Travel Cities: Heroic Holguin


Why Holguin?

Tourists who are staying at the hotels in Guardalavaca, Playa Esmeralda or Playa Pesquero on Cuba's North coast may wonder if Holguin - the closest city - would be worth a visit.

Yes, it's true: Holguin boasts no major attraction, no national treasures… but it has a life of its own that may be worth a closer look:

Holguin is called the City of Parks. Three distinct, tree-lined squares form the City center - each with interesting architecture, museums, and the ubiquitous church. These squares and the streets connecting them have been restored in many places to render better vacation photos and to afford visitors pleasant walks with stops at various bars.

Holguin has some sights that are worth checking out: a cigar factory and the fabled cross at Loma de La Cruz high above Holguin. The true attraction, though, lies in walking the city's unpaved streets and watching a lifestyle from the past up close.

The fact that Holguin lacks decent night life has one major advantage: bored natives congregate in the parks, in bars and in restaurants on Saturday night - ready to party and turning the city center into an open-air party scene - free of charge.

Photo: Central park Galixta Garcia. All Holguin photos in this section by TravelAdmin.


The Vibe

Although Holguin's slogan reads, "Siempre adelante - Always ahead", you get the distinct impression that Holguin somehow got stuck in a previous century. The city center around Parque Calixto Garcia has modern buildings - but venture into any of the side streets and you'll find yourself on dirt roads, with ancient dwellings and citizens who pump their water at the local well.

This will amaze and even shock some people who just came from a hotel with every modern convenience including bidets. You may wonder what the Cubans say who work in the hotels... it must be a feeling of stepping from one world into another when they return home at night.

You have just discovered Holguin's essence: its vast contrasts. The bodegas are regularly out of milk, but the main department store sells flat-screen TVs. Your bartender friend lives in a crumbling 2-room dwelling but has a computer with an Intel chip. The banks are busy, but nobody accepts credit cards. Transportation is by horses, bicycles, and rickshaws - but you count at least 10 late-model cars parked in front of the CUC-only "Pico Cristal" restaurant.

The influx of tourist dollars or pesos has made it possible for Holguineros to catch up to our Western lifestyle - if not on an infrastructure level, then in their personal world. Don't underestimate Cubans: they may have limited electricity in their homes, but they are perfectly capable of figuring out an I-Pod.

Holguin... Siempre adelante, always ahead.

Photo: Restored street in the city center, bustling with activity.


The Night Vibe

Holguin is lacking the typical, colorful Cuban venues found in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey: there are no Malecons or City Boulevards, no transvestite strips, no cinema corners and no interconnecting colonnaded walkways in Holguin.

This has left Holguineros all the more ready to find their own entertainment.

Holguin's streets are alive late at night, even on weekdays. Little girls play jump rope (if they have one) and the boys baseball or football or soccer, whichever their improvised toys permit. Adults sit around and share a smoke, a beer, or conversation. This is where all those parks come in handy.

The people in Holguin are energetic and social. Bars, shops, and restaurants are well-attended, and the main streets are bustling with activity.

On Saturday nights, the main square - Calixto Garcia - is blasted with loud music from boomboxes mounted on one of the rooftops. Provocatively clad girls dance to the beat in the middle of the roadway. Young men stand in groups and smoke or gesture. They all seem to wait for something to happen.

What for? Maybe for the discos and clubs to re-open. Many discos in Holguin were closed for reasons unknown.

Hence the open-air amusement at the central park.

Photo: Dusk in Holguin City Center - soon, the park will be packed with people.


Where to hang out and/or book Accommodation


Holguin is not a city where tourist accommodation is clustered around attractions. Curiously, there are no tourist hotels in the vicinity of the three main squares. If you would like to stay in this area, your only option is a private Bed and Breakfast (Casa Particular).

Essentially, Holguin has 2 city centers: one around the 3 parks, and the other at the Plaza de Revolucion where you find the Stadium and the city's important tourist hotels: the Pernik and, a bit further east, hotel El Bosque.

Either of these locations is good to book accommodations. In both areas you find shops and eateries to cater to your basic needs.

