Though fewer visitors make their way to eastern Cuba today, it was the place that colonists first settled and explorers first landed. And for hundreds of years after Christopher Columbus’ landing in 1492 near Gibara, and the Spaniard’s first settlement in Baracoa, Cuban history has continued to be made in eastern Cuba.
Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders into battle on San Juan Hill outside of Santiago de Cuba, and Fidel Castro chose Santiago de Cuba as the starting site and battle cry of his revolution. French-Haitians migrated to cities along the eastern shore and fomented their intoxicating Afro-Cuban culture and Son cubana came into being. Indigenous Taino people inhabited the coast before the empires of the east began to even start looking west.
Today, Eastern Cuba continues to see a confluence of cultures. Humbolt National Park was the research ground for Cuban and American scientists in a collaborative project sponsored in part by the American Museum of Natural History. Their findings will soon play a significant role in the American Museum of Natural History’s newest bilingual exhibition, ¡Cuba!, opening in 2016.
Join us on our 11-day tour through Eastern Cuba and trace Cuba’s history from its earliest colonial settlement to its latest collaborative efforts with America. Our tour sets off from Holguín, near Columbus’ landing point, and culminates in Santiago de Cuba, where the reign of the Castros began. Follow the steps of Buena Vista Social Club’s famous song “Chan Chan” and make your way to Mayarí. Wander through the African safari island of Cayo Saetia where zebras and buffaloes roam. Soak in wild Baracoa’s je ne sais quois. Feel the way Santiago de Cuba moves to its own tempo: more frenetic, more keyed up, more exposed than other Cuban cities.
Eastern Cuba retains an unfiltered essence of Cuba auténtica. It’s untamed and indomitable—the perfect setting for scientific collaboration, revolution, and the expectation for Cuba’s tomorrow. Eastern Cuba has always been a frontier; it’s only the nature of the frontier that has changed over the years. It’s an exciting time to visit Cuba’s eastern frontier—you just might witness history in the making.
We are happy to offer guidance with scheduling your travel to and from Cuba, and our office staff is ready to answer any questions you may have.
Note: The itinerary and activities you see below are subject to change due to factors such as weather, transportation schedules and availability of guest speakers. We always attempt to replace missed activities with similar opportunities that maintain the same spirit of the tour as well as our focus on People-to-People exchanges.
Explore Holguín and Arrive in Gibara
Fly out of Miami or other cities in Florida, into Holguín on a late morning flight. Upon landing, our Cuba Unbound leader greets you and gathers guests for a brief orientation. Then, set off on our journey through Cuba.
We begin exploration of Eastern Cuba with a walking tour of San Isidoro de Holguin. Though it’s no Havana, the city of San Isidoro de Holguín, Holguín for short, has its own unornamented appeal. With its 18th century churches and colonial plazas, Holguín offers that winsome window into Cuba’s past, and locals congregate in one of the city’s parks—fitting as Holguín touts itself as the ‘city of parks.’
After you wander the streets, get a look at the impressively oversized baseball stadium, and view Loma de la Cruz in the distance, we take the meandering drive toward Gibara. Squally yet slowly seductive, wily yet understated—Gibara’s as untamed as Baracoa and ideal for travelers disenchanted with throngs of tourists.
Check into your hotel for the evening before we meet up for dinner featuring some of Cuba’s favorite dishes.
Explore Gibara’s Columbus Landing and Cultural Tour
We wake early and spend our day exploring more of Gibara and engaging with the local community. There’s some dispute over where Christopher Columbus first landed. Gibara, specifically the Silla de Gibara rising, is believed to have been first seen by Christopher Columbus in 1492; meanwhile, Holguín claims he first landed at Cayo Bariay, and both lay claim to Columbus’ proclamation of it being “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” Decide for yourself as you explore Gibara today!
As we spend the morning in Gibara, we meet Señor Jose Toledo in a People-to-People opportunity. Toledo’s a host of local radio and TV show as well as a master of several languages including English, French, Portuguese, and Russian. He gives us a tour of the town, bringing to life its once-vibrant history as a cultural and trade center as well as its still-vital annual hosting of the international film festival, Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre. Tour the town and visit a Natural History Museum that further document’s the city’s history throughout the afternoon.
