Get ready for some unique Santiago de Cuba activities. Sultry, hot, languid, bursting with color and rhythmic music, Santiago beguiles with its parks, history and tropical colonial vibe.
Santiago de Cuba, in the island’s eastern province of the same name, is Cuba’s second most populated city after Havana. Founded in 1515 the city sits on a spectacular bay and is a picturesque collection of hilly streets and red-tiled rooftops. The vibrant mix of Spanish, French, Haitian and African cultures is evident in the faces of the warm and helpful locals. It is the site of many critically important battles in both the Cuban War of Independence against Spain as well as the Cuban Revolution.
Here are 10 Santiago de Cuba activities that will help you maximize your experience in this fascinating city.
1. Stay in a refurbished 19th or early 20th-century “casa particular,” Cuba’s version of a B&B. Not only is the architecture true to the era, the furnishings also frequently date from that time, offering a nice peek into the city’s history. These homes often have indoor patios where traditional Cuban breakfasts are served. You can book a casa with Airbnb and here is a $40 credit towards your first stay.
2. Visit the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion (Our Lady of the Assumption) in Cespedes Park, the city’s main square. Dating from 1522, this church has been recently renovated leaving the ceiling looking like a wonderful, riotous wedding cake. If you climb to the top of the right cupola you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. A night view of the Cathedral is an equally impressive sight.
3. On the same square to the left of the Cathedral is the Casa Velasquez, the oldest standing house in Cuba. Named after Diego de Velasquez, the first Spanish governor of Cuba, the Casa Velasquez is now a remarkable museum displaying furnishings and artifacts from three different centuries in Santiago’s history. The rooms are all arranged to surround a faithfully restored indoor patio from the Spanish colonial era. I found this museum to be one of the most interesting Santiago de Cuba activities
4. Explore the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, more commonly known as El Morro, a massive 17th-century fort built to protect the key city of Santiago from pirates. It is the best-preserved example of Spanish-America military architecture.
5. Party the evening away at one of Santiago’s music venues. Casa de la Trova features traditional Cuban music in a family atmosphere. Club 300 and Iris Jazz Club, offering top-notch jazz, are just three of Santiago’s music clubs.
6. Peek into the religious soul of Cuba with a visit to the Sanctuary of La Virgen de la Caridad, Cuba’s patron. Legend has it that three fishermen were close to drowning in a storm. Suddenly the Virgin appeared calming the waters and saving the fishermen who reported the vision to the local priests. The sanctuary was built in gratitude.
7. Stroll the marble walkways of the Santa Efigenia Cemetery, the final resting place of Cuba’s notables.
Poet, statesman and father-of-the-country, Jose Marti, rests in a simple and elegant tomb. One of his poems says, “don’t bury me in the dark, bury me with my face to the sun, with a flag and a handful of flowers.” Here he rests…his final wishes respected. His coffin is positioned in a way that, as long as it is daylight, a ray of sun will fall upon it. It is draped in a Cuban flag and lies next to an arrangement of flowers.
8. Enjoy a shady respite from the sun with a cold drink in the outdoor café or rooftop terrace of the Hotel Casa Granda. A great way to soak up the culture and one of the most charming Santiago de Cuba activities.
9. For those interested in Cuba’s more recent revolutionary past, a visit to the Cuartel Moncada where Castro launched his ill-fated attack on Batista’s forces in 1953, may be of interest. Or see the massive statue of General Antonio Maceo, another hero of the War of independence, at Plaza de la Revolucion.
10. If you are lucky enough to be in Santiago on a weekend, head to Plaza de Marte where the locals go to listen to music and eat tasty street food. There is something for everyone here; from puppet shows to live performances by well-known artists.
Santiago is often referred to as the capital of the Caribbean. Although frequently overlooked by travelers focusing on the Havana circuit, Santiago de Cuba is well worth a visit and at least four days to do it justice.
Update: On December 4, 2016, Fidel Castro was buried in Santa Efigenia cemetery.
What do you think is the most interesting aspect of Santiago? Which are your favorite Santiago de Cuba activities?
And don’t forget my new book, The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide, available on Amazon.