Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba with a population of 405,000. The city is located about 880 km southeast of Havana. Santiago de Cuba is one of the oldest cities on the island with many buildings from the colonial era. Always bustling and charming, it has a peculiar atmosphere. But nestled between the mountains and the sea, Santiago can be unbearably hot. Santiagueros navigate the city’s sloping streets, keeping to the shaded side, and like to spend time on the balconies overhanging the bridges.
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Santiago de Cuba is a melting pot of Cuba with a friendly population of mostly mulatto, that is, descendants of both Spaniards, French from Haiti, Jamaicans and once numerous African slaves. Afro-Cuban traditions are strong, as expressed in the carnival, the best in Cuba, and reflected in the music (any walk through the city will invariably be accompanied by a cacophony of sounds) .
Founded in 1514. Santiago de Cuba was the island’s capital until 1553. It has been called the “heroic town” (cuitad eroi) and its inhabitants are proud of its troubled past. Once again, Santiago was at the epicenter of turbulent events in the 1950s, when it played an important role in the revolutionary struggle. The attack on the Moncada barracks by the Batista regime in 1953 brought national attention to Fidel Castro, and it was in the main square of Santiago de Cuba on January 1, 1959, that he first proclaimed the victory of the revolution.
This is the most interesting and colorful part of the city. Castro gave his victory speech in the heart of Old Santiago, on the balcony of the City Hall in the elegant Parque Cdspedes. The place is very attractive, with tall trees, gas lanterns and iron benches. The square is a few blocks from the extremely industrialized harbor district, and the regular network of streets of Old Santiago begins to unfold from here. The cathedral with its two bell towers dominates Parque Céspedes. The basilica appeared on this site as early as 1528. The current layout of the church was restored in the early 19th century following a series of earthquakes and fires.
On the west side of the square is the Casa de Diego Velasquez (Sat. Sat. 9:00-17:00, Sat. 14:00-17:00; admission is charged). Remarkable for its black lattice balconies, the building was built in 1516 for the founder of the seven original island villas (towns) . The house, the oldest in Cuba and one of the oldest in the Americas, is in excellent condition. The halls of the building’s occupying Museum of Cuban Historical Heritage (Museo Ambiente Historico Cubano) display an abundance of antique furniture and woodcarvers. The house encompasses two pretty courtyards. On the opposite side of the square stands the Casa Granda, which opened in 1914 and hosted many celebrities and gangsters before the revolution. The bar on the fifth-floor terrace offers a beautiful view of the cathedral’s bell towers and the city that stretches behind them.
Calle Heredia, east of the square, is the epicenter of the city’s cultural and tourist life, with the Casa de la Trova (music hall) as its flagship, hosting almost every legendary Cuban musician. From early afternoons onwards, the house is filled with bands representing every style of Cuban music, from sona and guarachas to boleros and salsa. The cozy patio is the place to visit as evening falls, and later the leading bands play upstairs. During the daytime hours, the street is littered with artisan and souvenir vendors’ stalls.
Further up on Via Heredia is the Museo del Carnaval, where instruments, photographs, and other things related to Santiago’s carnival are on display. The Afro-Cuban music and dance performances are also held there (Mon-Fri until 16:00) as well as in the Artex store down the street. The Casa Natal de José María Heredia (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm; admission paid) is the house where the Cuban poet was born in the early 19th century and which today houses a cultural center and museum. A block further south on Calle Bartolome Maso (also called San Basilio) at number 358 you’ll find the Museo del Ron (Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission paid), which explains the history of the drink in the province and has an atmospheric bar where tours include a tasting.
At “Calle Pio Rosado” you will find the Provincial Museum Emilio Bacardi (Museo Provincial Emilio Bacardi; Fri 12-20h, Sat 10-20h, Sun 10h-18h. 00; admission paid) with a fine collection of Cuban art as well as a number of works by European artists plus relics from the wars of independence and an archaeology room featuring a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, two skeletons from Peru and a skull-deprived dried head. The museum occupies a grand neoclassical building on a pretty street and is named after its patron and former mayor, whose family founded the Bacardi rum empire.
