You’ll find Cuba’s second largest city has many surprises just waiting to be discovered. This is a brief history to this vibrant city highlighting some of the best things to do in Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba has had a tumultuous history. It was founded way back in 1515 by famed conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. It was invaded and taken over by various global powers over the following centuries. In 1553 the city was almost destroyed by the invading French and again in 1603 by the English as well as in 1662! It was also the site of a major battle of the Spanish American War in 1898.
Making Your Way to Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is 540 miles (almost 870 km) from Havana, the island nation’s capital. While most international flights to Cuba arrive via Havana, Santiago de Cuba has its own airport – Antonio Maceo. Maceo was the second in command of Cuba’s army during the Cuban War of Independence in the late 1800’s. There are direct flights to Miami, Toronto, London and Montreal and some chartered services to Europe. You can also get an internal flight from Havana to Sanitago de Cuba. For a scenic journey you can take the 14 hour train ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. It drops you right by the stunning harbor, at the General Senén Casas central train station.
Once there your best option to get around town and see Sanitago de Cuba is to put on your walking shoes!
Cuba’s True Capital of Culture?
Santiago de Cuba is indeed the capital of cuture but Havana would dispute that title. Yet when you travel to Santiago de Cuba you’ll see why it’s the 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, comes from here in the Sierra Escambray mountains. There are those who suggest that Son, the music that gave birth to Salsa gained momentum here in Santiago de Cuba. Largely due to the African influences that were more prevalent in the here than in other parts of the country.
Whichever story you opt to believe, your visit to Santiago de Cuba will be one with a memorable soundtrack. Music abounds in the city’s annual carnival . The event brings the city to a standstill in the second half of July. So avoid Santiago if you are in the mood for some rest and relaxation then. 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. The kind that showcases the various styles that the city is famed for.
Fun Facts About Santiago de Cuba!
- Santiago de Cuba served as the nation’s capital from 1522 until 1589.
- In 1959, Fidel Castro publicly proclaimed victory for the Cuban revolution. It took place from the balcony of the Santiago de Cuba city hall. Thousands gathered in Cespedes Park opposite to hear his speech.
- Desi Arnaz of the 1960’s tv show I Love Lucy fame was born here.
- The population of the city boomed in the 1790’s. This was because of the Haitian Revolution of 1791 – 1804. Many British and French landowners chose to flee to Cuba. In the early 1900’s a number of Haitian of African descent also made the move to Cuba. Thus giving Santiago de Cuba a truly multicultural mix of citizens.
- You won’t be cold in this part of the world, with average winter temperatures a balmy 76°F (24°C). Be prepared to sweat and if you are heading out for a day sightseeing! So make sure you dress appropriately.
Top Things to see in Santiago de Cuba!
Santiago de Cuba is definitely not a small seaside village, and has a permanent population of just under 500,000 residents. You could easily spend months exploring the maze of alleyways of the city ! But if you don’t have that kind of time, here a few attractions you definitely need to see.
- Visiting graveyards might sound like a fun way to spend an afternoon? If so the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia is one place you’ll want to visit. Spend time wandering amongst the tombstones, many of them belonging to heroes of the Cuban Revolution. The place is decidedly tropical, with walkways lined with huge palm trees.
- To see how the Spanish Conquistadors lived, visit the house that once belonged to Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. Built in 1522, it now operates as a museum. It was painstakingly restored to its original glory in the 1960’s.
- Salsa dancing as we know it originated in Santiago de Cuba. There are countless bars in the city where you can dance Salsa and Rumba. But if you want something that feels a little more authentic just make your way to the Tivoli district. Here you can go to the Casa de Las Tradiciones, a hub for local musicians. Remember if you see a street musician whose work you’ve appreciated, tip a dollar or two!
- Experience the early history of Santiago de Cuba with a visit to Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro. Construction of this defensive harbour fort began in the 1630’s and was completed some 70 years later. Located just outside the city, the Castillo is worth a visit for the views alone.
Places to Eat
The cultural melting pot of Santiago de Cuba has resulted in some unique, mouth wateringly good local cuisine. Not to mention the fact that the first Bacardi rum factory established here.
You simply must (we cannot stress this enough) go to Avenida Victoria de Garzón for the street food. Street food in Cuba has a hit and miss reputation, but here it’s sublime. Fresh Cuban delights such as roast suckling pig are on offer plus more. It’s really a case of walking along the street and trying a little bit of everything.
As with the rest of Cuba, you should avoid specially state sanctioned restaurants and opt to dine in paladares (private restaurants). For one you can support local Cubans and for the other they often offer westernized food of dubious quality.
In a paladar you’ll experience a a variety of “home cooked” dishes such as the succulent Ropa Veija. This is a slow cooked stew usually made from beef or lamb if done well, is quite delicious. Or Congris (black beans and rice), garbanzo (chickpea casserole) and Boniato, sweet potato chips with lime and garlic.
A few local eateries include Salon Tropical, El Barracon and Compay Gallo. Best just wander about, if it’s crowded it’s probably with good reason!
- Cuba is generally fairly safe, but the amount of visitors make Santiago de Cuba a popular spot for pickpockets. So be sure to take the necessary precautions.
-Don’t carry large amounts of cash
-Secure your money and important items in a specially designed anti-theft pouch.
- Santiago de Cuba also has a huge number of touts (Jineteros) who target foreign visitors. The scam is to attempt to persuade tourists to spend money at a particular store, or eat at that particular restaurant. Most of which are just plain disappointing. Learn to say a firm no and after a day you won’t even notice them so much – it just becomes background noise.