Things to do
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Hike up to the top of Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)
Climb up the 465 steps to reach the 275-metre-high peak of this historic hill. Or take the winding road around back that delivers you to the top where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the city of Holguin.
In 1790, a cross was put up in hopes that it would relieve a severe drought. Today, every May 3, there’s a pilgrimage to the top for a special Mass.
There’s also a restaurant on site, a tiny art gallery and a few vendors selling jewelry. Be prepared for spontaneous sermons and concerts as well. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the top if you’re walking up the steps and a cab ride to the top costs only a few dollars. Make the trip early in the morning for the best photo opportunities, or late in the day for glowing sunset pictures.
Tour a cigar factory in Holguin
A quintessential Cuban experience is touring a cigar factory. You’ll get a peek at what it takes to put together the best cigars in the world, from cleaning and grading the leaves to putting the final seal on a box of Cohibas, Romeo Y Julietas or Montecristos.
The floor is scattered with strips of tobacco leaves. There’s the song of birds chirping overhead. Workers glance up momentarily from wooden tables to offer a smile. And everywhere, there’s that sweet smell of fresh cigars.
You have to be part of a tour to get through the doors of any cigar factory in Cuba. The Feliu Leyva Tobacco Factory in Holguin is a popular spot and the town of Gibara also has two factories that regularly accept tours. However, please note that no photography is allowed.
Ride in a vintage car in Holguin
It’s nearly impossible to resist riding in a vintage American car while you’re in Cuba. There’s just something about the image of a ’57 Chevy Belair set against a blue sky with a palm trees blowing in the breeze. Cuba was the largest importer of these American vehicles before the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, and they seem to be the only models that have lasted until today.
Keep in mind that while the outside is original, what’s under the hood may be a Russian diesel engine. And don’t expect a bargain ride, either. Taxi rates in these cars are comparable to what you’d pay back home. A handful of these vintage cars are usually lined up and waiting for passengers outside resorts, restaurants and popular attractions. It’s a fun ride to a nearby destination. If you need to travel for a longer period of time, it’s often a better idea to take a more modern car with air conditioning and better suspension.
Relax on Guardalavaca Beachabc
Spend an afternoon on Guardalavaca Beach. All you need is a snorkel, goggles, the shade of a big tree and fine sand between your toes – and maybe a cold drink. If you’re staying at a resort in Playa Esmeralda or Playa Pesquero, it’s well worth it to pack up for the day, get on the hop-on hop-off bus and head to the beach. If you’re staying at Guardalavaca, you can walk down to the sand and then head back to your room for an afternoon nap.
This stretch of beach is the only one in the hotel zone open to Cubans (although all beaches here are technically public, locals are kept away from the beaches in front of the large hotels). The everyone-is-welcome policy means you get a feel for Cuba’s lazy weekend afternoons. Quench your thirst at any of the beach bars and whether you’re in the mood for pizza or lobster, there’s a restaurant for all tastes. When sunset approaches, take a stroll on the boardwalk along the beach.
Explore the city of Holguin
Consider the city of Holguin your window into authentic Cuban life. Aside from a few tour buses that pop in for an hour here and there, the city is crowded with locals. You may find yourself sitting side by side with locals when you sit down for a bowl of helado (ice cream) with all the toppings.
Parque Calixto Garcia is the square in the centre of town. Make your way through the other three major squares downtown for a good overview of what makes this city tick. You’ll see women getting their nails done inside a big store where items are priced in local pesos and not in the convertible pesos (CUC) reserved for travellers. And you’ll also see groups of locals grabbing a quick bite to eat at an open-air cafeteria.
A cab from the beach resort areas costs about C$35 each way, so it’s best to take the whole family or split the cost with fellow travellers who also want to explore the city. Holguin is most alive on Saturday and Sunday nights.
The best spots to pick up your souvenir bottle of rum are the on-site shops at your resort or the cigar factories. In Holguin, look at stores off the main square for a good selection. You’re allowed to bring back one bottle of rum (no more than one litre) from Cuba, so make it a good one.
