of an architecture where different styles of many centuries and currents come together. In them one can find a colonial house with tiled ceilings, tall windows, and doorways that come together in an Art Nouveau or incredibly eclectic façade.
These cities challenge time, fighting privateers and pirates, and being there to see most of the most important scientists, literates, and paradigm solvers be born. Some buildings even, are of the oldest, and prettiest in the continent, and they were the tallest of their time.
However, Havanna, Santiago of Cuba and Trinidad are the ones who keep their historic centers in the best shape, with a great proportion of buildings, plazas and old squares, that have survived all these years and have kept that unique ambiance that links architecture history and culture together.
The UNESCO has even named the oldest parts of Havana and Trinidad Humans Heritage, and Santiago is currently working to get this recognition.
Baracoa, Cuba’s primate (1511-1512)
Located in the northeastern coast of the island, it was the first villa founded by the Spanish during colonization, it is also the first capital of the Caribbean country and it had the first bishopric.
Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa, was the name that governor Diego Velázquez gave the city the 15thof august of 1511, that was far from being a big city but kept the charm of a provincial town, tied to its land and to very pristine costumes.
The absence of an amazing architecture is compensated by an exuberant nature, one of the most splendid and rich of the country; capable defying people with the biggest imagination. This land, one of the most Caribbean of the archipielago and of the region, is located next to a clean bay, and sinuous streets and a very lively life intersect it.
Baracoa is without a doubt a paradise for lovers of ecology and biodiversity, and for fans of bio-tourism da genuine product that ore than 60 archeological sites that survive in the place offer, with a hint of taino culture.
As an extra you can find some of the oldest Cuban traditions in Baracoa, related to the growing and harvesting of cocoa, coconut and coffee. In the Mayor church you find the Cross de la Parra, one of the 29 that Christopher Colombus put in America, the first Christian relic of the New World. Its authenticity has been scientifically tested and this is the only one left from that time.
Bayamo, crib of Cuban nationality (1513)
The second villa built by the Spanish colonizers in the west was created in 1513 in the middle of the biggest watershed of the country, a territory that was vastly populated by the indigenous.
The Villa of San Salvador of Bayamo, rich in traditions and history, is known as the crib city of Cuban nationality because it was the scenery were important milestones of Cuban history took place: it was the capital of the Republic in Arms which marked the first time Cubans stood for themselves to the Spanish in 1868.
It was in this city were the National Anthem was composed and sang for the first time, and this is the city its inhabitants chose to burn instead of yielding the power to the monarchy again. It is also the hometown of great heroes, such as the Founding Father, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who liberated his slaves and invited them to join the independence movement.
Despite the insurgent fire, there are still vestiges of the city’s origins, like the old Parrish Church together with innumerable and invaluable historic places.
The people from Bayamo keep the tradition of using horse-drawn carriages just like people in the colonial times. Driving around the city riding these vehicles of the nineteenth century is an attractive idea and a way to relive the past. Besides, another interesting adventure is the altarpiece of the Main Church of Dolores, today a cathedral and a handiwork of the seventeenth century, a typical piece from the Cuban baroque.
Trinidad, a trip to the colonial past (1514)
No other city keeps its colonial past in such great condition as Trinidad does, it keeps almost unaltered great architectonic pieces of great value: streets, squares, stone floor plazas, and buildings with clay roofs, with architectonic styles coming from Andalucia and Canarias.
As if it was held in time in its medieval disposition and constrained in the small space between the Escrambay mountains and the sea, this locality is a testimony of a time with urban charms and beauty, derived from its posterior sugar splendor in the Valley of the mills. Walking by the streets and plazas, its historic centre can be a time travel, maybe even to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Even in our days, so full of technology and haste, this villa is seducing with its cobbled streets, brick sidewalks, and bremesian slabs, its houses astonish with their fan shutters, eaves and parapets with glasses, colorful screens and windows.
Trinidad is considered a cultural jewel of Cuba, a living museum named as Humanities Heritage by the UNESCO. When walking around this beautiful city, it is a sin not to walk around the Plaza Mayor, considered by specialists as the second most important in the country, after the Cathedral Plaza in Havana.
Sancti Spiritus, crib of the “guayabera” (1514)
The ‘guayabera’ is maybe one of the most famous pieces of clothes in America. Cuban artist like Joseito Fernandez, author of the Guantanamera, Benny Moré and Compay Segundo, wore the anthological outfit through diverse sceneries and geographies around the world.
The tradition says that in Sancti spiritus, one of the first seven villas founded by the Spanish in Cuba, is where this Cuban, traditional and famous outfit was born. Some say that at the beginning it was called ‘yayabera’, because farmers close to the river Yayabo used to wear them, but afterwards they were renamed ‘guayabera’ because people used to put the delicious ‘guayaba’ (guava) fruit in their pockets.