After lunch, we visit the Caverna de los Panaderos, caves tucked under limestone hills located just outside of town. The caverns hold a labyrinth of 19 mineral galleries where glittering stalactites catch the minimal light. Wander the dark caves in search of “the mammoth”—an elephantine knob—as well as a lake lying in silent, calm anticipation with Tolkien-esque mysticism.
Then, relax before dinner at an excellent paladar where you can taste some more Cuban food prepared with a local flair.
Follow Ruta de Chan Chan and Explore Pinares de Mayarí
We gather for a fresh breakfast before heading out of Gibara in favor of our final destination for the day: Mayarí. First, we make our way back to Holguín where we follow the distinguished “Ruta de Chan Chan.” Compay Segundo’s canonical song “Chan Chan” is now immortalized by a 360km train route that follows along the iconic places mentioned in the song such as Macarné, Cueto, and Mayarí as well as several other towns bounded by Sierra del Cristal.
Our stopover lies in Mayarí, where we de-board and check into our accommodations for the evening before setting off to explore the verdant surroundings. Mayarí lies within the Parque Nacional la Mensura and the Caribbean pine spread known as the Pinares de Mayarí. It’s a lofty region settled neatly over the cloud line and the entire region is perfumed with crisp pine.
Our destination for the afternoon is the Gran Salto del Guayabo, Cuba’s highest waterfall at over 100m in height. Hike through the tropical forest where parrots nest and orchids grow until we reach the waterfall. Rest and play in the cool pool and its waterfall.
Up next, we continue to our lodgings, a beautiful drive through pine forests. After arrival, we take a walk with a local nature guide, to learn about this unique part of Cuba. Then we enjoy an evening of good food, conversation, and lovely views.
Morning Pinares de Mayarí Walk and Arrive Cayo Saetía
Enjoy a relaxed morning in Pinares de Mayarí. You have your choice of activities this morning, as you can either set off on a morning walk and explore more of the verdant forest or relax by the pool with an incredible view. Gather for lunch in Mayarí before setting off to our next destination: Cayo Saetía.
Cayo Saetía is one of Cuba’s more idiosyncratic spots, and we arrive late afternoon. Lying east of Mayarí, Cayo Saetía is an artificially formed island located in Bahía de Nipe. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Cayo Saetía was a favorite haunt for communist apparatchiks (including both of the Castros) looking for the thrill of some large wild game hunting a la Hemingway himself. Now, the animals are protected in the wildlife park rather than vulnerable to passing bullets. That being said, Cayo Saetía is the closest to an African Safari Cubans get on the island. 19 species of exotic, introduced animals can be found there, including zebras, camels, buffalo, antelopes, ostriches, bulls, peacocks, and wild boar.
Explore some of the island before we rest and relax in the simple beauty of a villa on the island. Another dinner in the refreshing night air before we retire for bed.
Snorkel and Kayak Cayo Saetía
Today’s a day to explore and learn. By land we walk around the forest and then also visit some of the inviting white sand beaches as we take a relaxed kayak trip on azure waters. As we explore secluded coves that lend a Caribbean air to the otherwise African ambience, our guides share more about the island’s history and the marine ecosystem that thrives there. You also have the opportunity to snorkel in the warm waters and see the marine life and coral reefs up close.
Enjoy a cool drink and a fresh dinner at the villa after your day playing in the sun.
Hike Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt and Arrive Playa Maguana
Today is a day of wilderness and wildlife! We depart from Cayo Saetía after breakfast and return to mainland Cuba. We drive east through Moa before reaching Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt—one of Cuba’s most biodiverse regions that encompasses the largest, best-conserved remnant of the Caribbean’s forested mountain ecosystems. Humboldt National Park plays a critical role in the joint research efforts of Cubans and Americans working with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)—the findings of which are display at the AMNH.
Explore the Caribbean pine-clad mountains often cloaked with fog on one of the many hiking trails that run throughout the park. It’s a birder’s paradise, and hook-billed kites, Cuban Amazon parrots, and ivory billed woodpeckers call to one another in the dense trees.
After our hike, our travels take us to Playa Maguana, an isolated paradise whose lack of polished infrastructure only adds to its allure. We check into our lodgings and enjoy a refreshing drink and dinner near the secluded beach.
Explore Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt and Arrive Baracoa
Today takes you further into Humboldt National Park. We begin with a hike along the Sendero Balcón de Iberia, a 5km walk that takes you through a profusion of coconut and fruit trees before beginning the climb to Monte Iberia. Ferns and orchids dangle from the trees along the trail which ends at a waterfall that crashes from the Santa Maria River into natural pools below.