One of the best places in Santiago to watch the flow of city life is Plaza Dolores, a shady square surrounded by colonial-era houses (several have restaurants for tourists). Avenida Jose A. Saco, better known as Enramada, is the main shopping street of the city. The faded neon signs of the 1950s and the pretentious buildings are a reminder of better times. Calle Bartolome Maso, aka San Basilio, behind the Heredia and the cathedral, is a charming street that descends to the picturesque Tivoli district.
In Tivoli is the famous Padre Pico Staircase, named after the priest who helped the city’s poor. Castro once loudly denounced the Batista regime here, but today the stairs are used by peaceful chess and domino players. Climb the stairs to the Museum of the Underground (Museo de la Lucha Clandestina; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; paid admission). The beautiful museum occupies one of the city’s most beautiful colonial buildings and celebrates the activities of the Resistance movement, which was led by local hero and revolutionary martyr Frank Pace. The townspeople actively supported the revolutionaries, as did the peasants of the Sierra Maestra. The balcony of the museum offers a wonderful view of Santiago and its bay (and, alas, of the columns of smoke rising from the chimneys of industrial plants) .
South of the museum are the best places in Santiago to stretch out in the evening hours. “Cultural Center” Casa de las Tradiciónes (Calle Jesus Rabi) in a large colonial-era mansion with a central courtyard offers live trovo music with dansing. The establishment is known in town as La Casona and is very popular – local visitors usually outnumber tourists. Only couples are allowed.
The Bacardi Bat.
After the revolution, Bacardi’s headquarters moved to Puerto Rico and then to Bermuda. But it was the bats that inhabited the rafters of the company’s first plant in Santiago that the brand owes its world-famous logo.
Surroundings of Santiago
A good place to get an idea of Santiago’s suburbs is the rooftop bar of the luxurious Hotel Melia Santiago, 3 km east of the city center. A short distance away, you can make out the yellow Moncada barracks that Castro attacked with a hundred of his fighters on July 26, 1953. The date has become iconic and is celebrated annually as a national holiday, and the barracks themselves have been converted into a school and museum. The complex includes the Old Moncada Barracks (Antiguo Cuartel Moncada) and the July 26 Historical Museum (Av. Moncada esq. Gen. Portuondo; Wed-Sat 9:00-20:00, Sat 9:00-13:00; admission paid; guided in Spanish, English, French and Italian) .
The museum tells the history of the revolution through dozens of commemorative photographs. Also on display are blood-stained rebel uniforms, some of Fidel’s personal belongings from his time in the mountains and armbands with the inscription “July 26” (as the Resistance movement became known after the attack on the barracks) . The bullet holes above the entrance were “reconstructed” from photographs.
To the north of the compound, near the bus station and at the intersection of Av. las Americas and Av. de los Libertadores, is Plaza de la Revolution. Monuments in the form of machetes (machete-like weapons used by the Mamby independence fighters) point skyward next to a monument to Antonio Maceo, the hero of the Cuban War of Independence, riding in triumph on a horse.
The beautiful cemetery of Santa Ifigenia (Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. Av. Crombet, Reparto Juan Gomez) just north of the harbor is the resting place of many of Cuba’s heroes. The cemetery owes its fame primarily to the founding father of the Cuban state, José Martí, whose giant octagonal mausoleum is designed so that throughout the day its walls are lit up by sunlight. Every half hour, a changing of the armed guard ceremony can be observed at the mausoleum. Céspedes and 38 members of the July 26 movement also rest here. Their ashes are kept in the wall just outside the entrance, and their names are inscribed on the stones of the wall.
At 7 km from the town, the castle of El Morro (Castillo del Morro; daily 8.00-20.00; entrance fee), perched on top of a rock, dominates the entrance to the bay. The stronghold is surrounded by a moat, has strong walls with many cannons, drawbridges and passages, and is in excellent condition. A guide will show the torture chamber with a trapdoor in the floor through which, it is said, recalcitrant captives and rebellious slaves were thrown into the sea splashing at the foot of the rock. Visitors to the restaurant next to the fortress, also called “El Morro”, can enjoy not only the fine local cuisine but also breathtaking sea panoramas. The easiest way to get to the fortress is by cab. The round trip will cost about CUC$25.
