Santiago de Cuba was the nation’s first capital. It was “demoted” in favor of Havana, which was named capital by virtue of its port and its larger economy. While it is no longer the capital, Santiago de Cuba is, however, the most heterogeneous city, with a vibrant mix of virtually every nationality and race. This in turn, contributes to its musical heritage and its charm.
Entering the city from the northeast (as from Trinidad) brings you face-to-face with two of the city’s most important monuments:
- Revolution Plaza is site of a huge, modern monument to General Antonio Maceo—a rather abstract figure on a charging horse (on two legs to signify that he was killed in battle), surrounded by 23 stylized machetes that represents the 23 bullet wounds that he suffered. The museum inside the memorial, is dedicated largely to pictures of Fidel, with several from his early 1950s’ campaigns in the Granma province (in which Santiago is located) and another wall, with more contemporary photos from the 1990s. Across the plaza is a wall sculpture of Juan Alameda Bosque, a local hero of the communist rebellion;
- Moncado Barracks, the site of Castro’s failed July 23, 1953 attempt to capture one of the country’s most important garrisons. Although the raid was a tactical defeat, it was a moral victory in that raised visibility and helped mobilize citizen support for the uprising against the Batista government. The structure, which is still pocked with bullet holes from the failed raid, is currently divided between a school and a museum that commemorates the raid and provides context for the raid as part of the overall campaign. Inside the museum, we learned about the preliminary takeover of the hospital (to ensure injured guerrillas would receive proper care) and the steep odds faced by the roughly 100 guerrillas to take a barracks manned by over 1,000 soldiers. It showed the civilian shoes worn by one of the uniform-clad rebels that alerted the soldiers and provided gruesome details of the executions and tortures to which many were subjected, Fidel’s trial and the deportation of the survivors to Mexico—from which they plotted and executed their return. It showed how they gradually took over the Eastern part of the island, met up with Che who had occupied the Central part and how they joined to triumphantly enter Havana on January 8, 1959
Cespedes Park is in the center of the city. In addition to its role of the social center of the city, it, and its surrounding blocks are the site of many of the city’s most important and most striking buildings. These include:
- Cathedral of the Ascunciation, the huge, beautifully restored, Neo-Classical cathedral that had to be rebuilt twice over its 500-year life: first the result a devastating pirate raid, the second due to an earthquake. Although the blue-themed paint brightens the appearance, the exterior is much more impressive than the interior;
- Diego Velasquez house. The Conquistador who founded the city (and much of the rest of the country) built this Mudajar mansion, which is generally thought to be the oldest existing Spanish building in the country (from somewhere between 1516 to 1530). It now houses a lovely museum of mostly European furniture that was used in Spanish mansions—including Velasquez’. Furniture is generally organized in different rooms by country of origin (primarily Spain, France and England) and century (from the 16th through the 18th). Among the precious furnishings are a number of fabulous mahogany and ebony chests, a beautiful ivory inlaid chest, an onyx table, a beautiful family altar, lovely Spanish, French and German porcelain and an amazing 18th-century French clock. Meanwhile, the original woodwork is intricately carved and, on the ground floor, a furnace for melting Mexican gold booty into ingots for shipment back to Spain;
- Town Hall, a recently constructed representation of the original 18th-century building from whose balcony Fidel gave his first public speech (in 1959);
- Hotel Casa Grande, the historic grande dame of Santiago’s hotels;
- Bacardi Museum, which was created in 1928 by the founders of the rum company, is the oldest in the country. It contains mementos of the Spanish conquest, the nationalist movement and revolution, and much more;
- Provincial Palace;
- Abogsdoas College, which was initially the home of a prominent judge, then a law library, and then a law school, has been again repurposed as a cultural organization. The yellow exterior has been renovated with exquisite detail;
- Santiago 1900, a restored mansion that has been repurposed into restaurants and a lounges, some of which have exquisitely carved woodwork; and
- San Juan Temple, which is now being restored. Promises to be another showplace.
The area south of Cespedes Park also contains some nice, if not necessary-to-see landmarks. These include:
- Velasquez Balcony, which provides a view of the lower city, down to the waterfront and mountains
- Padre Pico Stairs, that lead to the Tivoli neighborhood, which is one of the most vibrant melting pots in the city; and atop the stairs;
- Museum of the Clandestine Struggle, another beautifully restored exterior (we did not make it inside) that tells the story of the Batista clandestine police force and their assassination of rebel leader, Frank Pais.
Santiago de Cuba Restaurants
- El Alazan, a small, rooftop, Tivoli neighborhood paladar where we had two entries: grilled Dorado (which was darker and stronger tasting than the Dorado with which we are familiar) and nice, grilled lobster tail. A salad plate (traditional shredded cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes) which were the best we have so far had in the country and lettuce proceeded the entrees.. The meal came with boiled potatos and a choice of either white rice or brown rice and beans (we had one of each). We finished with a caramel flan and had accompanied the meal with a 2016 Chilean (from San Pedro) Gato Negro Sauvignon Blanc from the limited wine list.
- Sabon Cubano. It appeared to be an interesting paladar, atop another three-story building. While we were tempted by a number of dishes, our lunches have, unfortunately, made us suspicious of virtually any dish other than shrimp of lobster. We ordered them again, although, at the prompting of our server, with a different preparation. The shrimp was pan-fried in oil, garlic, onions and peppers. The lobster, in particularly, was cooked and served in a very good sauce consisting primarily of coffee, butter and parsley. While the accompanying salad and yellow rice were pretty standard, we particularly enjoyed the freshly fried plantain chips. The wine list—a choice of red or white—provided a basic Spanish white blend. Even with the wine, this was the best meal we had since leaving Havana and the Vinales Valley.
- Café Matamoros. Another very good lobster dinner, this one prepared with cola. And a as a bonus, this was the most tender of the Caribbean lobster tails we have had so far this trip. Dinner with was a small salad and vegetable serving and yellow rice, to which we added an order of freshly fried, crisp plantain chips. To enhance the already good experience, the band was quite good and the band’s female lead singer had one of the best and most resonant voices we have heard in a long time.
Santiago de Cuba Hotel
Encanto San Basilia is a small government run hotel not far from the cathedral plaza and looked recently cleaned up. The room was very comfortable, but the hot water in the shower did not work even after we told them there was an issue. The air conditioner was marginal. Not great on the first day that was hot but worked better when it was a little cooler outside. As with other Cuban hotels, lights were not very bright. All this is very typical of government owned properties. The staff also ran hot and cold. At times, one of the staff was more interested in the tv in the lobby than us. But that changed when he was trying to get a tip from us at the end. Yet other staff members were very good.