Rebels yesterday, hospitable today, always heroic
Reaching our last point in our tour through Cuba, arriving from Camaguey into Santiago de Cuba. 3 more nights here, before returning to Havana for one last night full day before the start of our way back to Europe, to the winter once again. That’s as usual the hardest part in this kind of trips we generally do from the end of December to the middle of January escaping the cold for a hot place in the sun. Thereafter, it will be a while until the next proper longer holiday, (Easter time), but first, plenty of the usual weekend trips around Europe, easy and fast to reach.
Santiago is the second largest city in Cuba, and was the first capital in the island right after the Spanish foundation in 1516. Surprisingly, from this period there is one house completely preserved. It is said to be not just the oldest house in Cuba, but in the Americas from the colonial times still standing! It was the home of the first Spanish governor in Cuba, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar. But there’s more, and plenty more to see and do in one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in the country. The cathedral for example, was the first one built in the island too, and so the first museum in Cuba, and the first copper mine in the whole of the Americas.
The city is also very well known for being the birthplace of the world famous rum brand Bacardi, which was started by the wealthy Catalan from Sitges, Facundo Bacardí Masso in 1862 who emigrated to Cuba. In the very same building you have now the museum that displays the extensive art collection of the Bacardí family. And lastly, an event that changed the history of Cuba forever. It was January the 1 of 1959, when Fidel Castro proclaimed the victory of the Cuban Revolution from a balcony in the City Hall. These are just a few facts of what you are about to experience in the city, and why it really should ranks high if you ever consider a trip to Cuba. This country is not just about Havana and Varadero, but so, so much more! Santiago was a fascinating end point in our tour which we are glad to have done and include.
It is surprising to know that majority of tourists do not consider coming to Santiago. This is easily understandable because of the distances and perhaps the limited time they have on holidays, however if there is something I can say about this, is do not commit the error in not coming here. I found along the way people who spent even 3 days in Trinidad. Seriously? Was that really needed? For a tiny city over-spending that many days is nonsense (well at least to my point of view). It’s wiser to better plan ahead and include what is now a city that rivals with Havana. I am most sure anymore which one is my favourite, so I keep it at 50/50. I liked them both the same, I cannot chose one or another.
The amount of beautiful architecture and colours was unexpected. The restoration projects have revamped over half of the city and will shine even more in the coming years. While the level of gentrification along the pedestrian streets in incredible. So many shops, so many great restaurants and bars everywhere, and so many stunning old cinemas; it’s really a lot to see and do
Now before moving on, please take my advice when considering going to the Gran Roca and the Isabelica coffee plantation, and the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, both places listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites; take a private driver to take you there and around rather than spending a fortune in an organised tour. First of all, when planning the trip in Cuba I could manage to book ahead other excursion, out of question, but nowhere I could really find an operation for this places unless getting exorbitant quotations. So as we moved on, we thought on asking at the Cubanacan tour operator once in Santiago only to find out for two people it would cost around 130 CUP for 2 people, for just 5 hours altogether. A private driver costed us 60 CUP! And believe me when I tell you there are lots of drivers awaiting specially around the Parque Cespedes. easy, very easy to negotiate.
For more information about Santiago de Cuba check Wikipedia site. And for everything important regarding Cuba such as visa requirements, currency and WiFi access, I would strongly recommend you to check the main post for Cuba, Havana, where everything is well listed and explained.
What to see and do in Santiago de Cuba
- North of the historic centre Not much through this neighbourhood other than residential, still retaining elegant buildings in the perfect orthogonal grid of streets.
-Ron Santiago de Cuba Factory At the north of the city, next to the railway station. This was until the Revolution and post-nationalisation of all the foreign assets the factory of the world famous Bacardi Rum. Originally built in 1862, it is the oldest factory in Cuba still retaining the very same tradition. Nearby is the great storage room called Don Pancho, nicknamed the Rum Cathedral. Unfortunately you can only see it from outside, and if you approach the door, the barrels ageing inside. No pictures allowed from the door.
-Railway Station Nothing special other than knowing it is here if you need to take a train or arriving on one to the city.
-Santo Tomas and General Lacret Streets These are 2 of the main thoroughfares linking north to south crossing the entire old town by its main square, Parque Cespedes.
-Teatro Marti One of the great 8 theatres of Cuba. Built in 1884, you can find it when heading south along Calle Santo Tomas.
-Santo Tomas Church Right across from Teatro Marti, overlooking the nice little square at the front.
