Excursions to all the places listed below, as well as to Guantánamo and Baracoa, can be arranged at the tour desks found in most hotels, or with tour agencies.
Castillo El Morro
15km (9 miles) S of Santiago de Cuba
Guarding the entrance to the Bahía de Santiago, this seemingly impregnable fortress is built atop a rocky promontory and entered across a formidable drawbridge. The medieval and Renaissance-style structure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a warren of platforms, passageways, and cells spread across five levels and protected by 1.5m-thick (5-ft.) walls. It was engineered in 1638 by the Italian architect who built similar fortresses in Havana, as well as Cartagena, Colombia and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to protect against pirate attacks (which it didn't do so well, as pirates including Henry Morgan succeeded in ransacking the place).
The site, where the sun beats down unrelentingly, has magnificent views of the bay and the Caribbean coastline stretching all the way to the Sierra Maestra. Inside the fortress, built above a dry moat, is a sparse museum (with display explanations in Spanish only) detailing the history of piracy, El Morro, and Santiago de Cuba. One room contains artifacts related to the 1898 Spanish-American War -- its principal naval battles were fought right in the Bay of Santiago. The 19 modern American ships sank all seven Spanish ships; ironically, the Spanish ship Cristóbal Colón was the last to sink, thus closing the door on the history of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.
A daily ceremony, called the Puesta del Sol, takes place at sunset daily (if it rains, it's cancelled), recalling the importance of the fortress in the 19th century. Youngsters dressed as mambises, or members of the Cuban rebel army, lower the flag and shoot off the ancient (ca. 1805) Spanish cannon to cries of "¡Viva Cuba Libre!" Visiting El Morro for the day-ending ceremony, when it has cooled off some, is an excellent idea. You'll need about an hour to tour the complex. Avoid the hours of 11am to 4pm at all costs.
To get there, an organized excursion or a car or taxi is required. The Castillo El Moro is open daily from 8am-7:20pm; admission is CUC$4, and an additional CUC$1 to take photos and CUC$1 to take video. Free guided tours are available in English, French, and Italian. For more information, call tel. 22/69-1569.
Basílica del Cobre
18km (11 miles) W of Santiago de Cuba
The most important shrine for Cubans and the most famous church in the country is lodged in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra near the old copper mines that give it its name. The triple-domed church with the name of El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, built in 1927, rises on Maboa hill and is photogenically framed by green forest. The faithful come from across Cuba on pilgrimages to pay their respects to (and ask for protection from) a black Madonna, the Virgen de la Caridad (Virgin of Charity). She is nothing less than the protectress of Cuba, and her image, cloaked in a glittering gold robe, can be seen throughout the country. Her parallel figure in Afro-Cuban worship is Ochún, goddess of love and femininity, who is also dark-skinned and dressed in bright yellow garments. In 1998, the pope visited and blessed the shrine, calling the Virgin "La Reina de los Cubanos" (Queen of Cubans), and donated a rosary and crown.
According to legend, the statue of Cuba's patron saint was discovered bobbing in the Bay of Nipe in 1611 by three young fishermen (or miners, depending on who's telling the story) about to capsize in a storm. The Madonna wore a sign that read YO SOY LA VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD (I am the Virgin of Charity). With the wooden statue in their grasp, the fishermen miraculously made it to shore. Pilgrims, who often make the last section of the trek on their knees, pray to her image and place votos (mementos) and offerings of thanks for her miracles; among them are small boats and prayers for those who have tried to make it to Florida on rafts. Ernest Hemingway -- whose fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea made a promise to visit the shrine if he could only land his marlin -- donated his Nobel Prize in Literature to the shrine, but it was stolen (and later recovered, but never again to be exhibited here). The Virgin sits on the second floor, up the back stairs, encased in glass. When Mass is being said, the push of a button turns the Virgin around to face the congregation. The annual pilgrimage is September 8, and the patron saint's feast day is July 25. The Basílica is open daily from 6am to 6:30pm; admission is free.