A place of great importance and elegance is the three-domed Basilica del Cobre (daily 7 a.m.-6 p.m.; cab ride from Santiago CUC$20-30 round trip) The Basilica del Cobre, named after the copper mines overlooking the wooded hillsides near the church and 18 km west of Santiago. Every year the Cuban faithful make a pilgrimage to the Basilica to kneel before the “Black Madonna,” a statue of the heavenly patron saint of the island, the Blessed Virgin of Caridad (Mercy). According to legend, in 1606, three young fishermen in the bay were fighting the stormy sea in their wretched boat and were saved by the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary with the mulatto child Jesus in one hand and a cross in the other. Many pilgrims travel the final stretch on their knees. They pray before the sacred image and offer gifts, including small boats, in gratitude for the miracles they have wrought, saying prayers for those who attempt to leave Cuba on makeshift rafts. Whenever Mass is over, the statue returns to the second floor of the temple, where it is kept in a glass display case in a shining gold vestment.
Tour operators in Santiago offer day trips to the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Some go to the picturesque El Salton waterfall, which is located on the grounds of a small hotel. Those who are in good physical shape can climb the highest mountain, Pico Turquino (1974 m) .
The Parque Baconao Biosphere Reserve stretches more than 40 kilometers to the east of Santiago. The local dark sandy beaches are bushy and the hotels seem lost in the middle of nowhere, but the park itself is an interesting place to visit and the Sierra de la Gran Piedra looms majestically over the coastline. The winding road goes 12km east along the coast, climbing up into the mountains to La Gran Piedra (The Big Stone) . Then you can hike up to get a bird’s-eye view of the vastness of Eastern Cuba. After about 2 km the path leads to the Cafetal-Museo La Isabelica (daily 9:00-17:00; admission paid), located in a 19th-century manor house (finca). The museum is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserving the architectural heritage of the early 19th-century coffee farms.
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Good day to all who read my reviews. Finally ripe to write a review about visiting a city that everyone knows about, but not everyone can get to, because of the remoteness from the Cuban capital and major resorts. Namely, about Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba. Actually, the first review I wanted to write about another city – Baracoa (in chronology of visits), but then I decided to change the order of writing and write about Baracoa later, because it is less known. To begin with some publicly available information to set the readers on the right wave and remind them of the importance of this city for the Island of Liberty and its inhabitants. Just as Russia has Moscow and St. Petersburg, so Cuba has Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Just as St. Petersburg was once the capital of the Russian Empire, Santiago de Cuba was once the capital of Cuba (incidentally, it was founded a year before Havana). And just as the Great October Revolution began in St. Petersburg, the Cuban Revolution began in Santiago de Cuba. It was here, on July 26, 1953, that Fidel Castro and his brother Raul tried for the first time to stage a coup d’etat and organized the failed storming of the Moncada Barracks (after being sentenced to 15 years in prison, but released two years later thanks to their father’s efforts). It was here, on November 30, 1956, that Frank Pais launched an uprising to divert government forces from the Granma, which had boarded a landing led by the Castro brothers and Ernesto Che Guevara. And it was from this part of the island that the rebels began their advance towards Havana. And nowadays Santiago de Cuba is considered to be the cultural capital of the country. And now for my personal impressions of the island. The revolutionary and rebellious spirit of the city can be felt as soon as you arrive at the bus station. Visitors are met by a huge equestrian statue of Antonio Maceo – the hero of the 10-year struggle of the Cuban people against Spanish colonizers in the 19th century. The bronze monument is surrounded by raised machetes and seems to tower above all the surrounding buildings. And it looks especially imposing in the evening, because it is illuminated from below by powerful floodlights. Unfortunately, I could only see it through the windows of the bus, hoping to go back and take pictures the next day, but those plans were not to be.
I have already written about bus stations in Cuba in my review Viasul Bus Company (Cuba). I can only add that in the evening, when it’s already dark (and it gets dark there after 6 pm), the bus station looks especially creepy. There are few people, and when you go out on the street you are met by dubious and shabby-looking people, offering cab services. But there was nothing to do, to walk late at night for a few kilometers to a reserved bus station through the streets and districts of an unfamiliar city did not look like the best idea – I had to get into the car. All the way the driver offered me to stay at his place, explaining it by the fact that it was in the center of the city, but I chose the hotel on the principle of walking distance to all major attractions, so I politely declined. It all happened without incident, I was brought quickly and even agreed to take me back to the bus station the next day. I was already welcomed at the door. The hosts (an elderly couple) were very friendly and intelligent people and even fed me dinner (although dinner is not usually provided on private houses). By the way, the owner’s name is Ivan, although a pure Cuban, he was born before the revolution and the period of Cuba’s friendship with the Soviet Union. Well, names in Cuba are a separate story. And another thing – on the bookshelf in my room I found a book “Petrovka, 38” in Spanish. Well, in the morning I went to see the city. Or rather, the inspection began from the roof of the owner’s house, which housed an entire garden.
