HAVANA, Cuba — The Spaniards arrived first, then came the British, followed by the Americans, with a brief incursion by the French. Since 1512, when Spanish conquistador Diego Velazques landed at Baracoa, many have attempted to control Cuba.
All left their mark but none more so than the Spanish who remained the longest — almost 400 years. They left behind many churches, mansions, castles and forts, which are still standing in cities across the island, including Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey, Trinidad and the capital Havana. Of Cuba’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, five are in colonial cities, which are rich in history and culture, and ideal places to explore.
The "finest surviving Spanish complex in the Americas," that’s what you’ll find in Havana, which has more than 700 buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. A good starting point is Old Havana and its fortifications, which were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
Many of the city’s heritage buildings have been converted to other uses: Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Plaza de Armas houses the City Museum, while Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras in Plaza de la Catedral is now the excellent Restaurante El Patio. At Plaza de San Francisco, you’ll find more colonial structures including Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis and Fuente de los Leones (Lions Fountain), which is modelled after a fountain at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
A lively city of grandiose mansions, palm-lined inner courtyards and forts such as Castillo de la Real Fuerza — the oldest extant colonial fortress in the Americas — and El Morro, Havana is also a cultural hotspot with some of the Caribbean’s best art galleries, museums and a thriving local music scene.
One of the original seven cities established by Velazques, Trinidad oozes colonial atmosphere. The maze of original cobblestone streets and pastel-coloured houses date back to the days when the city flourished from a thriving sugar trade. That wealth is responsible for the beautiful mansions around Plaza Mayor and other structures such as Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima — Cuba’s largest church.
Trinidad and Valle de los Ingenios (a museum on the sugar industry) were declared World Heritage sites in 1988. The restored city boasts attractions such as Museo Historico Municipal and Museo Romantico — both in former palaces (Palacio Cantero and Palacio Brunet respectively). Wander down the narrow streets and admire colonial houses with architectural details such as red-tile roofs, wooden shutters, arched windows with radiating slats and ornamental wrought-iron.
Travellers may require divine assistance getting around the "City of Churches." That’s because Camaguey’s irregular street grid — designed to thwart invaders in years past — can be very confusing to visitors, who often lose their way. Save time and hire a guide who can lead you through the winding lanes to places such as the picturesque Plaza San Juan de Dios, Teatro Principal with its stained glass and chandeliers, and centuries-old churches, including Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced (1848) and Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (1775) with its Baroque frescoes.
The city’s historic centre is a UNESCO site, notable for its many architectural styles including neoclassical, neocolonial, Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Located inland, Camaguey was settled in 1528 and though it doesn’t have beaches, it’s a lively, non-touristy city, with colonial attractions galore. On your stroll, look for the "tinajones" — large clay jars that were introduced by Catalonians in the 18th century and are still used to store food and collect rainwater.
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
A traditional tumba francesa dance is in full swing as our bus pulls up to Cespedes Square as if to confirm everything I’d read about this vibrant city, with a thriving cultural scene. Known as the birthplace of the revolution, Santiago is also Cuba’s most Caribbean city, and the second-largest in size and population.
This is where you’ll find Cuba’s oldest palaces and museums, including Casa de Diego Velazquez, which dates to 1522 and contains furnishings from the 16th and 17th centuries. San Pedro de la Roca Castle and its defences are a World Heritage Site — recognized as the "largest and most comprehensive example of the principles of Renaissance military engineering adapted to the requirements of European colonial powers, in the Caribbean."
NEED TO KNOW
For travel information, visit the Cuba Tourist Board at gocuba.ca.