Photo: Overlooking Holguin from the Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)



Holguin in a Day
HOLG-Cruz_enIf you are staying at one of the tourist hotels in Holguin's vicinity, you may want to consider booking an official tour to Holguin. This will give you an overview of what you can expect to see, and it will make it easier to gain entrance to certain attractions such as the cigar factory. Day visit on your own: - The best way is to take a taxi with an experienced driver. Start with the Cigar factory. You may have to wait for an official tour to arrive in order to be permitted inside. - Continue with "Hill of the Cross" (Loma de la Cruz) and have lunch at the restaurant on top of the mountain. Enjoy the beautiful views. - After lunch, head downtown to the three main city squares: Parque Julio Graves, Calixto Garcia, and San José. Enjoy their colonial architecture, churches and museums (if open). To get an idea about what Cubans can buy and how much it costs, tour the shopping center on Calixto Garcia and one of the smaller stores. - Stop at the outdoor bar Las Begonias for a drink (or at another bar if Begonias is full or closed). - Then, go to Revolution Square, the Stadium, and Hotel Pernik. Have a look at hotel El Bosque as well if you intend to stay at a hotel on your next visit to Holguin. Get out of the cab and walk the streets to get an idea of how Holguineros live. - End the evening at the main square Calixto Garcia with dinner at Pico Cristal or at a private restaurant (Paladar).

Photo: The fabled Cross at Cross Hill (Loma de la Cruz)


Holguin in 2 Days with Overnight

Unless you have Cuban friends to spend the evening with, you should consider an overnight stay in Holguin on a Friday or Saturday night so you can visit a cabaret or a disco (if one is open):

  • Cabaret Nocturno - Show, dinner and dancing. About 3km from Holguin's city center.
  • Disco in the Hotel Pernik
  • Disco in the Hotel El Bosque
  • Disco below the restaurant Pico Cristal (at Central Parque)

- You may want to consider stopping by the Casa de la Trova on the main square. This is a typical Cuban venue where Cuban bands - folklore, popular music, dance music - perform.

- If you are lucky, you can catch a classical performance in one of the theatres on Central Park.

- If the night is still young, have a nightcap at one of the bars surrounding the three main city squares.

Photo: Well preserved memento of the past or necessity? Both.


Recommended Travel Guides

Moon travel Cuba Handbook, by Christopher Baker


The Underbelly

Cuba is a poor country with challenging social and economic conditions, and Holguin is no exception.

On the positive side, the tourism trade in the province of Holguin has improved the economical lot of numerous Cubans living in the area. The downside is the envy of those who do not have access to tourism dollars, and their ardent desire to get their piece of the pie.

Resist the urge to show off jewelry, fancy watches, sunglasses, I-pods etc. in Holguin. Pickpockets are always on the lookout for targets, especially on the city's main squares on weekend nights. Parading valuables around may also incite anger in locals who are not as well off - with less than pretty results.

Like other urban centers in Cuba, Holguin has problems with illegal drugs. It's nowhere near as massive as in Mexico and you may never be exposed to it - but be aware that it's not a cooking utensil if you are offered pot.
Stay clear of any activity involving drugs in Cuba. Penalties are severe and Western governments can't do much for their denizens if drugs are involved. In Cuba you can get in trouble by merely associating with people involved in drugs, even if you didn't do anything illegal.

Prostitution is another major source of income for young Cubans. Although seduction and sex are ubiquitous in Cuba, they are illegal when payments or persons under 18 years of age are involved.

Cubans will try to tell you that, a) it's not prostitution in YOUR special case - they are attracted to you and want "it", but a gift (monetary or otherwise) would be appreciated to round up the experience; b) they may look young but are really already 18 years old, and c) if their Carnet de Identidad says they're only 16, that's okay too because the age of consent is 16 in Cuba.

Stay clear. Canadians and Europeans are rotting in Cuban jails because they only heard what they wanted to hear.

Cubans are skilled actors and have a whole repertoire of tricks up their sleeves. Be suspicious of charming Cubans approaching you, and:

  • Do NOT change money on the street.
  • Re-count your money at all exchange facilities, even at banks.
  • Check restaurant and bar bills carefully. Ask for the menu together with the bill to verify prices.
  • Ask cab drivers for the fare BEFORE getting into the cab.

Never walk into dark, unknown alleys, especially with people you just met.

Photo: Contrasts in Holguin: incredible beauty alongside poverty.


Tips from Insiders

- Holguin can get quite chilly in the winter (December, January and February) - bring warm clothes when traveling during those months as well as an umbrella.

- There are no really good tourist hotels in Holguin. Consider staying at a licensed Bed and breakfast ("Casa Particular"). Casa owners may also be able to cook meals for you, for a very reasonable price.

- For eating out, ask the locals for a Paladar (private restaurant): the food is better than in state-run restaurants, the service more pleasant, and the price more adequate.

- If you have a sensitive stomach, be careful with food purchased at roadside stands. They use tap water to process the food - which may be okay for Cubans but not for you.

- Money exchange: if you need a credit card advance or would like to pay with credit card at the main shopping center, you MUST take your passport.

Photo: Young Cuban boy looking down the long staircase from Loma de la Cruz.