The Ruta del Cafe is an initiative launched in Oriente, the eastern province of Cuba, to promote the heritage of coffee production in the region.
Coffee growing, production and exporting have been a key feature of the Oriente region of Cuba for almost 200 years. When Haitian independence was declared in the wake of the French Revolution, French coffee plantation owners fled to this southeastern corner of the island with their slaves. Over 600 coffee farms were set up in this region as well as in other mountainous areas of Cuba. Santiago de Cuba was already a well established city for business, the most developed in Cuba at the time, and local merchants would buy the coffee beans ready for export. Oriente was undoubtedly the hub of the Cuban coffee industry throughout the 1800s.
However, it began to decline when Cuba revolted against the Spanish during the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) and the Independence War of 1895. France gave their support to Spain against the Mambises, the Cuban guerrilla fighters, and many French owned plantations were subsequently burned to the ground by the Mambises and the hacienda buildings abandoned. More than 170 plantation ruins can be found in the Sierra Maestra mountains nowadays and some can be visited. There are now only small scale farms producing coffee beans, mainly for export, and coffee production is nowhere near as lucrative as it once was.
The influx of the French in the late 1790s changed the cultural face of the city of Santiago de Cuba enormously. The introduction of French patois spoken by the Haitian slaves can still be heard in traditional songs, and French high society dances blended with African rhythms and instruments became the basis of La Tumba Francesa, which was given Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO in 2003. One of Cuba’s top dance and music companies, Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, are key exponents of this style of dance and music, along with the Tumba Francesa heritage centre in the heart of the historic area of Santiago de Cuba.
Three key locations in the Ruta del Cafe document the importance of the coffee industry in Oriente region.
La Isabelica lies just one hour from Santiago de Cuba, in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, close to the Gran Piedra botanical garden. This was the very first museum founded by the government of Fidel Castro after the triumph of the revolution in January 1959. It can be visited all year round, weather permitting, and is a unique museum explaining the history of coffee tradition and the French cultural heritage in this area with the original hacienda building and the walls of the coffee plantation clearly visible. On a day trip from Santiago de Cuba you can climb up to the top of the Gran Piedra, a huge erratic rock on a high hill just 1km from La Isabelica, to enjoy views over the coast and surrounding countryside. It is said that on a clear night you can even see the lights of Haiti in the distance from here. There is a small coffee house in Santiago de Cuba called La Isabelica where you can enjoy a good cup of local coffee.
La Fraternidad, a recently fully restored plantation house with extensive grounds, is a 90 minute drive from Santiago de Cuba. La Fraternidad comprises a magnificent colonial style building with a large water driven mill adjacent, set in fertile rolling countryside with small settlements scattered along a dirt road. Banana, pineapple and cocoa farms line the main road and in season the produce is sold on the roadside. The house and coffee mill were built in 1836 and produced coffee beans which were exported to Europe for roasting. The climate in this area was too humid to process the beans locally as the flavour may have been compromised before exporting and so the dry beans were taken to Santiago de Cuba port to be shipped across the Atlantic. It is possible to visit La Fraternidad and walk around the former home of the plantation owner and his family, see the ingenious water channel over a small viaduct to drive the mill wheel and explore the extensive drying areas where beans were left out in the sunshine to dry naturally.
Another interesting location associated with Oriente coffee heritage is Casa Dranguet, constructed between 1859 and 1861 by Carlos Dranguet, a landowner descended from French settlers who fled Haiti for refuge in Cuba. This magnificent building with a large open central patio is located in central Santiago, just one block from Parque Cespedes. It is now a lovely, shady cafe/restaurant where visitors can have coffee in many forms, delicious ice creams and snacks. They also have a range of cultural activities that take place here on different days of the week. Casa Dranguet also acts as the Centre for the Interpretation and Dissemination of Coffee Cultural Heritage and houses a fascinating exhibition about coffee history in the region.
All of the above locations can be included in our Santiago de Cuba based trips to give an insight into this fascinating aspect of local culture and history and we look forward to sharing our love of this region with you.