The following are the most common and easily accessible side trips from Guardalavaca. Though it may seem unfair to characterize the largest city and provincial capital, Holguín, as a day trip from the beach, the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of visitors to this section of northeastern Cuba have sun and surf on their minds.
56km (35 miles) SW of Guardalavaca; 734km (456 miles) E of Havana; 134km (83 miles) NW of Santiago de Cuba
The provincial capital, officially called San Isidoro de Holguín, may be known across Cuba as the "city of parks," but it doesn't get a whole lot of tourist traffic, which also makes it appealing. Holguín is a pleasant but unremarkable city with only a modicum of attractions. Still, it makes a good day trip for resort visitors who would otherwise see nothing of Cuba save Guardalavaca's all-inclusive hotels and brilliant beaches.
Holguín, the fourth-largest city in Cuba, has a compact center that's easy enough to get around; visitors can manage the highlights in an unhurried day. The city's few elegant plazas, colonial buildings, and small dose of museums do not rival the highlights of Trinidad or Camagüey, and much of the city's historical character has been subsumed by industrial expansion. The great majority of the city's buildings date from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pleasant Parque Calixto García (also called Parque Central), named for a 19th-century patriot, represents the heart of the city. The hero of the wars of independence is paid tribute with a large marble statue in the park's center. Benches are usually occupied by locals watching the town and time pass by. Two nearby churches of note are the domed Iglesia de San José (on Plaza Carlos Manuel de Céspedes), which has an unusual baroque interior to go with its remade neoclassical facade, and the imposing 18th-century La Catedral de San Isidro de Holguín (Calle Mandulay, on Parque de las Flores), which features mudéjar (Moorish-style) carved wooden ceilings.
Of special note in Holguín is the unusual Familia Cuayo Fábrica de Organos, Carretera a Gibara 301 (tel. 24/42-4162), a studio that still produces handmade órganos pneumáticos (air-compression organs) with hand-cut music sheets, and restores musical instruments -- perhaps the very last of a breed. Eighteen workers make only four organs per year. A large organ, for which there is today a very limited market, costs about CUC$23,148. It would be wise to call before visiting because in summer 2010, work on the organs had ceased. Another interesting stop is the Fábrica de Muñecas, Carretera a Gibara 562 e/Narcisco López y Cervantes, Cuba's only doll factory; here, clay dolls -- dressed in 46 different costumes -- are made for the tourist trade. It's open Monday to Friday 7am-5:30pm; tips are appreciated.
La Loma de Cruz (Hill of the Cross), 3km (1 3/4 miles) north of the city, can be climbed by ascending the nearly 500 steps to the top, where there's a wooden cross that was placed there in 1790. Though the often-windy hill has excellent views of Holguín in the flat valley and the surrounding countryside, the hilltop is a little forlorn. The Mirador de Mayabe is the other acclaimed viewpoint, about 10km (6 miles) from the city center. On the hill, Cerro de Mayabe, is a hotel and restaurant.
Holguín's Cabaret Nuevo Nocturno, Carretera Central Vía Las Tunas, km 2.5 (tel. 24/42-9345), is an open-air cabaret show. Its Corazón Caribeño show (Wed-Mon, 9pm-2am) is very professional and entertaining, considerably better than the ones put on nightly by the all-inclusive hotels in Guardalavaca. Afterward, the stage becomes a hopping dance club. Admission is CUC$10, or you can buy a package at any of the hotel tour desks for around CUC$30, which includes transportation from your hotel and a cocktail.
The Villa Liba, C/ Maceo 46 esquina 18 (tel. 24/42-3823; email@example.com), is a 1950s mansion, decorated with original furniture, that has been converted into a wonderful casa particular. Relax on the interior patio fragranced by mariposa flowers. The owner, Jorge Mezerene, who is of Lebanese descent, cooks with organic ingredients and is known for his vegetarian food. His wife Mariela is a yoga and reiki practitioner who can offer massages to guests.
