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Elegant and old, this relatively hush city spells oasis to the traveler weary of confrontation. Predating both Havana and Santiago, it has been cast for time immemorial as the city that kick-started Cuban independence. Yet self-important it isn't. The ciudad de los coches (city of horsecarts) is an easygoing, slow-paced, trapped-in-time place, where you're more likely to be quoted literature than sold trinkets. Cuba's balmiest provincial capital, it resounds to the clip-clop of hooves; nearly half the population use horses for daily travel.

Bayamo has played a sacrificial role in Cuba's convoluted historical development. '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. While an 1869 arson blaze destroyed many of the city's classic colonial buildings, there's still plenty left. Neither did it undermine Bayamo's intransigent spirit or its long-standing traditions.

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