After our afternoon hike, head to Baracoa: Cuba’s eastern coast’s urban heart as well as Cuba’s oldest Spanish settlement. As you enter the city, colorful buildings capped with tin roofs foreground the iconic flat-topped hill, El Yunque, sitting next to the city. Check into your Casa Particular and then step out into the vibrant, somewhat surreal town whose unique culture holds Taíno, Haitian, and French influences.
Walk along Baracoa’s Malecón that edges the village and learn more of the town’s fascinating heritage before dinner. The cuisine is different here as the locals enjoy putting their own twist on the common Cuban fare of rice and beans with the help of their mixed cultural heritage. Baracoa is the center of Cuban cacao productions, so try some chorrote, a thick hot chocolate, or the Baracoan tetí river fish dishes. After we dine, we might have the opportunity to listen to changüí music or catch sight of the Creole dance inspired by the French minuet, the Tumba Francesca.
Visit Cocoa and Coffee Plantations in Baracoa
Today we explore the rich agricultural culture near Baracoa in several People-to-People encounters. Visit local cocoa and coffee plantations and learn more about how the people of Cuba’s “far east” cultivate these crops amidst imposing mountains. It’s a day for all your senses as you smell the aromas, do some tasting, and hear testimonies of Cuba’s agro-industrial techniques.
On our visits, you see how Cubans transform cocoa fruit to cacao, a process that involves picking cocoa pods, sun-drying seeds, and roasting beans. We also learn about Eastern Cuba’s history of French-Haitian coffee plantations that dominated the region in the late 18th-early 19th centuries. The cocoa and coffee plantations embody a rich heritage resulted from the island’s mix of many cultures—a heritage definitely worth tasting!
After our morning out amongst the plantations, we drive to a lighthouse that marks Cuba’s furthest eastern point. Learn about its history and take in the incredible ocean views from this landmark before dinner.
Explore Guantánamo’s French-Haitian Heritage and Arrive Santiago de Cuba
Today takes us further south and away from the coast as we drive on the dramatic Viaducto La Farola, a sinewy mountain road that connects Baracoa to the rest of Cuba’s southern shores. Our trek through the mountains and along the coast brings us to the city of Guantánamo, made prominent by the nearby U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
The city itself is distinct from the naval base, and it’s well-known for its Cuban culture influenced by the heavy influx of the French in the 19th century after the Haitian Revolution. We stop for lunch and to visit some of the city’s more remarkable sites: the Parroquia Santa Catalina de Ricci as well as the Palacio de Salcines.
The Parroquia Santa Catalina de Ricci is also known as the Cathedral Guantánamo, said to be the world’s smallest cathedral whose muted yellow tones fit the Caribbean ambience of the town. The simple yet charming cathedral is not as grand as the Palacio de Salcines., which served as the personal residence of local architect Leticio Salcines. Salcines’ iconic works still litter the city.
Built in 1916, the Palacio de Salcines features eclectic and grand architecture, and more artwork lies inside. The interior has been converted to an Art Gallery, a Museum of Decorative Arts, and a Heritage Center. Over the years, the palacio has gained some praise as being the city’s most emblematic building with its adorning statue La Fama, a mytholical figure who signals news of good and evil with her trumpet. Guantánamo has come to tout the statue as its symbol over the years.
After our brief tour of Guantánamo, we continue on our way to Santiago de Cuba. Santiago is Cuba’s second biggest city following Havana, and it shares the same pulsating energy even if it grooves to its own beat. With its rich Afro-Cuban heritage, it’s easy to see why many consider Santiago the cradle of Cuban music.
Once we’ve arrived and checked into our hotel, we have the opportunity to unwind with some dinner and appreciate Santiago’s musical heritage as we head to Santiago’s Casa de la Trova where Paul McCartney once performed. This is a state sponsored music salon where every night a cadre of singers and musicians play. Its freeform musicality showcases a nostalgia for the days of troubadors, and it’s welcoming atmosphere is intoxicating. Sounds of the street mingle with the melodies, becoming part of the ambience. The son originated here, so you might be able to hear the masters perform their art.
