Cuba’s third largest city, Holguin, registers on the radar of travelers who are visiting the beautiful beaches of Guardalavaca, located about 50 kilometers north of the city.
But a swing through Holguin’s pretty and clean historical center is also worth your time if you’ve made it this far east in Cuba.
Holguin’s hillside overlook and shrine – called the Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) – is the crown jewel of the city.
You can grab a taxi or climb 458 steps from town to the top of the hill, where a bar, perched some 850 feet above sea level, overlooks the verdant hills surrounding the city.
The hill gets its name from the wooden cross placed here in 1790 by a Franciscan friar, and Cubans still leave offerings and light candles at the shrine.
Pope Francis even made an appearance here to bless the city in 2015 during his historic trip to the island.
Back down the hill in town, enjoy the well-preserved art deco buildings around the Parque Galixto Garcia, one of Holguin’s many parks, and pose for a photo in front of the pre-Revolution Eddy Suñol Theater.
For an excellent meal at a paladar (a family-run restaurant) in the historic city center, take a short walk from Parque Galixto Garcia to 1920 Restaurante & Bar, where tasty dishes such as grilled octopus, Serrano ham and the classic Cuban rice dish called congris are on the inexpensive menu.
Just under an hour’s drive from Holguin, you’ll reach the spectacular beaches of Guardalavaca, where a smattering of all-inclusive hotels lines the white sands.
Rent a Hobie cat or pedal boat to explore the turquoise seas, or join the locals picnicking on the sand with bottles of Havana Club rum, and Reggaeton music at the ready.
Another worthy day trip from Holguin takes you about an hour northeast of the city along rutted roads to the colonial town of Gibara.
Christopher Columbus made landfall here in 1492 and loved the town so much he stayed for 12 days.
The 19th century was Gibara’s golden age, and you can still see some of the original homes from that era around town.
Take a walk through the small parks and historic center, or join a local guide to explore the area’s famous caves.
Then, head to the outskirts of town to La Cueva Taina, a fabulous family-run seafood restaurant in a farm-like setting, where the mojitos are strong and the Mesa Gibareña (set menu) includes a spread of stuffed land crabs, whole snapper, grilled shrimp, tostones, and more.
In no time, you’ll be raising a glass to veering off the well-worn tourist path in Cuba, and experiencing all that Holguin has to offer.
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