Prior to the 1959 Revolution, the eastern half of Cuba was a single province, straightforwardly called El Oriente, or the East. Most Cubans still refer to everything east of Camagüey -- a region much more scenically and historically interesting than most of central Cuba -- as El Oriente, even though it is now composed of the distinct provinces of Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo. The region is less known and visited than the western half of Cuba, but every bit as rewarding for travelers (and perhaps more so). The farther east you go, the more emphatically Caribbean it feels. The region's remarkable landscapes include the north coast's exuberant banana and coconut groves, stunning aquamarine seas off Guardalavaca, densely wooded peaks of the Sierra Maestra, and tropical rainforest on the east coast.

The wars of independence began in El Oriente in the 1860s, and nearly a century later, Castro concentrated his power base in the inaccessible Sierra Maestra. Quiet but dignified Bayamo, which played a pivotal role in Cuba's revolutionary struggles, is the capital of Granma province. The gorgeous beaches and warm seas of Guardalavaca, part of Holguín province, make it the fastest-growing resort area in Cuba, while tiny, remote Baracoa, where Columbus first dropped anchor at the extreme northeastern edge of Guantánamo, is one of the most beautiful, rugged spots on the island. The former capital city of the Spanish colony, Santiago de Cuba, is not only known as a vibrant musical center, but also as the cradle of the Revolution; see chapter 11 for full coverage of Cuba's "Second City."

The eastern end of Cuba was especially hard hit from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in September 2008. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from Guantánamo province, including the popular tourist spot of Baracoa. In Holguín, the main areas affected were Banes and Gibara, and repairs to those damaged towns are still ongoing.