It’s only 48 miles from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo, which we passed about 5 a.m. Havana is 550 miles away. With a population of close to 600,000, Santiago is Cuba’s 2nd largest city and the birthplace of revolution. We were challenged to experience its magic, but I personally found it rather horrifying. It was the first city in Cuba that we visited and first impressions linger.
Historically, Santiago de Cuba is a rum and copper mining town with a definite African influence. Haiti is not too distant. Mining once made Santiago the most powerful town on the island. Like Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba is on a large bay with background mountains. However, Cienfuegos’ bay is far more beautiful.
My Michelin travel guide. which is culturally based, described Santiago as hot and ramshackle and said its daily tempo swings from vitality to indolence. From what I observed, this is all true. It’s also said to be the city of Son and Ron. That’s music and rum. This place goes all out for Carnival and other fiestas, and Bacardi started here. Although it now has 29 facilities and is corporately based in Bermuda, Bacardi’s first distillery was in Santiago de Cuba.
Revolution. In 1959 Fidel Castro gave his victory speech here. Some say he cleverly waited until a night of distracting Carnival activities. 57 years later, his ashes were interred in Santa Ifigenia Cemetery here. José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, is also buried in this cemetery. So is Emilio Bacardi, son of the distillery’s founder. Emilio was imprisoned more than once and exiled for fighting against Spain in the Cuban War of Independence, the conflict that put San Juan Hill and Rough Riders into American history books. Spanish soldiers who died at San Juan Hill are buried here as is, curiously, Napoleon Bonaparte’s last doctor. Ifigenia is this island’s 2nd largest cemetery.
We were told we would visit San Juan Hill and its monuments, but this didn’t happen. We did do a drive-by. Asked if we could visit the cemetery where Castro is buried, our government hired tour guide waved her hand and said it was too far away. It’s clearly in Santiago de Cuba. Draw your own conclusion.
We also didn’t visit the Museo Emilio Bacardi, the Museo del Carnaval, and the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Pope Francis celebrated mass in 2015 on this city’s main square where the cathedral is and where we DID see Cubans with horrible disabilities and citizens who could barely wait for us to get off the bus to beg for soap and money. We did see the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, had a two-hour lunch with beer from Guatemala, watched smiling dancers, listened to “Guantanamera” again, and visited a state-sanctioned tourist shop where we could buy cigars, rum, and trinkets. The path to the castle was lined with booths stuffed with small carvings, pictures of old cars, etc, etc. This typical fortress/castle was clearly being readied for hordes of tourists.