It is also said that one day a farmer of the region asked his wife to make him a comfortable shirt to wear in the field. The lady did as he said without thinking that her innovative design would become so popular, among the people of the area first, and worldwide afterwards.
In the nineteenth century in Sancti Spiritus, a construction boom happened and many great quality buildings were constructed, some of which are still standing today. One of them is the bridge that goes across the Yayabo River, which has a roman style, and it is a one of a kind bridge and the only one left in the country; it is the main icon of the city. It was build at the beginning of that century and it is a solid structure made of lime, sand, and bricks, with five arcs.
According to some storytellers, it was on the premises of this Old Spanish city in which the first mass in Cuba was celebrated. It was also here the first place in which an Iberian voice defended the rights of the indigenous that inhabited the nation before the Spanish came.
Camagüey, land of jars and cobbled streets (1514-1515)
The villa of Santa María del Puerto del Principe, former colonial demarcation that now belongs to the Cuban province of Camagüey, it has the most asymmetric urban layout of all the cities of the Caribbean country. Its streets are like a maze that seems like a very complex spider web, capable of disorienting the most experienced bystander and of amazing everybody with incredible visuals, small streets and urban lattices.
Walking by its historical centre is like discovering new surprises in every corner. In its historical centre there exists the most short and tight street in all of Cuba. There are also churches, plazas and colonial mansions with interior courtyards preceded by big clay jars.
It is also known as the City of the Tinajones, (big crocks) because of the huge containers they proliferated, it was the most popular way of storing water for a long time due to the dryness of the area. Today most of the houses of the area are still standing, they are from different sizes but they are all icons that identify the city.
Since the nineteenth century it was one of the richest localities of the island. The Plaza of San Juan de Dios -the most representative from the colonial period for its architecture- is from this century, as well as the Church of the Sociedad and the Merced, that has the biggest piece of silver in the island. It is a holy sepulcher that was built with more than 23 thousand pieces of that metal that a devotee donated.
Santiago de Cuba, the capital of the Caribbean (1515)
The city of Santiago de Cuba is one of the first Cuban villas that keep its foundational colonial characteristics in a better condition. A witness of this is the Cespedes Park, the old Square of Arms and the main public space of the city, that keeps its structure according to the ancient ordinances of the Indian Laws.
The cathedral stands out; it is the first of its kind in Cuba, also the government palace, a majestic colonial building, and the home of the first governor, Diego Velázquez, that is at the same time the oldest home in America.
The historic centre of the city, declared National Monument because of its exceptional historic, cultural and architectonic values, it has the French Tomb Charity of the West, considered Humanity’s Heritage by the UNESCO. Also very close to the heart of the city, is the first museum of Cuba, the Casa de la Trova, where the emblematic musical genre was born, and were the house of José María Heredia is, the first romantic pore of the continent.
Other places very closely linked to the evolution of this of this old Spanish villa, that bring thousands of visitors every year, are the Fortress San Pedro of the Rock, Heritage of the Humanity since 2007, the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Charity of Copper, the Santa Patrona of cuba, and old French coffee crops of the Gran Piedra (Big Stone), an indelible mark of the migrations of conquerors and slaves that left Haiti. There you can see some of the most amazing landscapes of the Caribbean nation.
Some of the popular parties of Santiago de Cuba are also very popular, that are many centuries old, such as the Carnival, a natural scenery of groups that have some of the most rooted Cuban traditions, a mixture of Spanish, African, Aboriginal, French and other cultures.
Havana, capital of all Cubans (1515-1519)
A cosmopolitan, communicative and open city, Havana is also a place that knows how to live its interior life with true intensity and interesting mysteries yet to be solved. The old villa of San Cristobal of Havana, founded between 1515 and 1519, is nowadays one of the main touristic spots of Cuba.
Its majesty is made of massive bastioned fortresses that still protect this old colonial building that is preserved like few others in its development and primal urban design.
Havana has known how to keep, just like very few American cities, the architectural heritage of its colonial past, which travelers love to admire endlessly. This is why the UNESCO named this Historical Centre Humanity’s heritage in 1982 and the Cuban government named it a national monument in 1976
This city is nowadays one of the most popular touristic destinations of the Caribbean. Proofs of this are its luxury hotels, in the historic zone, at the beach and in Miramar. Here there are Traditions, museums and institutions that are true bulwarks for humanity, what makes it such an interesting port in Latin America and the Caribbean. It receives more than a million visitors every year.
The hometown of a national Cuban hero, José Martí, is the epicenter of cultural, economic and political life in the country. Among its main features are the Old Spanish buildings, the majestic National Capitol, street 23 of Vedado –maybe the most famous of the country- and its historical centre.