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Wallfahrtskirche El Cobre, Bild: Matyas Rehak / shutterstock

El Cobre – the holiest place in Cuba

El Cobre is a small town in the southeast of Cuba, only about 20 kilometers from the country’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba. Mining has been carried out in the city since the 16th century. In the city’s nearby mine, the Spanish mined copper until 2000, when the mine was closed.

How to get to El Cobre

Santiago de Cuba Airport has international flight connections to the Spanish capital Madrid and Miami in Florida, among others. Domestic flights from the Cuban capital Havana take place several times a week. From there you can either take a rental car, bus or taxi to El Cobre. Of course, a visit to the basilica is a part of many tours offered in Santiago de Cuba. If you start your rental car tour through Cuba in Havana, you have a long journey to El Cobre ahead of you, because the small town is 850 km away from the capital of Cuba. On a three-week trip through the country, however, a visit to the small town should be possible without any problems and stress.

The most visited pilgrimage site in Cuba

The reason why three popes have already visited this small town in Cuba can be found in the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre. In this is the statue of the Merciful Virgin of Cobre (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre). According to legend, it was found floating in the sea by three fishermen. They pulled the supposed flotsam out of the water and at that moment the sea calmed down and was as smooth as glass. The statue of Mary contained the inscription “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” – in German “I am the Virgin of Mercy”. At home in Cobre, the fishermen built a shrine to the Virgin. In 1915, Pope Benedict XV declared the Virgin the Patron Saint of Cuba at the request of veterans of the Wars of Independence. The current church, in which the patron saint stands, was consecrated in 1927. The white basilica with its red roofs is enthroned on a hill above the city and can be seen from afar. Around it, lush, green hills rise up. To have a beautiful view over the city and the church, you can hike up one of the hills.

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Wishes come true

View into the interior of the pilgrimage church
View inside the pilgrimage church, Image: Sergey-73 / shutterstock

The patron saint of Cuba only leaves her place in the church for the procession, which takes place once a year in her honor. The Virgin of Mercy has always been visited by devout Christians and followers of the Santeria religion. They worship the Virgin as Ochún, a river goddess who stands for fertility. The pilgrims express their wishes to the Virgin and if they are fulfilled, they visit the Virgin again to express their thanks.

This is also a reason why many showcases display objects dedicated to the Virgin. In addition to crutches, baptismal gowns, there are numerous gold medals and trophies of famous athletes and sports jerseys. However, the most valuable items are kept under lock and key. These include the Nobel Prize medal of Ernest Hemingway and a golden partisan figure. Fidel Castro’s mother gave it to the virgin out of gratitude that her son survived the revolution unscathed.

Attractions around El Cobre

From El Cobre, you should not miss the opportunity to visit the big city of Santiago de Cuba. The pedestrian zone convinces with many markets, shops and of course colorful houses, which were built in colonial style. The national cemetery of the city of Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, where Fidel Castro was buried, is also a worthwhile destination. A highlight of the city is the UNESCO-listed fortress Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, which sits enthroned on the cliffs at the entrance to Santiago de Cuba Bay. The construction of the fortress was completed in the 17th century and took 42 years. The fortress was built to protect the city from pirate attacks, which lasted until the 18th century. The fortress, which was used as a prison in the meantime, consists of four levels. It has since been restored and in some rooms there is a museum that tells the history of the fortress.

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Another destination is in the Gran Piedra National Park, which is located east of El Cobre. In this there is a 1225-meter-high monolith, which is one of the largest monoliths in the world. To get to it, 452 steps have to be climbed. As a reward for your efforts, a magnificent view of the surroundings awaits you at the top.