Camagüey (pop: 772,000) has been politically and historically important since the beginning of the 16th century and still has a lot of well-preserved colonial buildings, most dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many generations of revolutionaries have been associated with Camagüey and several key figures are commemorated, the most notable being Ignacio Agramonte, who was killed in action in 1873.
It was originally called Puerto Príncipe, until 9 June 1903. The village of Santa María de Puerto del Príncipe was first founded in 1515 at Punta del Guincho in the Bahía de Nuevitas but moved several times until it was finally established between the Río Tínima and the Río Hatibonico. Moving inland was no protection against pirate attacks. It was the target of the Englishman Henry Morgan in 1668 and of French pirates led by François Granmont in 1679. Architects took the precaution of designing the layout to foil pirate attacks. No two streets run parallel, to create a maze effect, which is most unlike other colonial towns built on the grid system.
Nuestra Señora de la Merced, a National Monument on Av Agramonte on the edge of the Plaza de los Trabajadores, was built in 1747 as a church and convent, the catacomb can still be seen. The original wooden cross on the bell tower was moved into the catacombs in 1999. On the walls are 17th and 18th-century paintings, but the most important treasure in the church is the Santo Sepulcro constructed in 1762 with the donation of 23,000 silver coins.
San Juan de Dios, another National Monument, was built in 1728 as a church with a hospital attached, the first hospital in the village for men which also contained a home for the aged. Apparently this is the only church in Latin America which has the Holy Trinity as its central image. On 12 May 1813 the body of Ignacio Agramonte was deposited in the hospital for identification before being taken to the cemetery. There are plans to turn it into a luxury hotel.
Museo Provincial Ignacio Agramonte, first built as a cavalry barracks in 1848 was inaugurated on 23 December 1955 (the anniversary of Agramonte’s birth). There are exhibitions of history, natural history, paintings and furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, but nothing special. Av de los Mártires 2 esquina Ignacio Sánchez. Tue-Sat 0900-1700, Sun 0800-1200, US$2.
At the Museo Casa Natal Ignacio Agramonte you have an obligatory guided tour in Spanish with exhaustive explanation of every single document on display. Only for serious students of revolutionary history. Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz, a cattle rancher, one of the national heroes of the struggle against the Spanish, was born here on 23 December 1841. Av Ignacio Agramonte 49, T97116. Tue-Sat 1000-1800, US$2.
Santa Lucía is a beach resort 112 km northeast, or two hours by bus, from Camagüey, where the sand stretches some 20 km along the northern coast near the Bahía de Nuevitas. This is a beautiful beach, protected by an offshore reef which contains over 50 species of coral and is much sought after by divers. The water is clear and warm, with an average temperature of 24°C. Diving is run by Marlin, which also has an underwater photo and video centre, T36404.
There are 37 dive sites at depths of 5-40m in the area including a daily shark feeding site where up to 20 sharks congregate; some of them swim in between the divers. Contact Shark’s Friends dive centre. It is a lovely place to come and relax but be aware that it is remote, there is no real town as such, and people who stay here are on all-inclusive package tours for a week or so and see little of Cuba. 8 km from Santa Lucía is Playa Los Cocos, which is even better than Santa Lucía. The sand here is very white and the water crystal clear. There are some bars and seafood restaurants.
Across the channel, west of Playa Los Cocos, is Cayo Sabinal, reached by road from Nuevitas or by boat, with Seafaris, from Santa Lucía. There are beautiful beaches of white sand which are practically deserted and the cay is a wildlife reserve housing the largest colony of pink flamingos in the Caribbean, plus many other birds which are rare or endangered elsewhere.