And this tree sprouted through the house.
And here is the view of the streets of the city. It does not look very impressive from above.
But the view from the other side is more interesting. Behind the dilapidated walls of houses and tiled roofs against a blue sky rises the Sierra Maestra, the highest mountains in Cuba.
And this is the view from the street. It’s a colorful picture and one of my favorites. The shabby walls, the old truck, and the pioneer peeking out from behind it. Very Cuban.
The first destination for my walk was not the center of town, but the cemetery of Santa Iphegenia, the place where some of the most famous people in town and Cuba are buried. It is located outside the city, but I got there on foot in 25 minutes.
The cemetery itself looks very beautiful and solemn. Everywhere there are Cuban flags, white gravestones, palm trees and flowers. And all this against a background of mountains and blue sky.
It looks much more beautiful than the no less famous Colon Cemetery in Havana. This is the grave of Emilio Bacardi, son of the founder of the Bacardi rum brand, Facundo Bacardi. After his father resigned as president of the company in 1877, Emilio took over the management of the factory. He also became the first mayor of Santiago de Cuba after the country’s liberation from Spanish rule.
But, of course, the most famous structure in the cemetery and, in general, one of the most iconic places in the country is the mausoleum of Jose Marti – the national hero of Cuba, poet and writer, “Apostle of Independence”. The airport in Havana, many institutions in the country are named after him, and, of course, every Cuban city has a street or square of Jose Marti.
The mausoleum is visible from all sides of the cemetery and all paths eventually lead to it.
The mausoleum is about 27 meters high, and an honor guard is on duty at the entrance, changing every half hour. No one is allowed close to the entrance, but the coffin, covered with a Cuban flag, can be seen from above by climbing the stairs in the middle of the tomb.
In addition to Jose Marti and Emilio Bacardi, Pedro Figueredo, the author of the Cuban national anthem, Carlos Manuel de Sespendes, another hero of the war for independence from the Spanish, Antonio Maceo and other equally famous figures are buried in the cemetery. And more recently, the ashes of Fidel Castro are also buried there.
The atmosphere in the cemetery of Santa Iphegenia is calm and solemn. And, for some reason, not at all depressing, as in other cemeteries. You can walk through it endlessly. In general, it requires a separate review, so I’ll move on to the description of other attractions of the city. I will only say that I definitely recommend it to visit for anyone who finds himself in Santiago de Cuba. Having returned to the casa to rest and cool down (unlike Baracoa which is 150 kilometers away in a straight line through the mountains where it almost always rains, in Santiago de Cuba in the morning the temperature was already under 30 and the sun was burning incredibly hot), and to drink a can of Cristal (see review Cerveceria Bucanero Cristal Beer), I continued my walk in the other direction – to the Moncada barracks.
These were the barracks that the Castro brothers and a group of like-minded adventurers wanted to seize in 1953. They took a foolish (i.e. Cuban) attitude to the plan of action and, after getting lost at night, started shooting at the houses of civilians. When they finally reached the barracks, the entire garrison was already up “in arms”. I have already written a little about the consequences of this “operation” at the beginning of this review. I will only add that the other participants were less fortunate than Fidel and Raul. 6 people were killed during the battle and another 55 were shot later. But the date of the attack, July 26, was, in fact, the beginning of the struggle against Fulgencio Batista and gave its name to the “Revolutionary Movement of July 26”. Bullet marks can be seen on the walls of the barracks. But, according to various sources, these are not real potholes in the walls, but restored from photographs.
There is a history museum in the barracks itself, but I did not go there – I had enough of such museums in the Soviet Union: Fidel Castro’s stomping boots, Raul Castro’s favorite spoon, a cigar butt of Che Guevara, a pair of rusty rifles and lots of documents and photographs – this is a rough list of exhibits in such museums. Besides, there is a school campus on the territory of the complex, which is how children in their school years are taught to be proud of their native city’s revolutionary past.
