There are many playful rivalries between the two most prominent cities in a country. Residents of Melbourne are constantly talking up their city at the expense of Sydney (“Oh yes, Sydney – you might have the Opera House, but we have actual culture”). Berlin and Munich don’t really see eye-to-eye, and some Munich residents actually want to make their state (Bavaria) an independent country so that their tax money doesn’t have to go to propping up the massively in debt hedonistic city-state that is Berlin. And of course Los Angeles and New York couldn’t be more different. It’s almost surprising to consider that these two grand cities are in the same country.
While Havana is undoubtedly the largest and best-known city in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is the second largest settlement in the country.
If you should ever be lucky enough to travel to Santiago de Cuba, you should not under any circumstances refer to it as Cuba’s second city. As far as the residents of this amazing city are concerned, they are most definitely number one. Spend some time here and you might well agree with them. It has a different atmosphere to Havana for sure, but it’s no less vibrant. It really would be a shame to leave Santiago de Cuba off your travel plans. So what do you need to know about the place that is most certainly not Cuba’s second city?
Not So Big, Not So Small
When you travel to Santiago de Cuba you should not expect a sprawling metropolis. It’s not a tiny place by any stretch of the imagination, and its extended metropolitan area (encompassing the city and its outlying towns) gives the area a population of a little over a million people. But it’s so much more manageable than Havana, and most of the highlights of the city can be seen on foot. The city proper only has a population of just over 500,000 people. There is a different atmosphere here too, and you need to remember that the city is in fact closer to the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana, which has arguably shaped its cultural identity.
The Details of How to Travel to Santiago de Cuba
Naturally you will want to see the Cuban capital in addition to your travel to Santiago de Cuba, and so you have a few options. If making your way from Havana, there is an overnight train. It’s not the most comfortable option, but the frequency of service makes it a reliable choice (as opposed to many other train routes in Cuba). There are also four daily bus services from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.
Alternatively, the city’s Antonio Maceo Airport has daily flights to and from Havana, as well as direct connections from Canada (Montreal and Toronto) and Europe (Paris and Rome). There are also charter flights to Miami, and more US flights might be added as the two countries more fully restore their diplomatic relations and a lot of the red tape is removed.
As we mentioned, you can wander around much of the city on foot. But there is one key difference between Santiago de Cuba and other cities in the country and that is the hills. There’s a prevalence of slopes in and around the town, so please be careful not to overdo your walking in the often extreme tropical heat. You might want to rent a bike (so long as you similarly don’t overdo it), and as is customary in Cuba, there are taxis everywhere.
Cuba’s True Capital of Culture?
This is something that Havana would dispute, and yet when you travel to Santiago de Cuba you might wage the argument that the city is Cuba’s true capital of culture. There are some things that are seen as quintessentially Cuban that in fact began in Santiago de Cuba. Some say that son (which was the precursor to salsa) began in the Sierra Escambray mountains, half the country away, and then there are those who suggest that the music that gave birth to salsa really gained momentum in Santiago de Cuba, popularized by the african influences that were more prevalent in the city than in other parts of the country.
Whichever story you opt to believe, it cannot be denied that your travel to Santiago de Cuba will be one with a memorable soundtrack. Music abounds in the city’s annual carnival (which brings the city into a frenzy in the second half of July – avoid if you are in the mood for some rest and relaxation). There is also an impressive cross section of live music in the city’s various venues. Be sure to visit La Casa de la Trova for some exceptional music that showcases the various styles that the city is famed for.
What You Need to See
If you happen to travel to Santiago de Cuba on a weekend, then you simply must (we cannot stress this enough) go to Avenida Victoria de Garzón for the street food. It’s one of the main streets in the city. Street food in Cuba has a hit and miss reputation (largely due to the cardboard-like pizza that passes for street food in some areas) but here it’s sublime. Fresh Cuban delights (such as roast suckling pig) are on offer, so it’s really a case of walking along the street and trying a little bit of everything.
You will also want to spend some time in Parque Cespedes, one of the main plazas in the city. It was here that Fidel Castro proclaimed victory in the Cuban Revolution.
Plaza de Marte is also a good bet when you want to get your night underway as there are many bars in the neighboring streets. There are also a lot of people just standing around, having animated conversations while enjoying a cold drink under the stars… as is the Cuban way.