-San Francisco Church Continuing south along Calle Santo Tomas until the intersection with Calle Sagarra, the northernmost thoroughfare limit of the historic core.
-Calle Sagarra Taking this one from the previous church towards the west following the start of a zig-zag sightseeing route from here, you will reach the port and old railway station.
-Old Railway Station Nowadays turned into a shopping gallery. Overlooks the Guillermo Moncada Port.
-Moncada Port The inner harbour of Santiago. Nice buildings align it parallel with Avenida Jesus Menendez, such as the Port Authority. Farther south from here it’s the Alameda, a nice landscaped promenade by the sea, but will come back later to this on a next zig-zag farther south.
- Historic old town Very compact with lots to see and do. Almost every building has been retained though most of them in much need of restoration altogether.
-Calle Jose Antonio Saco From the Moncada Port take this street heading towards the easternmost end of the old town. Almost every building is worth the walk, especially when reaching the Plaza de Marte at the east with the multi-coloured colonial houses one after another.
-Cine Cuba One of the oldest and most charming cinema building in Santiago.
-Gran Hotel Also known as the Bayamo, next to Cine Cuba. State run hotel in a historic construction.
-Parque Serrano Small little square surrounded in colonial architecture. Notice the parallel street you see from here, the Calle Tamayo Fleites. Check it for a nice view of the colourful buildings.
-East of Jose Antonio Saco This section of the street is one of the most famous landmarks in the city for its incredible architecture and colours, set among small squares and parks on the way.
-Plaza de Marte The eastern end of the historic town, with very colourful buildings around it and landscaped gardens and monuments.
-Calle Francisco Vicente Aguilera Parallel to Jose Antonio Saco, take this one to head back west, right into the central square passing some of the grandest constructions in the city.
-Plaza Dolores Home to the former Dolores Church, nowadays a concert hall.
-ETECSA Building The main Cuban telephone company, Santiago head office.
-Provincial Administration Building One of the finest buildings in this area together with the others around.
-Museum Emilio Bacardi Very elegant neoclassical building just across the road from the Administration building. 2 CUP to enter.
-Parque Cespedes Like anywhere else in Cuba, this is the main square and centre of politics, religious and entertainment since the colonial times. One of the most beautiful completely surrounded in colonial architecture.
-Banco de Credito At the eastern side of the square, in neoclassical style.
-Hotel Casa Granda One of the top and most famous hotels in the city. After Banco de Credito.
-Casa de la Trova At the southeastern corner of the square. Very famous bar frequented by famous musicians.
-Cathedral Occupying the entire southern side. Built in the 18th century in fine neoclassical lines.
-Casa de Diego Velazquez Along the western side of the square. Claimed to be the oldest home in Cuba, built anytime between 1516 and 1530 right after the foundation of Santiago by the Spanish as their 5th city in Cuba. It was the residence of the first Spanish governor in Cuba, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar; and also home for some time of Hernan Cortes, conqueror of Mexico. 2 CUP to enter (extra 5 CUP if you want to make pictures… well, very questionable, there’s always the sneaky way and for a small tip to any of the guides they will be happy to let you do as many pics you wish).
-City Hall Aligning the entire north side opposite the Cathedral. Where from the balcony Fidel Casto proclaimed the triumph of the Revolution in January 1959.
-Alameda Continuing west along Calle Francisco Vicente Aguilera after Parque Cespedes, you will reach again the port area. Walking a bit south from there you reach the Alameda Promenade, with some of the nicest buildings aligning the waterfront.
-Calle Santa Rita Taking once again a street into the old town in your next zig-zag, this one is your best choice for the great amount of sights along the way.
-Museo de la Clandestinidad A spotless colonial building perfectly restored. From the outside is already worth to take the picture.
-Padre Pico Stairs A charming spot of buildings with this stairs between these narrow streets (Santa Rita and Joaquin Castillo).
-Calle General Lacret Once Santa Rita intersects with this street, take it and head north. Soon you’ll be at the back of the Cathedral by Bartolome Maso Street.
-Calle Bartolome Maso Take it towards the east to complete the remaining sights in the city.
-Rum Museum In the former house of Mariano Gomez, the treasurer of the Bacardí company. 2 CUP to enter.
-Home of Jose Maria Heredia Single floor colonial home. He is considered to be the first romantic poet of the Americas and the initiator of Latin American romanticism. Known as “El Cantor del Niagara” and regarded as one of the most important poets in the Spanish language.
