757km (470 miles) E of Havana; 201km (125 miles) E of Camagüey; 127km (79 miles) W of Santiago de Cuba; 73km (45 miles) S of Holguín
Granma province is unusually easygoing and lethargic, even by the standards of stifling hot and dry eastern Cuba, but its retiring pace and unassuming nature belie a turbulent, indelible role in modern Cuban history. Bayamo, the capital of the province, and the densely forested, impenetrable mountains of the Sierra Maestra at the extreme southwest corner of the Oriente region have long been at the forefront of political turmoil and rebellion. The otherwise unassuming region may just be the place where Cuba's independent streak runs deepest.
Bayamo, one of Cuba's original seven villas and today a midsize city and the capital of Granma province, is considered the birthplace of Cuban independence. The himno nacional, or national anthem, was first sung here after the city was seized by the Liberating Army and became the capital of the Republic at Arms in 1869. South of Bayamo, the Sierra Maestra, a national park comprising a spectacularly verdant and rugged range that reaches right down to the Caribbean coast, is where Fidel Castro and his band of rebels sneaked back into Cuba in 1956 after a period of exile in Mexico. The rebels hid in the mountains, depending upon the assistance of sympathetic guajiros (peasants), and based their long-shot revolution there, covertly raising the antenna of Radio Rebelde and scoring decisive victories on the road to eventual triumph. How influential was the province as a turning point in 20th-century Cuban politics and society? Important enough that, after the Revolution, it received the name of the yacht in which Fidel and his brothers in arms sailed from Mexico, and the government-owned and operated national daily newspaper is also named after the boat: Read all about it in Granma.
Today, Bayamo and the Sierra Maestra are considerably better known for their historical associations than they are as travel destinations. Bayamo is pleasant and peaceful, but its citizens and well-maintained colonial structures don't really try too hard to impress visitors, making it a tranquil stopover. Meanwhile, much of the Sierra Maestra remains difficult to penetrate due to controlled access. However, it is relatively simple and rewarding to trace the revolutionary steps of Fidel and Che Guevara, visiting the fascinating installations of the rebel group -- preserved as they were in the tense days of the late 1950s -- tucked high in the mountains. The dramatic coastline that bends around the southeastern base of the Oriente, where the mountains scrape the edge of the sparkling Caribbean, makes an excellent, if time-consuming, ground approach to Santiago de Cuba, and is worth the trip for the scenic value alone. Hurricane damage has blasted the roads in part but it is passable if a little hair-raising at times. A handful of package tourism hotels are perched on the rocky coast, where the sands aren't much to speak of, but the incomparable sea and mountain views, and diving and hiking opportunities -- not to mention very favorable package prices -- more than compensate for that.
Bayamo -- The second Spanish city founded in Cuba in 1513, as Villa de San Salvador de Bayamo, is small and quiet for a provincial capital. The laid-back town welcomes relatively few visitors, except for day-trippers, and locals refrain from hassling foreign visitors -- unless it involves singing the Cuban national anthem for you, the city's pride and joy.
Bayamo grew wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries from contraband and later sugar and cattle. Many of the local elite were privileged enough to send young men off to Spain and France to study, and a number of them returned with enlightened ideals about colonialism and a strong desire for Cuban independence. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819-74) was a wealthy businessman who, in 1868, freed his slaves and formed a small army that set about achieving that goal. The movement was known as the Grito de Yara, a call for independence or death. His forces succeeded in capturing Bayamo and giving life to the War of Independence against Spain. The rebels held Bayamo for 3 months until it was evident that the superior numbers of Spanish troops would soon defeat them. Rather than surrender, the rebel army audaciously chose to burn the city, in the ultimate act of sedition. Most of the city was wiped out by this act of self-immolation in 1869.