We’re two months into the new year, but COVID-19 is unfortunately still going strong. Though vaccines are finally being distributed worldwide —with Cuba recently announcing that it will offer to vaccinate tourists— health protocols like avoiding crowds, mask-wearing, and social distancing remain in place. Despite two rounds of flight restrictions and another lockdown for Havana in an effort to curb the island’s uptick in COVID-19 cases, travel to Cuba is still possible. But once the lockdown is lifted, what exactly will there be to do when bars, clubs, and interprovincial travel are restricted or off-limits? Fear not, for there is a solution: a free walking Guanabacoa tour!
Guanabacoa, founded in 1554 as “Pueblo de Indios” (“Town of Indians”), is located in the eastern part of Havana. As one of the oldest municipalities of the capital, it has a rich and exciting history full of British invasion and visits by national hero José Martí, to name just some of the highlights. Guanabacoenses are known for being extremely proud of their heritage, and it was this pride–along with good, old-fashioned curiosity–that a few years ago led fifth-year university student Hamed Toledo to do a deep dive into the area’s history.
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“I was born and raised in Guanabacoa, and spent a lot of my adolescence around people who really valued its culture and lamented its present-day crisis,” Hamed shares. “That and my own interest led me to start a cultural magazine to rescue the identity and patrimony of Guanabacoa. The magazine required me to study the area more, and as I researched, I became more interested in Guanabacoa’s singularities.”
In the end, the magazine didn’t gain much popularity, but Hamed didn’t give up on his investigation. He frequently spoke with historians and took trips to the archive of the Museo Histórico de Guanabacoa —itself a historical landmark— where he read countless documents detailing the founding and development of Guanabacoa. After a friend who also gives free tours suggested Hamed give it a try, he happily obliged.
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“I’ve basically been giving free tours of Guanabacoa and La Habana for years, showing around foreign friends visiting Cuba,” he laughs. “My desire to once again do something in Guanabacoa that would reclaim its culture convinced me to try giving tours to help highlight our identity and the decline it’s currently experiencing.”
When asked how COVID-19 factors into the equation, Hamed explained that while the pandemic has directly affected the formal tourism industry in Cuba —which last year made up almost 11% of the island’s GDP and is traditionally its second largest source of revenue— it’s created an abundance of opportunities for “gurus” like him to give free tours. It’s also taken the pressure off, allowing him to meet up with friends and use them as trial audiences while tourism is experiencing a quiet spell.
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“I’m new at this,” Hamed says, “but as far as I know, there have never been tour routes of this kind in Guanabacoa. I’m a regular entrepreneur!”
In the future, Hamed hopes to grow his Freetour operation, starting a local union of guides with different routes. He’d also like to embark on other projects that develop the infrastructure necessary for further ventures, ensuring first and foremost that the guide group remains autonomous and continues to make a social contribution through its work. But, he says, that will all take time. For now, his focus is on perfecting his current Free Tour route.
“Guanabacoa is a magical place, full of legends and stories that transcend the local culture,” Hamed says in closing. “It’s experiencing a bit of a decline, but even full of ruins it still conserves its beauty and vitality. It’s really a spiritual refuge with its own life, just waiting to be discovered.”
How to Get There: Guanabacoa is easily accessible by private taxi for 70-75 CUP, or about $3 USD. For a cheaper option, hop on either a Ruta 6 or Ruta 13 taxi rutero —a shared taxi with fixed routes— for just 15 CUP. Given COVID-19 conditions, taxis are probably the safest form of transportation, and the most direct. That said, if the guaguas don’t seem too packed and you don’t mind the scenic route, A50, A95, and P15 buses provide service to Guanabacoa for just 2 CUP, or about $0.08 USD.
The Tour: The tour, booked online, starts at 10:30am at the Parque de Guanabacoa and lasts about 1 hour and 45 minutes. This makes it the perfect mid-morning activity, leaving you the afternoon to explore Guanabacoa on your own or head over to your next adventure after lunch! Note that the tour is presently only offered in Spanish, so if your español is a little rusty, consider bringing along a Spanish-to-English dictionary. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your cell phone or camera to take advantage of all the great photo opps!
Cost: The tour is completely free. However, if you’d like to provide some kind of monetary compensation for the experience —a gesture that can go a long way in Cuba— you can always leave a tip. If you choose to do so, I’d recommend something in the range of $3-5 USD per person in your group.
Top 5 Sights to See in Guanabacoa with Guru Hamed:
- La Casa de las Cadenas
While it may not seem like much today, La Casa de las Cadenas actually has a pretty neat backstory. After a hurricane destroyed the roof of the local church, the owner of La Casa took it upon himself to care for the church relics. In return, he was granted a favor by the king of Spain that stipulated that any fugitive from justice or enslaved person who touched the chains hanging on the facade of the house would be under the jurisdiction of the owner and given sanctuary.
- El Museo Histórico de Guanabacoa
El Museo Histórico de Guanabacoa was the first local museum built in Cuba, by José Luis Llerena. Llerena is also credited with the museological rescue of African culture, which contributed to the recognition of the role of African culture in both local Guanabacoan and national Cuban history.
- Abakuá Temple
Guanabacoa is known as the municipality with the most Abakuá temples, like the one pictured above. Founded in the early nineteenth century, the Abakuá brotherhood started as a secret society of African enslaved people in Cuba. However, it quickly expanded its membership to include all Black males and developed its own Afro-Cuban religious and cultural traditions, which are still alive and well today.
- La Loma de la Cruz
La Loma de la Cruz, or Hill of the Cross, gets its name from the tall cross built at its peak in homage to José Bichat. Bichat, an indigenous man and fervent Christian, was an almost legendary figure who lived on the slopes of the hill. La Loma de la Cruz is a popular site for much of Guanabacoa’s various religious groups to hold ceremonies and make offerings, and it provides one of the most beautiful views of Havana.
- Los Jardines de la Cotorra
Los Jardines de la Cotorra were established by the owner of a mineral-water bottling plant installed on the slopes of the Loma de la Cruz, which is known for its rich springs. During the Republican period in Cuba, many national civic and recreational activities took place here. It fell into disuse until a state cooperative recently took it over, building a restaurant and park complete with playground equipment, flowers, and exotic birds on the property.