Santiago de Cuba is the heart of the revolution; it started here, Castro came from the Oriente in the East and went to school here. However travelling there by air from Havana requires stamina, patience and a great deal of composure. Flights can be postponed at short notice, are often delayed and queues are endless. Nevertheless, once there, the city is vibrant, the people are friendly and the history is fascinating.
Santiago is also the birthplace of Son Cubano, the genre of music, so distinctive and so widely adopted outside Cuba, that combines elements of Spanish and African rhythms.
Here are our rambler, Angela’s, recommendations for a couple of days in Santiago de Cuba.
The Parque Cespedes
The Parque Cespedes is at the heart of Santiago de Cuba and the central point from which to explore the rest of the city, around its perimeter you will find some key points of interest. Your first stop might be The Banco Nacional (a short queue if you need to change money), sit in the square itself and you will be able to access a good Wi-Fi signal, unlike a lot of cafés where speed is often slow because of the high demand on it. We saw (and heard) small bands playing in the square to the captive audience visiting for the purpose of accessing e-mails and using internet resources.
Casa de Diego Velázquez
This is the oldest house in Santiago. It was built during the 16th century for the first governor, Diego Velazquez. It is constructed and decorated in Moorish style around a courtyard, designed with traditional carved screens that allow in, both light and air. We felt that the house had been sensitively restored following a fire and still presents some original features as well as Cuban furniture. It would have been a pleasant place to live and work when it was built. However, the house was once used as a ‘House of Transactions’, from which period it includes a furnace, used to make gold ingots. There’s a good commentary in Spanish but our guide helped translate for us and gave us a good insight into the background of the house.
The Moncado Barracks
Located a few minutes’ walk from the Parque Cespedes, the barracks was the target of the first action of the revolution. On 26th July 1953, a band of revolutionaries embarked on an offensive lead by Fidel Castro. The attack was a disaster and many rebels (including Castro) were captured, tortured and some were executed. The barracks is now a school but with one part of the original building being turned into a museum. Here you can see photos and other memorabilia of the 26th July offensive, including bullet damage around the entrance. There is a good commentary, in Spanish only, and if we hadn’t had a guide to translate for us we would have missed some revealing detail.
Hotel Casa Granda
Take a rest and enjoy the view over the Parque Céspedes. The café is on an upper ground level, a favourite spot from which to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi at the hotel (you can also buy an internet card here), whilst enjoying a Mojito or a Bucanero (an excellent beer brewed in Holguin) and taking some cool respite from the heat of the day. There is also an upper-level bar on the 5th floor, with spectacular views of the cathedral and where it is much quieter as there is a minimum spend unless you’re a guest at the hotel.
Santa Ifigenia Cemetery
Located a short journey from the centre of Santiago, it’s where the remains of a number of notables from Cuban history are buried, including José Marti and Fidel Castro himself, alongside memorials and graves of other revolutionary figures. Given the significance of the people remembered here, the memorials are afforded a military guard, which changes regularly in a sombre ceremony. This ceremony takes place on the hour and is a solemn but worthwhile sight. There is a charge to enter the rest of the cemetery and view the memorials from a closer point, although you can occasionally persuade an official to let you wander in without paying. The guards nevertheless, strictly apply guides around the pathways and it is considered a mark of disrespect to wander beyond these boundaries.
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (or El Morro)
This was built in the 17th century to guard the bay of Santiago. The fort was intended to provide a defence against foreign forces (and/or pirates), intent on capturing Santiago and/or Cuba itself from the Spanish. It lies outside central Santiago, in an exposed position, offering a superb vantage point over the bay, which is still buzzing with the activity of a lively port. There is a daily ceremony at dusk to fire one of the remaining canons from the fort.
Walking over the drawbridge you get a sense of the impact of the fortress; walking around the fort on a blisteringly hot morning, despite the wind threatening to blow away our hats, we were deeply aware of the extremes of the environment. The fort is built over several levels and houses the pirates’ museum as well as artefacts from the fortress. For us, coming across the black hole of a torture chamber in the depths of the fort was a chilling experience.
El Cobre: site of Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre
El Cobre, a small town north of Santiago, was originally the site of a large copper mine but is now mainly known for the basilica established in honour of the Virgin of Charity. The story goes that some youths were gathering salt on the coast and spotted something floating in the water. It turned out to be a statue of the Virgin Mary with Christ child and a gold cross, which was floating on a piece of wood bearing the inscription ‘Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad’ (I am the Virgin of Charity). There was already a church in El Cobre and so the statue was placed elsewhere in the town, but on three successive nights it disappeared and was found on the top of a hill above the town, where the basilica was eventually built. Many people from the local area visit the basilica with gifts of yellow and white flowers, which are intended to honour the Virgin of Charity, who was found wearing and still does wear a gold coloured dress.
This was our second visit to Cuba, the first being in 2002. At that time the island was still emerging from the shock of the collapse of the Eastern Block, everything was in short supply (food and fuel included) and the Cubans themselves were struggling to live day-to-day. Anybody involved in tourism had the opportunity to earn tips, receive small gifts of toiletries and hear about life in other countries. As tourists, we felt spoilt when we learnt that so much of the country’s food resources were directed to visitors when the Cubans themselves had so little. These days the availability of food has improved enormously with far greater variety and ways of cooking; even some traditional pre-revolutionary dishes are being prepared. We also discovered fruits we have not encountered before in the Caribbean or in other tropical regions.