Santiago de Cuba’s Super Prestige 25-year-old rum with cinnamon, almond, chocolate and oak notes is made in the factory that belonged to Don Facundo Bacardi before the revolution. Any of the made-in-Cuba brands such as Havana Club, Ron Cubay or Ron Varadero are also delicious, inexpensive and make great souvenirs. Just remember to pack your bottle carefully among soft items like clothing or bubble wrap to take back in your suitcase.
You’ll likely have a few requests for cigars once your friends discover you’re visiting Cuba. Tour a cigar factory to witness the process from start to finish and end up at a store on-site where the selection is best. You can buy a pack of five quality cigars for less than 10 pesos here, or you can step up to the Monte Cristo A sold for around 20 pesos apiece.
Individual cigars in aluminum tubes stay fresh the longest – plus they make the classiest gifts. Each brand offers many sizes and shapes, and of course, beautiful bands, labels and boxes. Romeo Y Julietas tend to be the mildest, Montecristos are in the middle and Cohibas have the boldest flavour.
The statues and wall hangings made of local wood are beautiful, but when it comes to keepsakes, keep function in mind. A big, handmade mahogany bowl could be a great souvenir. Look for the artist’s signature and the date on the bottom of the bowl. For foodie friends, pick up a few mortars and pestles or an elegant salad-serving set.
Handcrafted leather backpacks hang from ropes strung across market booths. You will be impressed with the quality of anything made from leather here. There are cowboy hats, natural leather-covered baseballs, sandals and wallets of every shape and size.
Red Seed Jewelry
Choco diamante seeds are everywhere in Cuba. If your list is long when it comes to souvenirs, jewelry is an inexpensive gift. Nothing says Cuba more than a bracelet made from bright red seeds. Buy them by the handful to make your best deal and you could pay as little as a peso a piece.
Che Guevara Souvenirs
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentinean doctor who played a pivotal role in the Cuban Revolution in the late 1950s and is a local hero. He wasn’t born in Cuba, but you’d never know that judging from the number of times Guevara-themed apparel appears at the markets. His image with the iconic hat and scruffy face shows up on everything from fridge magnets to wallets. Most shops also offer posters and books in Spanish about this iconic Cuban icon.
If you’re looking for local flavour, there’s no better way to get it than by trying food from local street vendors. Look for little shops offering bocadito de helado and get a cup of plain ice cream or have it with cake and toppings. If you need something hearty, grab a minced ham sandwich at a bocadito de jamon viking stand. Add a few croquetas fritas (chopped meat, breaded and deep-fried on a small stick) and you have a satisfying lunch.
El Ancla (Guardalavaca) (Caribbean, $$)
Work up an appetite walking to the very western edge of the Guardalavaca beach area and you’ll find El Ancla. Take a seat on the spacious covered patio with the gleaming white-tiled floors. The view is truly one of the best of all of Holguin’s beach resorts.
For a great lunch option, order the shrimp cocktail to start, followed by arroz con mariscos (chef’s rice with seafood). There is also sliced white bread and butter that comes complimentary with your meal.
For dinner, move inside the modest restaurant and grab one of the six tables. The view is still spectacular! Order the combinacion mar azul. It includes half a grilled lobster, shrimp, fried potatoes, rice, dessert, coffee and a cocktail.
Restaurant 1720 (Holguin) (Caribbean, $$$)
There’s no doubt this is the place to go for a fancy dinner in Holguin. On a Sunday evening, every one of the colonial-style chairs here is occupied by Cubans celebrating the end of the weekend. The mansion-turned-restaurant is a beauty on the outside too, so it’s easy to spot.
Pork, chicken and lamb dishes are the more affordable options, as well as the paella. If you want to go all out, there’s lobster on the menu. The wine selection is vast by Cuban standards, so pick out a nice bottle to go with your special dinner served on blue and white china.