Explore Santiago de Cuba’s Revolutionary Heritage
We take the opportunity to further explore Santiago today as we head out on a walking tour of the city. Santiago’s proximity to tropical islands like Jamaica has infused the city with an urbane glamour and vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture evident throughout the streets. It’s also a cultural capital that has played pivotal roles in Castro’s revolution and the Bacardí rum business.
Our walking tour takes us to Parque Céspedes, a classic Cuban square where colonial architecture is foregrounded by troubadors smoking cigars and writers seek literary inspiration in terrace bars. A statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the man who incited the 1868 rebellion, overlooks the 21st-century bustle.
In the park we find the Diego Velázquez Museum, home of Cuba’s first governor. Built in 1516, it’s reputed to be Cuba’s oldest house. We also find the Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano and the Museo del Ron, which explores the history and production of Cuba’s most popular liquor. Our local expert guide brings these places all to life while providing an interesting historical backdrop.
After lunch our tour continues as we head to the east for a visit to the Moncada barracks where Castro’s revolution began 1953—a day still celebrated annually on Revolution Day. We then continue to Loma de San Juan, the hill where Teddy Roosevelt rode his army of Rough Riders to victory during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
We travel out of town a bit to the Cementario Santa Ifigenia. It’s best known for housing the mausoleum of Jose Martí, but it’s also the resting place of Compay Segundo, the legendary singer and guitarist who wrote the Can Chan that we were introduced to earlier in our journey.
As evening sets, we dine and enjoy a night in the energetic town. Those with energy to spare may want to walk the El Tivoli neighborhood after dinner. El Tivoli was settled by French plantation owners who had fled Haiti during the Haitian slave revolution, and its narrow streets lead up steep hills toward the bay.
Fly home or on to our Havana Extension
This morning we take a return flight to Miami. We recommend planning on spending the night in Florida before meeting connecting flights.
Dates & Rates
Rates: $3,590.00 per person*
Note: Christmas departures have a supplemental cost ($300 per person) due to our increased prices for accommodations.
Up to 16 spaces available on each tour (depending on the number of solo travelers and available accommodations)
Single Supplement: $500
If you are traveling solo and prefer private accommodations (pending availability) you may elect to pay the single supplement fee. If you are traveling solo and wish to be paired up with another solo traveler of the same gender in order to avoid the single supplement fee, please let your Adventure Consultant know at the time of booking. We will do our best to find another traveler to pair you with, however if there is not another solo traveler of the same gender willing to share on your trip, you will be charged the single supplement fee.
3-Day Extension to Havana: $990
Havana Extension Single Supplement: $150
• Experienced English-speaking guide(s)
• Specialized activity guides based on activity of trip (kayaking, biking, hiking, etc.)
• Specialized equipment needed for activities such as kayaks, bikes, helmets, paddles, personal flotation devices, etc.
• Private pre-tour orientation meeting
• Cuba Unbound hand-crafted itineraries
• Accommodations as noted in the itinerary
• All meals as noted in itinerary
• Certification of travel to Cuba under the U.S. Department of Treasury general license
• Small group size (Custom tours for 2, group tours are 16-18)
• All entrance fees to include events and activities
• All in-country ground transportation
• Clean drinking water available at all times
• Gratuities for presenters, luggage handling, and restaurant staff
• Round-trip air to/from Cuba
• Cuba Tourist Visa Fee (ranges from $50-$100 depending on where you buy it)
• Guide and driver gratuities
• Personal expenses such as souvenirs, gifts, additional drinks/entertainment, and incidentals
Images & Videos
FAQ & More
This is something you'll hear in Cuba a lot. A casa particular is a private accommodation or private homestay in Cuba, very similar to a bed and breakfast, although it can also take the form of vacation rental. On ROW's Cuba Unbound tour, you can expect to stay in a mix of traditional hotels and casas particulares, making for a full and authentic visit to Cuba.
We walk between two and five miles. Our pace is casual and most walks have little to no elevation gain. Most of the walking will be done during the day in the cities that we will visit. There will be plenty of breaks to take pictures and to learn about the history of the area from our specialized guides. The hikes in the parks will also be guided by experts and the pace will be set depending on the group's abilities.
Trails are generally well maintained, but loose rock and dirt are common. All paths may be slippery when wet. Good walking shoes or boots are essential; walking poles are not necessary. In the cities where we walk, careful attention to holes in the sidewalks or streets is critical.