You can take a taxi to El Cobre for CUC$25 round-trip, but an agency tour is cheaper. The no. 2 bus runs between Santiago and El Cobre four times daily, leaving from the main bus station in Santiago. To enhance the spiritual experience, or to merely have a serene and incredibly cheap overnight stay, there's an inn behind the church, Hospedería de la Caridad, which welcomes foreigners who abide by the strict rules (10pm curfew and repeated requests for quiet); a stay costs a mere 40 national pesos (CUC$1.60) a night. There are only 15 austere, but well-kept rooms; it's necessary to reserve by phone (tel. 22/34-6246) at least 15 days in advance as it's so popular. There's a large, breezy dining room too.
La Gran Piedra & La Isabelica
27km (17 miles) E of Santiago de Cuba
A tortuous coastal road east of Santiago ascends the mountains to La Gran Piedra (The Big Rock), an enormous 25m-high (82-ft.) rock perched 1,200m (3,937 ft.) above sea level. You can climb a half-hour on foot to the top of the rock for a panoramic view of thickly wooded eastern Cuba and the majestic Sierra Maestra that extends to the Caribbean and as far as the eye can see. The air is much sweeter and cooler than in Santiago. Admission is CUC$2, which includes a drink. Near the foot of the trail is the modest Gran Piedra (tel. 22/68-6147; www.islazul.cu; CUC$20 double), a rustic little hotel with a restaurant, as well as the Jardín Ave de Paraíso, a small botanical garden with birds of paradise and other flowers. The garden is open daily 8am to 5pm, and admission is CUC$1.
About 2km (1 1/4 miles) beyond Gran Piedra, a passable dirt track leads to Museo La Isabelica, Carretera de la Gran Piedra Km 14, an early-19th-century coffee plantation finca (country house) that once was the property of newly arrived French immigrants who fled Haiti after the slave revolt there in 1791. The owner named La Isabelica for his mistress (and later wife), a beautiful slave. The house was a stone mansion built in the style of rural French manor houses in Haiti. It was one of about 60 coffee plantations in the area, which proved very hospitable for planting coffee beans. The 200 Arabica coffee plantations in the region helped Cuba become the number-one coffee producer in the world until 1850, when it was surpassed by Brazil. These Franco-Haitian plantations were recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On the premises of La Isabelica is a workshop, along with the original furniture and slave instruments. The house has recently been renovated and provides a glimpse into the life of the period. It's open daily 8am to 4pm; admission is CUC$1.
Gran Parque Natural Baconao
25km (16 miles) SE of Santiago de Cuba
A UNESCO biosphere reserve, Parque Baconao is spread over some 40km (25 miles). The local dark-sand beaches are scruffy and the hotels are isolated, but the park hides a number of attractions, several of them man-made, for visitors with a couple of extra days in Santiago.
The road leading southeast out of Santiago is lined with 26 monuments to revolutionary heroes who died in the attack on the Moncada barracks. About 10km (6 miles) east is the Valle de la Prehistoria, Carretera Baconao Km 6.5 (tel. 22/63-9239), Cuba's very own Jurassic Park -- a lifeless and cheesy attraction. Lodged on farmlands are 250 massive life-size statues of dinosaurs and a giant, club-wielding Stone Age man. The park is open daily from 8am to 5pm; admission is CUC$1. Nearby, in a nod to more recent history, the Museo Nacional del Transporte (Automobile Museum), Carretera Baconao Km 8.5 (tel. 22/63-9197), has a decent number of old cars, some more valuable and in better shape than others. One vehicle, a 1951 Chevrolet, was driven by Fidel's brother Raúl to the Moncada attack (he got lost); a Cadillac on view belonged to the legendary singer Beny Moré. The museum's collection of vintage American cars has been built by the novel practice of offering Cubans new Russian-built Ladas for their old Cadillacs and Chevys. Next door is a collection of several thousand model and Matchbox cars. The museum is open daily from 8am to 5pm; admission is CUC$1; an extra CUC$1 is charged to take photos.
On the coast, at Km 27.5, is the Acuario Baconao (tel. 22/35-6264), a rather sad little aquarium that runs daily dolphin and sea lion shows. Admission is CUC$7. You can also swim with the dolphins for around 15 minutes for CUC$40.
Tour operators can arrange day trips to some of the southern coastal resorts. As Siboney, the nearest beach, is not the most attractive, the best of these would be to the Brisas Sierra del Mar. A full-day trip at an all-inclusive resort, with transfers and food, costs CUC$23.
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.