Los Helechos (Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort) (Caribbean-European, $$$$)
Los Helechos is a classy restaurant inside Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort with rich dark woods and marble floors. There’s an a la carte menu and plenty of premium cocktails to choose from. Order a mojito here and you’ll get one of the best you’ve ever had in Cuba.
The first course of lunch is Serrano ham stuffed with smoked salmon cream cheese and served with sweet fruit slush on the side. Follow that with a lobster cocktail with sliced apples and a deep-fried fish ball as a garnish. The main is beef tenderloin, a generous steak resting atop a ragout of vegetables thick with beef gravy. There are delicate waffle-cut potato chips circling the plate and an almond-crusted potato ball on the side.
For dinner, you can expect more upscale Europe-meets-the-Caribbean fare such as tuna tataki, octopus soup with rosemary and sea bass with mussels and clams. The restaurant is open to non-guests who book the resort’s Royal Service package, which includes a luxurious spa treatment (and it’s totally worth it for the gourmet food that’s included).
Yhi Spa (Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort, Playa Esmeralda) ($$$-$$$$)
Yhi Spa is the only full-service spa in the Holguin resort area. Even if you’re not staying at the resort, you can still drop in for a day of pampering. Arrive at the front desk and get whisked away to this quiet seaside spa with views of the brilliant blue ocean in the background.
The selection of spa services offered here ranges from relaxing rubs to deep-tissue treatments. You can pop in for a 25-minute visit, or opt for a full 50-minute treatment – all with plenty of free extras. If you need something a little more intense, choose acupuncture or a therapeutic option. There’s also an incredible roast coffee massage and a hard-to-resist Cuban rum massage. It’s a deep-tissue treatment that includes a mix of oil, rum and sage, based on the recipes of local medicine women.
As you are escorted to the change room behind heavy wooden doors, the mood is quiet and the air smells of sweetly scented cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. A smiling attendant takes you to the first stop—a footbath station in a candlelit space. Remember those cinnamon scents? They come courtesy of a warm neck roll that offers heady sensations while your calves, shins and feet get massaged with oil after soaking in a basin full of rose petal-scented water. This is included with every treatment.
Next, it’s on to the hydrotherapy circuit. Take your pick from the sauna, steam room or hot tub before dipping into the Balinese cool showers. Afterwards, stretch out in the relaxing room with a panoramic view of the great blue beyond. You’ll then be led outside by your massage therapist, along a wooden boardwalk to one of three thatched-roof treatment rooms perched over the sea.
Get settled on the massage table in this airy space. When you’re ready to begin, simply tap the two tiny cymbals attached to a red cord. If you choose the Cuban rum massage, the experience begins with a bowl of scented oil.
The premier pick here includes a 50-minute massage, followed by a tasty lunch in the Royal Service area of the resort. This boutique-like section houses the luxurious Los Helechos restaurant with its gleaming marble floors, rich woods and spectacular views.
Lunch with a perfectly executed mojito might include Serrano ham stuffed with smoked salmon cream cheese served with a fruit slush. It’s followed by a lobster cocktail in a tall glass and a beef tenderloin resting on a ragout of onions, peppers and potatoes. Dessert could be a generous chunk of blue cheese, slices of dried quince fruit and a generous dish of honey for dipping.
Once you’re relaxed and full, head for the secluded seawater pool back at the spa, the private beach or walk up to the hot tub platform. Take a warm dip, then claim the queen-sized daybed draped with gauzy curtains and take a blissful nap.
Spend a day at Guardalavaca Beach (all ages)
Throw your hat and sunscreen in a bag and head for the vast stretch of sand known as Guardalavaca Beach. Since the beach is open to locals, it has a more casual and authentic feel. Share a shady spot under a sprawling tree and watch your kids race local youngsters across the sand until they all wind up in the tropical waters. The beach is wide and the water is warm, so there’s room for everyone to do their own thing.