-Calle Jose Maria Heredia The next parallel to Bartolome Maso, containing great architecture. The rest while in the city is navigating around and discover other corners, as for sights, there are no more worth to list.
- Castillo San Pedro de la Roca South outside of the city right by the harbour entrance, near the airport, also known as Castillo del Morro. Originally built from mid 1650’s, then restored in the 1960’s. Inscribed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage site citing: “the most complete, best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture, based on Italian and Renaissance design principles”. 2 CUP to enter and extra 5 if you want to take picture. Once again, very questionable since they cannot even control this.
- Gran Roca and the First Coffee Plantations in the Southeast UNESCO World Heritage site listed. Not far east from Santiago is this area full with these coffee plantations that were primarily of French and Haitian origin at the Sierra Maestra foothills of the Bacanao National Park. La Isabelica farm is now the iconic representation of this, restored as a museum. You need to reach La Gran Roca, one of the highest points in Cuba, and from there, is a walk downhill towards La Isabelica. If you head uphill along the hundreds of steps, you will reach the viewing point right atop the Gran Roca. 2 CUP to enter Gran Roca (includes a drink) and 2 CUP to enter the coffee plantation.
Antonio Maceo International Airport is the third largest and important in the country after Havana and Varadero. It’s fast and easy yet not too expensive to fly from Havana to Santiago or vice-versa, with quite a good frequencies between both. International routes are mostly charter flights, and scheduled ones to Port-au-Prince, Montego Bay, Kingston, Santo Domingo, Montreal or Toronto.
Coming overland, your options are bus or railway from the main cities in Cuba. For example, there’s the every second day night train departure from Havana to Santiago via Camaguey and Santa Clara. Not the most optimal to be honest as you depend on being there on the day where the train departs as otherwise there’s no train. However, the best option is by bus, the Viazul company. With 4 daily connections, if no more depending on which city, you can connect towards Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara and Camaguey to name the most important cities.
To book your bus tickets remember to do so at least within 2 weeks before the date, any earlier it’s not possible in the website, and any later the seats might sell out. The Viazul website is very easy and straightforward, therefore do not risk it by going to the bus station to try your luck. It’s a mess like no other, and the chances you won’t manage a ticket are almost guaranteed. Book them at their official website.
Once in Santiago, everything around the historic old town is easy to navigate, very compact and the best option is to walk everywhere. Some of the streets are now fully pedestrian and there’s a great vibe to enjoy. For farther distances, you have like in Havana, the metrobus system. These are buses covering distances up to 20 kilometres into the metropolitan area of Santiago and criss-crossing the city centre, plenty of taxis and of course for a good deal if you negotiate the price, a driver will take you to San Pedro de la Roca Castle and Gran Roca with La Isabelica coffee plantation. This is the wisest option to reach both places rather than booking a tour that will set the cost double!
Being one of the most beautiful cities in Cuba it also means one of the most visited by tourists. The hotel industry although not too big, is good enough especially because we are talking of stays of 1 or 2 nights in most of the cases, hence not much needed than a comfortable bed and a clean room. If hotels is what you are seeking for, then a good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms, Ebookers, Gala Hotels or TUI. Please note most of these will not offer any results in Cuba, this is to do with the USA embargo. Try the respective European sites instead if needed be, although the best sites for Cuba would be Gala Hotels and TUI.
In the other hand since hotels are generally very expensive, there is something way much better you could do (and should do if you’re staying overnight); this is a private house. There are lots, beautiful, most of them in historic colonial buildings, with very nice and friendly hosts. In airb&b you can have a first look, then have a more generic online search for other websites.
We stayed at what is considered one of the most famous hotels in the city, the Iberostar Casa Granda just there in the central square Parque Cerspedes, overlooking the Cathedral and the City Hall. Yet again, a property supposedly to be a 4* however don’t expect any higher than a 3* service, still nice. From location you cannot have anything more central than this to be honest, and while you can get more affordable hotels in the city, this turned out to be a good value for money considering their reviews were some of the nicest we’ve seen in the whole trip in Cuba. Of course for a better experience and level of luxury, you have the top hotel, the Melia. That’s the only 5* in the city. Anyway, Casa Granda was nice and exceeded our expectation. Staff was friendly and caring, breakfast very good and the room very comfortable. The downside for being at such prime location? Noise. Yes, even at late night people is still in the square, with music, dancing or just in groups of friends, and there is not real isolation with double-glazing windows. So be prepared to have some earplugs.