Predating both Havana and Santiago, and cast for time immemorial as the city that kick-started Cuban independence, Bayamo has every right to feel self-important. Yet somehow it doesn't. The city's affectionate name-tag, ciudad de los coches (coches means horsecarts) is a far more telling appraisal of its ambiance: an easygoing, slow-paced, trapped-in-time place that is less about industrial drive and more about, well, horses. Cuba's balmiest provincial capital resounds to the clip-clop of hooves and an estimated 40% of the population utilize the four-legged friends each day for getting about.
That's not to say that bayameses aren't aware of their history. 'Como España quemó a Sagunto, así Cuba quemó a Bayamo,' ('As the Spanish burnt Sagunto, the Cubans burnt Bayamo,') wrote José Martí in the 1890s, highlighting the sacrificial role that Bayamo has played in Cuba's convoluted historical development. But while the self-inflicted 1869 fire might have destroyed many of the city's classic colonial buildings (don't worry – there's still plenty left), it didn't undermine its underlying spirit or its long-standing traditions.
Today, Bayamo is known for its cerebral chess players (Céspedes was the Kasparov of his day) and Saturday night street parties, often to the theme tune of antiquated street organs (imported via Manzanillo). All three are on show at the weekly Fiesta de la Cubanía, one of the island's most authentic street shows – bayamés to its core.