When your family gets thirsty, stroll up to one of the beach bars and grab some drinks. For a little change of pace, walk a few steps further into the markets and browse the lovely leather goods. When it’s time for lunch, walk over to Vicaria Guardalavaca where a couple of pizzas will refuel the family for the afternoon. Little children can hunt for seashells and other treasures here along the craggy shoreline at the western edge of the beach.
For those with a little more adventure in their blood, there’s horseback riding and skydiving at Paracaidismo Guardalavaca. You can also go diving at the coral reef just offshore – Eagle Ray Marlin Dive Center or Center Coral Reef can set you up on an excursion.
Take a boat ride to Parque Natural Bahai de Naranjo (all ages)
The party starts on the boat ride over to the aquarium, perched in the middle of the bay. Smiling guides ask you to remove your sandals before stepping onto a big boat with a gleaming white floor. For the 10-minute ride, the music is cranked and everyone is tapping their toes and letting the breeze flow through their hair. Then, head up to the big deck to warm up in the sunshine before the sea lion show.
Explore BioParque Rocazul (age 5 and up)
After a few days of pampering at your resort, take the family back to nature. Get to BioParque Rocazul early in the morning. This park covers more than 3,460 acres and the all-inclusive package includes hiking, horseback riding, a visit to the farm and fishing. You can climb El Templo Hill and get the same kind of view that inspired Christopher Columbus to utter the famous words: “The most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.”
Make your way to El Manantial Inlet, where rods and reels are provided. Hop into one of the rowboats and paddle around the serene inlet or cast from the dock. The fish you catch will be fried up for a tasty appetizer at La Ostra Azul snack bar.
After a quick tour of the banana and coffee fields, you may be ready for a traditional lunch of roast pork, rice and beans in the shady patio of the park’s restaurant. To really get a feel for Cuban rural life, book the Casa Compay Kike. It’s a rustic cabin on the grounds of the park where you can have a quiet night – and a stellar view of the stars.
La Ruta de la Cerveza (Holguin) (Nightlife event, $$)
The Beer Trail, as it’s called locally, offers a quirky and interactive glimpse of nightlife in Holguin city. As the sun sets, jump on a tour bus at your resort. You’ll receive a map that includes an outline of how to play the game and navigate the downtown area. If you’re a fan of TV’s The Amazing Race and you like scavenger hunts, you’ll get the hang of this one right away.
The goal of the game is to collect stamps from 20 destinations in downtown Holguin. This may seem a little intimidating at first, but luckily, Holguin is organized into a series of town squares, so it’s easy to navigate.
The evening begins with a fashion show featuring beer-inspired duds and a call to join the models for a few salsa steps. Look for these models again later in the game. They are stationed outside the various stops you need to visit. Along the way, you also have to collect the ingredients that make beer and purchase a few cervezas too. Make sure you have a few pesos in your pocket. Sunday nights in Holguin are busy and it’s the only night this tour is offered.
Your stops include bars, restaurants, shops and a cultural centre. It’s also a great way to get a feel for the city. The tour wraps up at the Salon Benny More, a cabaret-style club where prizes are doled out and you are treated to a dance show featuring Cuba’s unique rhythms.
Los Amigos (Guardalavaca Beach) (Beach bar, $)
Leave the Guardalavaca flea market and step down onto the beach. This beach bar looks like it’s been plucked from a tropical movie set, but it’s the real deal. It’s smack-dab in the middle of the beach strip—a perfect spot for people-watching. The tunes are always lively here and you can even grab a snack if you’ve missed dinner. This place makes a great first stop of the evening, since the place shuts down around 9 p.m.
La Rueda (Guardalavaca Beach) (Karaoke bar, $)
When Los Amigos closes, step back up into the market area and grab a table at this friendly bar. A bottle of Bucanero beer and a water cost about CUC$3. There’s a good chance the musicians who entertain at the nearby resorts will stop by for a serenade so be prepared to join in.
