Simply translating as ‘Holy Spirit’, the city of Sancti Spiritus is one of Cuba’s oldest Spanish settlements. Founded in 1514, the city has an intriguing history and a charming centre, yet remains something of a hidden gem even though its easily visited as a day trip or detour from its more famous neighbour, Trinidad. So what exactly does Sancti Spiritus city have to offer the visitor? Read on to discover all!
Why visit Sancti Spiritus?
Just 70 kilometres north-east of Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus city can be reached by road in roughly an hour. Its location also makes it ideal for a stop-off on longer journeys between Cuba’s top cities, such as between Trinidad and Camaguey for instance, meaning you get a bonus destination thrown in for little extra effort or expense!
But Sancti Spiritus offers far more to visitors than its proximity to Trinidad and a handy point at which to stretch your legs. The city is one of the original seven settlements founded by the Spanish on their colonisation of the island in the early 1500s, and needless to say it has an incredible history of centuries as a result. Indeed, the well-preserved colonial heart of Sancti Spiritus city was declared a Cuban national monument way back in 1978.
Sancti Spiritus – home to Cuba’s oldest structures
Unbelievably perhaps, Cuba’s oldest existing bridge only dates back to 1815, and you guessed it, can be found in Sancti Spiritus city. A cultural icon for the city, it stretches over the Yayabo River on three piers, leading towards the historic city centre. Constructed from beautiful stone work, it could easily be found in the Spanish countryside rather than a Cuban city! For the best views of both the bridge and the gently-flowing river, we recommending the terrace of the Taberna Yayabo, where you can enjoy the majestic sight with a glass before continuing your explorations of Cuba’s oldest structures.
That’s right, Sancti Spiritus isn’t just home to Cuba’s oldest bridge. Oh no! The city also boasts Cuba’s oldest church. Just two blocks south of the town’s main square, the Iglesia Parroquial Major dates back to the early sixteenth century, with a bell tower of blue and white corner stones the highlight of an otherwise relatively simple exterior. The view from the top of its 30-metre height is well worth the 86 steps! The cool interior, meanwhile, demonstrates the importance of the Catholic face to the people not just of the city, but the island as a whole. Keep an eye out for the rich donations the church has received over its centuries of service to the community, including a golden dove. You definitely won’t miss the main gate, the Puerta del Perdon, or Gate of Forgiveness, said to be named after a woman who repented from her angry ways on her deathbed and was interred beneath the gate.
Other notable sights that shouldn’t be missed
Sancti Spiritus city certainly seems to have more than its fair share of impressive buildings, but then that could easily be said of Cuba as a whole! Not far from the Iglesia Parroquial Major you’ll find the Museo de Arte Colonial, or the Colonial Art Museum. Set within the stunning palatial home of the Valle Iznaga family, who fled Cuba with the success of Castro’s revolution having made their fortune in sugar, it has been owned by the state since 1961, with 90% of its contents original to the mansion. An incredible collection of treasures to say the least, the museum has an eclectic assortment of artworks that range from French Limoges porcelain to Baccarat crystal chandeliers, with the mid-eighteenth century American-bought piano being a star attraction as it is one of only two found anywhere on the island.
Undoubtedly the city’s most beautiful library, the Biblioteca Publica Provincial Ruben Martinez Villena (or simply Biblioteca Provincial in short) started out life in the late 1920s as a meeting point for a group of elite and socially progressive residents that became known as the Sociedad el Progreso. The site of many important cultural events over the years, it was chosen as the place for the city’s first television broadcast. More recently it became a public library, though the interior is still bedecked with a glittering array of Carrara marble sculptures, painted ceilings, and stained glass within a central dome that’s well worth stopping by to admire.
Matching the neoclassical design of the Biblioteca Provincial is the Teatro Principal, its senior by some 90 years. Funded almost entirely by local contributions from Spirituanos (city residents) desperate for a proper theatre rather than the improvised stage on Calle Real they had been using, it was built in an impressive 11 months. What’s more, many experts believe it to be the oldest theatre in Cuba that bears its original format (after several extensions to what is now Havana’s Gran Teatro).
As you discover the city’s picturesque central streets of cobblestones, the most photogenic of which are perhaps the slim-lined Calle Llano, Calle San Miguel and Calle Guairo, where all manner of Cuban life can be explored, make sure you don’t miss the everyday life you’ll be passing. From the stall holders peddling fruit and vegetables at the agricultural market, the neighbours chatting animatedly with one another in the warm evening air outside their pastel-coloured homes, the horse and carts that still work the quiet streets, to the stores, churches, and parks, Sancti Spiritus city is as authentic as they come.
Sancti Spiritus city – the gem revealed at last!
Tranquil, picturesque and historic Sancti Spiritus offers visitors the chance to explore the Cuba behind the headlines, away from the revolutionary posters of Havana and the capital’s large government-owned hotels. Here you can find not only some of the oldest structures anywhere on the island, but also enjoy the scene beside the river of a Cuba largely unchanged in centuries.