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Highlights around Santiago de Cuba

Highlights around Santiago de Cuba

La Gran Piedra & La Isabélica
Located on Carretera de la Gran Piedra, kilometer 14, in Santiago de Cuba province, this 63,000-ton boulder, 51 meters long and 25-30 meters wide, lies 1,225 meters above sea level, crowning the Cordillera de la Gran Piedra. It is famous not only in Cuba, but also in the Caribbean islands for being the largest rock in the region. In addition to being a stunning natural viewpoint, the area’s animal life is also appealing to many. A number of bird species, including woodpeckers, thrushes, Cuban todies, hawks, ground doves, red-shouldered blackbirds and Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban trogon, fly around this huge boulder. Plant life, on the other hand, is nothing but exclusive, with 222 and 352 varieties of ferns and orchids, respectively, as well as many other species, such as eucalyptus, pinos maestrenses (an endemic species of pine trees), cypress trees and a wide variety of fruit trees, among them, amazingly enough, endemic apples and peaches. And just one kilometer away are Santiago de Cuba’s Botanical Gardens, where several specimens of heliconia, dahlia, magnolia and other species endemic to colder regions are grown thanks to the area’s refreshingly cool microclimate. Visitors can relax at the Gran Piedra Hotel, with 22 bungalows, where nature lovers can enjoy a number of activities that include hiking, mountain climbing, bicycle touring and birdwatching.

The mountains also have a unique historical heritage. Its approximately 60 coffee plantations, set up in the late 18th century by French farmers who fled Haiti after the 1791 slave rebellion, turned Cuba into the world’s number-one coffee producer in the early 19th century. The ruins of these coffee plantations are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site centered on the Cafetal la Isabélica. The area is also included in the Baconao UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, instituted in 1987.

Gran Parque Natural Baconao & Valle de la Prehistoria
Approximately 20 kilometers away from the city of Santiago de Cuba is Parque Baconao with a surface area of 84,600 hectares. The name Baconao comes from the local legend of an indigenous child who lived in southern Cuba in pre-Columbian times. It is said that a magic Bacona tree taught the little Indian how to play music using shells from a nearby lagoon. One day, the child went out for a walk and was never seen again, although his music could still be heard in the woods. Locals thought that the trees had absorbed the magic of the child and over time started calling the area Baconao.

Listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Baconao Park boasts over 1,800 endemic species of plants, from craning royal palms to prickly cliffside cacti, and a large number of endangered bats and spiders. Baconao is also famous for its crabs. From mid-March to early May, tens of thousands of large land crabs congregate along the coast beyond Playa Verraco, where unfortunately many of them get squashed by passing cars.

This park is also home to an outdoor car museum where miniature cars are exhibited next to actual old cars and a 30-meter long run-down aquarium where dolphins, seals and other sea creatures delight both children and grown-ups. One of its main attractions is the Valle de la Prehistoria, a collection of 240 life-size dinosaur sculptures. Inaugurated in the 1980s, this Cuban Jurassic Park, with extinct species that include 14-meter tall brontosauruses, cavemen, man-made lakes, colorful birds cast in stone and a 12-meter tall Cro-Magnon, actually acts as a haven for a whole ecosystem of flora and fauna.

Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre
This is one of the religious sites Cubans venerate the most. Each day, over 500 people visit the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity), situated on the Cerro de Maboa, 27 kilometers northwest of the city of Santiago de Cuba on the old road to Bayamo.

Legend says that the Virgin was discovered by three fishermen, brothers Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos and a 10-year-old black boy named Juan Moreno in 1613, as they set out to the Bay of Nipe for salt. They got caught up in a violent storm and thought they were about to die when they spotted a statue of the Virgin Mary. To their surprise, they retrieved it completely dry from the water, and noticed the inscription “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” (I am the Virgin of Charity) on the board the statue was attached to. The storm subsided and their lives were spared. After the miracle, the three fishermen took the statue to the town of Real de Minas, where people took it as religious sign and built a church to protect it. The church was erected by the town’s copper mine, but it collapsed due to the numerous explosions and excavations. A basilica was then built on the same spot and subsequently inaugurated on September 8, 1927. Access to the construction is through an outside staircase flanked by a wall with lamps. The statue of the Virgin is made of gold and can be seen from anywhere in the main nave. The altar is movable and is made of marble and solid silver, and is decorated with items of great value. Downstairs from the chapel where the Virgin is kept is the Capilla de los Milagros (literally, Chapel of Miracles), a small room where devout followers of the Our Lady have left a large number of offerings, including gold jewels, precious stones, chains, dresses, Olympic medals, baby clothes and many other objects that are dear to their owners.

The Virgen de la Carida, or Cachita as she is also known, is syncretized in Santeria with Ochún, the Yoruba goddess of love, intimacy, beauty, wealth and diplomacy, and has become a religious icon to many Cuban women. Ochún is associated with the color yellow, metal brass, mirrors, peacock feathers, honey, the number nine and Saturdays (Ochún’s principal day of the week). For many of its followers, the two religious icons are intertwined.

July 2014 This article formed part of the july 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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