Mojito Bar (Hotel Playa Pesquero) (Hotel bar, $)
Every single mojito that travels across this tiny, but well-loved, wooden bar receives the handcrafted attention of one of the establishment’s talented, friendly bartenders. There are no artificial flavours here. A handful of mint gets stuffed into every tall glass where it’s mixed to perfection for the country’s signature drink. Make sure to pose for a photo with the life-sized statue of Ernest Hemingway at the end of the bar.
Salon Benny More (Holguin) (Dance club, $$)
Look for this club at the corner of Parque Las Flores, one of the city’s many squares. It is named after one of Cuba’s most talented and popular singers. Step through the front doors and find yourself unexpectedly in an open-air cabaret. Grab a seat for the traditional song-and-dance show but expect that sooner or later, you’ll likely end up on the dance floor yourself.
Spend a day on the water in Holguin
The blue ocean beckons. It’s time to abandon land and spend a few hours on the Caribbean. Leave the Marina Puerto de Vita aboard a gleaming catamaran and sail to the island of Cayo Saetia. They might as well just call this place paradise. Have a swim, put on your goggles and snorkel or nap on the quiet, out-of-the-way beach. If you need a bit of adventure, jump in a Jeep and head inland to get up close and personal with the zebras, camels, deer and birds that call the island home. Lunch and an open bar complete the day.
Feel the need for speed? Sign up for a speedboat adventure where you are given a lesson in safety precautions before you jump in your own boat to head down the Sama River. Deeper and deeper into the lush countryside you go until it’s time for a little fresh fruit refreshment on land. Test your driving skills and see the zigzag bays as you hug the coastline.
If it’s a deep sea fishing adventure you’re looking for, get ready for a long and hard fight with a dorado, snapper or even a gigantic marlin. Check with local tour operators for catamaran outings, speedboat excursions and half- or full-day deep sea fishing tours.
Visit Holguin’s small towns and big cities
Your beach resort is probably stellar, but you know it’s not how folks really live in Cuba. To see an authentic side of Cuba, try to set foot in some of the small towns and big cities. To do this, there are a variety of excursions that duck in and out of small towns and then head for the city of Holguin. A short ride from the resorts puts you in Rafael Freyre, where it’s time to hop on a rattling old train and tour the countryside that was once home to endless sugarcane fields. Along the way, you’ll see typical Cuban homes and even some folks who come out to wave hello.
Next, visit the big city of Holguin. Here it’s busy with people heading to work on bicycles, children lining up in their uniforms for the start of the school day and flower vendors clipping and pruning tiny roses to sell. For those who aren’t on a schedule, there’s time to grab a seat at a Parque Calixto Garcia cafe, or enjoy a beer at Cafeteria Cristal and watch the locals go about their daily business in this City of Parks.
Take in the seaside splendour of Gibara
If you have ever wanted a seaside hideaway where you can write that great novel, Hemingway-style, keep Gibara in mind. Truth be told, you likely won’t be able to get it out of your mind. This outlet to the sea has a great vibe, a captivating view of the bay, charming Spanish architecture, a shady plaza and an ocean breeze that simply makes you want to gaze out over the water.
Early in the day, head for Bakers’ Cave, or as it’s called in Spanish, La Cueva de Los Panaderos. It’s one of 28 caves in the area that inspire your imagination to run wild. Look for the Octopus’s Garden, the standing elephant and the cappuccino bar hidden within the shapes of the limestone passages.
Include a visit to one of the two cigar factories in town and make a stop at the Cine Jiba, home of the Cine Pobre Film Festival in April. Walk through the Museo de Historia Natural, where the Colonial style building with its sunny atrium is just as interesting as the contents found within. Several excursions offer a visit to Gibara under different names. Some get there by road while others sail in on a catamaran.