Next to the barracks is a square with a name unknown to me, but also very pathetic and revolutionary, like everything in Santiago de Cuba. From the Moncada Barracks I finally headed toward the historic center of the city, observing some interesting features along the way. The first peculiarity is that there are not as many old American cars in the city as there are in Havana, mostly products of the Soviet auto industry. This is about it.
But the streets are riddled with an incredible number of motorcyclists – just a city of bikers. I never got a chance to take a picture of any of them, but you can take my word for it. The inner city buses are quite modern – kind of like our LyAZes (or maybe they are, I didn’t look closely). But there are some that are gradually dying out in Cuba.
Here it is, a common pastime of ordinary Cubans.
And here’s the center. Céspedes Park and the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Cathedral, where Diego Velázquez, the famous Spanish conquistador, governor of Cuba, who founded the cities of Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba and Havana, is buried. Inside is a museum of religious art.
Also around the square are several other famous buildings: the City Council, the house of Diego Velazquez. And it was on this square that Fidel Castro gave a speech on January 1, 1959, in which he proclaimed the victory of the revolution. These are the streets and squares around the square.
Also in Santiago de Cuba are two famous rum factories, Bacardi and Matusalem. Both factories were nationalized after the revolution and their owners emigrated – some to the U.S. and some to the Dominican Republic. An interesting fact: after the nationalization of the Matusalem factory, large stocks of rum barrels remained in the cellars. Since this factory now produces the famous rum “Santiago de Cuba”, the most premium types of this brand add the same Matusalem from the barrels. Imagine how much aging is done there. This factory also produces the no less famous “Caney” rum. The Bacardi factory produces other brands of rum – Havana Club, Palma Mulata and Santero. I had only one day to explore the city, so I didn’t have time to look for the factories themselves. I just wandered around the area where they were supposedly located. There were a lot of factory-type buildings, and the whole area reeked of “liquor,” but I couldn’t find the Roma factories themselves. But I suspect that the only way to get there is with a guided tour. It should be noted that in Santiago de Cuba, according to reviews, there are quite unsafe areas – for example, the area of the port. Whether the factory district is one of them, I don’t know, but it was not very comfortable to walk there – very poor shacks, almost no passersby in the streets, and a bunch of rough-looking youths hang out near these shacks. Another photo that speaks of the revolutionary spirit of the city.
There are plenty of posters and banners with images of revolutionary heroes. In addition to the above-mentioned sights, there are many other interesting places and beautiful parks in the city and its surroundings: the Padre Pico staircase street, the De Marte square with a 20-meter independence column, the Castillo del Moro fortress. In addition, next to the mountain range is Sierra Maestra with the highest point of the island – the peak of Turquino 1972 m high (yes, the mountains in Cuba are not high, but very beautiful). But there was no time to see it all. I had barely had time to get to my cauldron and have dinner when a car came to pick me up. It was no longer the big nigger in the new Chinese car from yesterday, but a young boy in a rusty Moskvich, which was barely alive (the man must have given him an order). But we got to the bus station without any problems, we didn’t stall anywhere. Once again it was already dark, and once again I could only look at the Monument of Antonio Maceo through the window of the bus as it left the city. What were my impressions of Santiago de Cuba? It’s no better or worse than Havana. It’s completely different. Despite the fact that there are no American high-rise buildings, as in Havana (in some areas there are typical 9-story buildings, very similar to our buildings from the 70’s, but most buildings are low, old and in poor condition), it has a more modern spirit, it is more energetic. It is shown both in motorcycles rushing past at high speeds, and in local residents constantly trying to update their peeling and half-destroyed houses (such a feeling that all are constantly engaged in repair), and in local youth brigades (Komsomol members?), engaged in beautifying the territory – removing garbage (and there is enough of it), making beds, planting flowers. The composition of the population is also different from that of Havana – most of the Afro-Caribbean, but it is generally characteristic of this part of the island. And, of course, everywhere you can feel the revolutionary past – more than in any other city on the island. The surrounding countryside is more picturesque than the flatlands around Havana. In addition, the climate is hotter (because of the location surrounded by mountains). In general, a visit is recommended, if only to see that Cuba is very different. And because of this more interesting.