35km (22 miles) N of Holguín
A sleepy, charming, early-19th-century provincial port, Gibara -- sometimes referred to as La Villa Blanca, or the White Village, due to its one-time whitewashed appearance -- is home to a number of fine colonial buildings. Unfortunately, Hurricane Ike pummeled Gibara in 2008, and many historic attractions are still waiting to be restored. Today, Gibara, a modest fishing town, has great scenery and overlooks a wide natural bay, with a very tranquil atmosphere. Two pretty little beaches and a malecón (promenade) line the picturesque bay, and inland is the Silla de Gibara, a flat-topped mountain that locals claim is the hill described by Columbus when he first happened upon Cuba (it is much more probable that he landed in Baracoa, much farther east of here, and that the mountain described in his journal is El Yunque).
On the top of Los Caneyes hill are the ruins of an old fortress, which protected merchants involved in trade with Europe and the U.S. (a 30-min. walk up the hill rewards hikers with excellent views of the town and bay). Trade soon diminished with the introduction of the railroad, and the fortunes of Gibara suffered, leading to an exodus of a significant portion of its population. Gibara's moment in the sun is still reflected in the handful of grand mansions and public buildings.
The main plaza, Calixto García, is marked by an attractive yellow church, San Fulgencio, which dates back to 1850 and has red-tiled cupolas and African oak trees. Of greatest interest is the Museo de Artes Decorativas, Independencia 19 (tel. 24/43-4687), housed in an impressive neoclassical house constructed in 1872. The sumptuous mansion, which once belonged to an elite merchant, was severely damaged by the hurricane and has yet to reopen. Its saved features include huge mediopunto stained-glass windows, yellow and blue tiles, and quality period furnishings. Museum staff may be happy to show you the unique-in-Cuba 1910 alfiletero, an egg-shaped needle store with a tiny panorama of a Jordanian scene viewed through a tiny pin-sized viewer in its "shell." Also of note is the well-known mixed media picture, La Copa del Amor (1872), which features human hair. Lovers Adolfo Ferrin and Ygnacia Nates were separated as he traveled for work. On his return he found his betrothed gravely ill. After 17-year-old Ignacia died (of typhus), local businessman Adolfo asked her father if he could cut some of her hair to incorporate into a picture. La Copa del Amor depicts the tomb of Ygnacia in the Gibara cemetery, shaded by the branches of the sauce llorón tree. The tree, with its branches -- made of hair and tree -- is seen as a tree of tears. After a visit to the cemetery, climb the steps to the mirador for an attractive view of the town's rooftops.
Gibara holds the annual Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre (www.cubacine.cu/cinepobre) in April, and there's the Cine Jibe on the main plaza, the star screen in town.
The Hostal La Muralla near Parque Colón, Calle Joaquin Aguero 77 (tel. 24/84-4848; firstname.lastname@example.org), is a comfortable place to stay with a great back patio, plentiful food, and a relaxing bedroom.
For all intents and purposes, there's no public transportation available to tourists connecting either Holguín or Guardalavaca to Gibara. This is just as well, since it is quick and convenient to take a taxi there and back for around CUC$22 to CUC$24. Gibara is also featured as a day trip by most of the tour operators in Guardalavaca and can be visited with Cubatur from Holguín (tel. 24/42-1679) for CUC$10 per person (minimum four people)
130km (81 miles) SE of Guardalavaca
This pristine cay, on the eastern side of the Bahía de Nipe, isn't terribly easy to get to, but if isolated and totally unpopulated, sugar-white cove beaches and wild game are of interest to you, it might be worth the effort. This erstwhile exclusive game resort was once the private stomping and hunting grounds of Cuba's military and political brass. The cay has an exceptional roster of flora and fauna, which includes not only deer and wild boar, but also a wild collection of exotics such as antelopes, ostrich, water buffalo, and zebras. Most excursions include snorkeling, boat rides, jeep safaris, horseback riding, and lunch on the beach. While this place is billed as an ecotourist getaway, this seems to include stalking semicaptive and imported game under the rubric of "ecotourism." There's only one hotel on the cay, Villa Cayo Saetía ★ (tel. 24/516900; www.gaviota-grupo.com), with just a dozen simple, yet tasteful rooms and cabanas. Cayo Saetía is about 90 minutes from Guardalavaca by jeep and just 20 minutes by helicopter (the preferred method of transport). Contact Gaviota Tours (tel. 24/43-0434), which runs the place, or any of the hotels or travel agencies in Guardalavaca. A great option is to take the catamaran cruise around the coast to the cayo, and enjoy lunch and a jeep safari among the wild animals, CUC $69.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.