Cuba’s cigar industry got a kick start when Christopher Columbus took some samples back to the Old World after his visit in 1492. In 1614, the ruling Spaniards started to formalize tobacco production in the country. Today, dozens of brands are produced at state-run factories throughout the country such as Holguin’s Feliu Leyva Tobacco Factory. The biggest brands are Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Jose L Piedra and Cohiba.
You’ll see employees hanging posters and decorations for upcoming holidays, sharing laughs as their hands move at a frantic pace, stopping only to get their nails done on their break. You’ll occasionally see an employee look up from her work, offering a smile to yet another group of touring visitors and agreeing to slow the pace just a little so onlookers can try to grasp what she’s doing. After dried tobacco leaves are cleaned, graded and gathered into bundles, they land on his worktable. In his hands, a cigar begins to take shape.
The Feliu Leyva facility offers locals a course on how to craft one of Cuba’s most important exports. It lasts between nine and 11 months, and only students who excel are offered jobs. Interestingly, more women than men work at the factory.
Rows of ancient stalls fill the factory floor, unchanged for the last 50 or maybe even 100 years. There’s the sound of knives and cutters chopping off the ends of cigars; the chatter of coworkers and birds drifting in from the open windows overhead. Strips of tobacco litter the floor and there is the sweet smell of dried leaves everywhere.
Most employees start their workdays at 7:30 a.m. Before the day is over, they might have rolled more than 200 cigars each. Watch as a worker places layers of leaves in one palm, then tightly rolls them into a bundle on a well-worn butcher block atop her worktable. She spins one end into a point and trims the other end to the exact length of the brand and size she’s making. The cigars then go into a tray, which is then put in a hand-cranked press to squeeze the cigars into their final shape.
Thousands of cigars pass through the hands of the graders, who then sort them by colour. The grading is done bundle by bundle, each with a tag that traces it back to the makers. If any cigars don’t make the grade, they are sent back for a fix.
Finally, banded cigars are placed in either cardboard containers or the collectable pine tree cigar boxes. Each box is decorated with strips of beautifully designed papers that are glued on using sponges and with plenty of patience. Back in the day, wealthy families paid handsomely to have their crests stamped on to the tops of these boxes.
After your tour through the factory, pop into the retail store and pick up some souvenirs. You can buy a pack of five quality cigars for less than C$10 or the Monte Cristo A for around C$20. Because the business of fake cigars is so rampant, there’s no photography allowed inside the factory.
Calendar of events
Pico de Oro (February)
Storytellers take centre stage during this festival in Holguin sponsored by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba in Holguin. Narrators from across the country gather for this event celebrating the gift of gab.
Festival International de Cine Pobre, Gibara (mid-April)
Utah might have Sundance, but Gibara has Cine Pobre. In 2003, the late Cuban director Humberto Solas launched this low-budget festival in the local movie theatre called Cine Jiba after falling in love with the seaside town of Gibara. Even though the seven-day festival is a bit off the grid, it still attracts more than US$100,000 in prize money.
Romerias de Mayo (first week of May)
This weeklong party in Holguin celebrates the first pilgrimage to La Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). Today, there’s music, poetry, art exhibits and even a national rap competition. There’s also plenty of great food and drink.
Día de la Rebeldía Nacional (July)
For Cubans, July 25, 26 and 27 mark three glorious days off to recognize the beginning of Fidel Castro’s leadership after former leader Fulgencio Batista was ousted from power.
Carnaval (third week of August)
Carnaval is a great big dance party and everyone gets on their feet for outdoor concerts during this celebration in Holguin. Have some roast pork and fiery rum and you’ll have the energy to dance all night.
Fiesta of Latin American Culture (October)
Immerse yourself in Holguin’s upbeat vibe with this festival that includes open-air music concerts, Cuban dances, historic re-enactments of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492 as well as art and handicraft fairs.
Day of Independence (Día de la Independencia) (October)
On October 10, 1868, slavery was abolished in Cuba. This marked the start of the independence war against the Spanish colonial power. Today, it’s a national day off for everyone, so expect street festivals with plenty of food, drink and festivities.