Highlights of Santiago de Cuba

I really had no idea what to expect of Santiago de Cuba, afterall the next biggest city in Cuba is always overshadowed by Havana. So Santiago was going to surprise us – it could only leave a good or a bad impression right? We showed up in Santiago with no plan except a booked casa particular and hearing how super hot it is year round.

What did we learn? On one hand Santiago is a HOT melting pot with a completely different vibe to Havana that immediately draws you in like quicksand and on the other it’s a cultural capital proud of the part it has played in Cuba’s evolution.

With 40C midday temps there was time for siestas and many late nights out on the town. And if you’re there in July, you’re lucky to experience Revolution Day and their Carnival which lasts for over a week in Santiago.

Five days of relaxing and slowly exploring in and around Santiago we couldn’t help but fall in love with this former colonial city. It may be more “modern” than Havana but has a charm of its own, from the beautiful colonial buildings, cathedrals and charming people to the music houses with some of Cuba’s finest improv musicians.

We let Santiago surprise us and here’s what we loved the most!

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Panoramic view of Parque Cespedes, in the heart of Old Santiago with the Cathedral, Casa de Diego Velazquez and the Town Hall on each side.

Early morning walks through the streets. Santiago isn’t flat so uphill streets made for a good workout with a reward of fantastic views of the harbour, port and surrounding Sierra Maestra mountains in the distance.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

There may be no grand celebrations on Revolution Day, July 26th, but everyone is glued to their television watching the televised speech by Castro and the government. Santiagueros (as the locals are called) are proud of their city’s rebellious history.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

During the Carnival season, makeshift sheds are construction in the streets of the barrios, there is a bar, food and a resident DJ playing music for the locals to dance the nights away. Oh the fun of joining them!

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Cuba may be popular for vintage cars but the trucks are equally impressive, especially these “uso particular” ones that are a popular form of people transport.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Enjoying cold drinks at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Casa Granda with the perfect panoramic view of Parque Cespedes and rooftops for as far as the eyes could see made for the perfect spot to forget the midday heat.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Jose Marti fountain monument with the early morning sun shining on it, is the perfect spot to people watch as Santiago woke up. It is directly across from the Moncada Barracks, the site of an armed attack by Fidel Castro and the beginning of the Cuban revolution.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Casa de Diego Velazquez, the oldest house in Cuba and one of the oldest in the Americas, is a remarkable colonial building and historical museum and well worth the visit. It was built in 1516 as the residence of the founder of Cuba’s original seven towns and overflow with period furniture, carved woodwork and­ two lovely courtyards.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

The famous music hall Casa de la Trova, has hosted nearly all legendary Cuban musicians and a stop in (to also hide from the heat if you go in the daytime) gives you a good appreciation of different styles of Cuban music as groups play different styles all day long – from salsa to guarachas to boleros.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Museo Provincial Emilio Bacardi Moreau is the second oldest museum in the country and contains a personal collection from Don Emilio Bacardí Moreau, including the Egyptian mummy he had bought. Amongst the things to see are artifacts from the Amerindians, the conquistadors, and the slave trade and on the second level there is an enviable collection of colonial painting dating back two centuries that should not be missed.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

From vintage cars to vintage trucks to toy cars for the merry-go-around and amusement park…seeing the little kids get excited over this makes you want to join in.

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About 18 kilometres northwest from Santiago de Cuba in the old mining town of Cobre, is one of Cuba’s most famous churches – the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. It’s an easy day trip and getaway to this beautiful lush area outside of the city. The magnificent church with its red domed towers, is a pilgrimage site and attracts people from all over Cuba who come seeking the purported healing powers of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobra (Our Lady of Charity).

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

About 25 kilometres southeast from the city, another day trip we enjoyed was La Gran Piedra (Grand Stone) which is a large volcanic rock perched atop a mountain with some spectacular views of surrounding peaks and coastal plains. Some say on clear days you can see as far as Jamaica. It is worth the climb up the seemingly never ending set of stairs that leads up to the 1,234-meter-high peak of Gran Piedra for these breathtaking views before visiting the nearby old coffee estate and botanical gardens.

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

La Gran Piedra, Santiago de Cuba

And without a doubt Carnival in Santiago de Cuba is grandly celebrated over a week of activities. We enjoyed being out each night enjoying the parades, creative floats, costumes, music and joining in with the locals too!

Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Carnival, Santiago de Cuba image Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba Photo Diary: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba