Santiago de Cuba is the second town founded by the Spaniards in the 16th Century and was meant to be the Capital of the Island. Located on a hill in a natural bay offering protection against pirates the settlement just looked too perfect. Though Havana took over the role of main city quite quickly thanks to its position on the new sea routes to the American continent Santiago has gained its position as part of the Cuban identity thanks to its role in the Independence Wars and the Cuban Revolution. It is called the Rebel City of Cuba for defying Spanish rule in colonial times and for being the birth place of Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary Movement. Apart from history you will find here the true Cuban identity through the music, the dance, the mixture of African and Spanish cultures. With half a million inhabitants it is one of the biggest cities of the Caribbean and you find here definitely the heat.
Santiago is the city but it is also the whole area around it. The entrance of the bay with the Morro Castle and Granma Island is very picturesque. In the back of the city the mountain chain Sierra Maestra is looming with the highest peak of Cuba, the Pico Turquino, always shining in the sun.
Historic Center of Santiago
The historic center is all around the Parque Cespedes, right in front of the Cathedral of Santiago and the former residence of the founder of the city Diego Velasquez. Cespedes Parque is a very nice square where locals hang out to find some shade under the trees and sitting on the benches. It’s very normal to chat up passers-by, even tourists. Hotel Casagranda has a wonderful terrace overlooking the square and is great to watch it all without getting too involved in the buzzle.
Santiago City Areas
A bit more out from the center square you have the shopping street Enramadas that takes you to the other square Plaza de Marte. Down to the Bay of Santiago you have the historically French quarter of Tivoli and the Padre Pico street. Along the bay you have the Alameda Boulevard with the water front and the Santiago cruise terminal. Driving out of town you pass by the high-end quarter of Vista Alegre from before the Revolution.
Morro Castle and the Island Granma
The bay of Santiago is a typical pocket bay with a narrow entrance. On the hills around the entrance the Spanish built a huge castle that overlooks the sea and surroundings. The thick walls and strategic position make it all the more impressive. Once you enter the bay you have a small island in the middle, called Granma and home to a small village of local fishermen. The car-free island can be reached by a short ferry crossing from the local marina. It is quite recommendable and there is a great seafood restaurant at the shores.
The Cemetery Santa Iphigeneia
On the outskirts of town, you find the only cemetery of Santiago Santa Iphigeneia. At the entrance you have the two graves of the most historic figures of Cuban history: José Martí and Fidel Castro. Martí has an impressive mausoleum full of symbolism while Fidel has in its shadow a modest granite rock from the Sierra Maestra in which his ashes rest. More important figures are laid here like the father of the Bacardi dynasty (Emilio Bacardi), the first president of Cuba (Estrada Palma) and the lead singer of the Buenavista Social Club (Compay Segundo). Location of the cemetery is in front of the historic Bacardi factory, nearby the Bay of Santiago.
The Virgin of the Copper
A little bit out of town on the foothills of the Sierra Maestra you find the Church of the Virgin of the Copper. The Virgin of the Copper dates back to colonial times when the black slaves working in the nearby copper mines took a brown or copper colored image of the Virgin Mary as their patron image and started worshipping it. Behind this practice was the fact that the image reminded them of Ochun, the African goddess of sensuality and fertility. This mixing of African and catholic religion is the basis of Santeria, a local religion that is very much part of the Cuban identity. The church is of course controlled by the Catholic Church and worshipping of the small original statue of the Virgin of the Copper is allowed in the back chapel of the church.
The Route of the Independence Wars
Santiago was always far away from Havana and was the area of the east of Cuba was the center of the Independence Wars in the 2nd half of the 19th Century. Visit the huge Plaza de la Revolucion with the impressive statue of Antonio Maceo, hero of the city. On his horse with the machete in hand he encourages his troops of freed slaves to fight against the Spanish and make Cuba a nation free of slavery and imperialism. In the Morro Castle you find the representation of the sea battle in front of Santiago between the Spanish and US troops that ended the US-Spanish War and made Cuba independent of Spain. In the quarter Vista Alegre you have the Monument of the Hill of San Juan where Teddy Roosevelt fought and beat the Spanish Cavalry inflicting the final defeat to Spain and taking over the City of Santiago before the Cuban independence fighters did. The great inspirator of the Cuban Independence was the writer José Martí who died nearby Santiago de Cuba in one of the battles with the Spanish troops and his mausoleum you find in Santiago de Cuba.
The Route of the Cuban Revolution
The movement of Fidel Castro all began in 1953 with the surprise assault on the Moncada Barracks. The purpose was to overtake the arsenal of these Batista barracks and convince the soldiers to revolt against the corrupt regime in Havana. Though failed the attack was the beginning of the political career of Fidel Castro. After a few years in prison and then in exile he launched a new attack in 1956 by nestling himself in the rugged mountains of the Sierra Maestra and expanding from there his message and power. By the end of 1958 his support was so big the dictator Batista fled and virtually gave the power to Fidel. At an hour drive from Santiago you find the birth village of Fidel and his brother Raúl, called Biran. It is a great place to understand more about the background of the brothers that decided the faith of the Cuban nation in the 2nd half of the 20th Century. Of course, to end the route of the Cuban Revolution don’t forget to visit the tomb of Fidel in Santiago.
Music and Carnival
Santiago is the birthplace of Cuban music and dance. The “Son” was invented here and this led to the salsa and many other rhythms like mambo, chachacha, rumba, … In the historic center there are many music haunts like Casa de la Trova, Casa de la Musica, Casa de las Tradiciones. The third week of July it is carnival in Santiago de Cuba and every night you have parades and parties in the streets. Music only is already a reason to come to Santiago.
Santiago can be the starting point of venturing into the mountainous areas of the east of Cuba. Nearby the city is the park Baconao with the highest peak La Gran Piedra. A jeep track takes you almost to the top and only a hike of 400 stairs more takes you to the lookout point. There is also the 19th century coffee plantation La Isabelica worth a visit. You can go a bit further out to the Sierra de Cristal with Pinares de Mayari or Segundo Frente as starting points for hikes, birdwatching or horseback riding as ecological activities. For the most adventurous there is the Sierra Maestra with a soft hike to the historic rebel camp of Fidel Castro or the heavier 2-day trek to the Pico Turquino.
The presence of African slaves has contributed to the identity of Santiago de Cuba. You find it in the music, the religion, the street life, everywhere. In the pilgrimage site of El Cobre you find a monument dedicated to the runaway slave.
Surprisingly Santiago has a few beaches in the area. There is a very frequented small beach at the entrance of the bay called La Estrella. You might venture into the Park Baconao to the beach Siboney. You find here also the birth house of Compay Segundo, founder of the Buenavista Social Club band. Along the coast west of Santiago you find a few pristine beaches and even all-inclusive hotels like Brisas Sierra Mar. Roads aren’t that good but the area is very pristine.