SANTIAGO DE CUBA: What to do and visit
My visit to Santiago De Cuba, was meant to last 3 days but it ended up to be 10 days: It is easy to understand that I liked the city that much to extend my stay longer than expected.
What is is so special about this Cuban city? Well, I generally think that what makes special a place it is partly the beauty around but most of all the people that we encounter on our path, and I met lots of beautiful people in Santiago, who definitely changed my trip.. in better.
Thanks to this, I could experience the city as a local and get deeper in the culture, eating and cooking traditional food, experiencing music traditional events like “Festival del Caribe”, get wild in the countryside and much more. It is a city of music, dance, incredibly friendly people and strong Afro-Caribbean influences, in fact, people’s features are pretty much different here from rest of Cuba, with a remarkable reggae twist.
So now I need to share with you what I have done and where I have been in Santiago de Cuba, and few tips that would definitely turn handy if you will ever visit the city.
The hottest Cuban City
It is said that “Santiagueros” are very hot people because the city is so hot, that people tend to be more passionate than people in the rest of Cuba: I have to agree with this.
Well, Santiago is at the very Southern side of Cuba and temperature can easily reach 35/38 Celsius degrees from 11.00 until 1600/1700 most of all in months like June/July, so this is something that you want to calculate if you suffer the heating that much.
Based on weather conditions, I suggest to organize your day starting with outdoor activities early in the morning or late in the afternoon, keeping when possible the indoor activity within this gap of time, during the hottest hours. On top of this, the city is well known for his multitude of hills, that won’t make your tours any easier if you are not a little bit fit.
PLACE TO VISIT:
I would make a list of places and attractions to visit, to make easier your tour’s plan, but they are not necessarily listed in any sort of preference, so I would leave to you the choice of mix and match them, based on time and personal preferences.
• Parque Cespedes: is the nerve of the city, the major landmark point where many activities take their start, you won’t definitely miss this Square. Surrounded by Colonial building and an impressive Cathedral, the Square is often the host of musical and dance events in the latest hours of the day. You can happily join the crowd and dance or simply enjoying the events sipping a refreshing drink. The Square is a WIFI hotspot and you can find by the Cathedral an Etecsa point where to buy your WIFI card. Note: to get a faster speed, you can also go to the Lobby of the Historical hotel “Casa Granda”, and buy a card there (it will cost you almost 50/70% more than the Etecsa one) or consume a drink/snack to get connected. Also, locals will try to sell their card for even a more expensive price: why to buy them? Only in case of emergency: if Etecsa point is closed and possibly the hotel run out of cards, which is very unlikely. So, try to manage properly your Internet access to avoid the extra charge.
• Cathedral “Nuestra Señora de la Asunción: placed at Park Cespedes, the Cathedral was built in the XVI century, but got a very turbulent past. I suggest clicking here to get more historical info on the Cathedral: credential to Santiago De Cuba City. Org
• Enramadas: pedestrian boulevard where to stroll at any time of the day, meeting restaurant, bars, some shops (do not expect any fancy shop), hotels and lovely colonial buildings. The road is unique as marked by each-one-different-to-each-other mosaic plaques, resembling the symbols of the Santiaguera Culture (one of which is the sexuality). I suggest tasting a house-made ice cream, from the little door open on the road right in front of Verano Fast Food shop: this lovely couple will sell you a tasty and fresh ice-cream for as little as 5 CUP. Some areas of the Boulevard are covered by WIFI, but here the signal is quite wicked,
Furthermore, the boulevard goes up and down of a hill, although I suggest you to travel it all anyway. Almost at the middle of the Enramadas, you can stop at Plaza de Dolores and pay a visit to the antic Church of Nuestra Senora de Los Dolores, and if you walk up to the hill, at the very upper side of the Boulevard you will encounter Park Plaza de Marte, another landmark of the city and the close by Museum 26 de Julio.
• Alameda: walking down the Enramadas boulevard instead, you will end up at the Alameda, the harbor of Santiago De Cuba, turning and walking on the left side (walking right, you will be directed to the port of the city and the Bus Terminal). Alameda is another spot that often hosts music events and where the locals light up the Diablo to end the Festival del Caribe. I loved to stroll in the evening or to jog there in the early morning, on top the harbor is never very much crowed making it a perfect place where to relax with a book, eat a snack, drink something and chat up with local people. Also, you will be highly tempted to stop to take few or a lot of pictures at the CUBA big monument. Well, you .. and all the kids around!
• Fruit and Veg Market: on the opposite side of the harbor, going towards the port on the right side, after 300/400 m, you can find a local and very colorful market: few stands, but rich of fruits/veg/legume of any kind. Stop there to have a taste of fresh fruits and possibly buy something for your day to keep up on fiber, or simply stop to have a chat with the friendly vendors who won’t hesitate to explain what they are selling whether you do not know. This is one of the markets where Cubans go once per month with their Carnet as a resident and can benefit from the monthly allowance supplied by the government. This is another side of the country, as you might sense, a little sad. Being still a poor country and with an average of salary around 30 dollars per month, Cuban’s families cannot really rely on their salary for food supply, hence the government, to establish equality (roots of Communism), supplies to each Cuban since their birth, with basic food such rice, chicken, milk for kids etc. What Cubans needs it’s just their Carnet (sort of identity document) to show up once they are at the market’s counter. Sad to consider that the majority of the time this allowance won’t last until the end of the month and once more Cubans might need to use their inventive to carry on. With the same Carnet, the residents can use the local transport for a cheaper price than the ones supplied to no resident, such Viazul (also permanent residents will benefit of this Carnet, although with few differences).
• Parque de Ferreira: known for the variety of street food offered, and also for being one of the stops for Taxi Collectivo: Jeeps to share with other people to travel around the city (from 5 to 20 CUP, depends on the routes). Here I suggest you taste a nice chocolate cake at Dulceria del Goloso, one of the best in town.
• Museo de la Lucha Clandestina and Museo de la Clandestinidad: revolutionary museums in the gorgeous Tivoli área. Also, at only one square from the museums, you can visit the Velasquez Balcony and take outstanding pictures of the city (mind that the entrance is free, but if you take pictures they will charge you 1 CUC). One more spot in Tivoli area, worth a visit is the Escalinata de Padre Pico, made-of-steps little street (52 big steps), that is a strong symbol of Santiago, related to the history of the city. Definitely, you can take it from there to simply stroll the Barrio Tivoli, one of the oldest in town, and enjoy the view of beautiful Colonial houses (Casa Particulares where you can also be hosted) and traditional little roads where most luckily you will bump in food street vendors and kids playing around.
• Plaza de la Revolucion : a little bit more far away from the city centre, at the entrance of the city, Revolution Square is a spot not to be missed. You can easily get there by taxi (cost from city center might be around 3-5 CUC, based on your negotiation skills) or by taxi-moto (you can stop literally anyone on the street driving their motorbike and they will take you around for as little as 10 CUP, or 20 in the night. Of course, they might ask you more, so now you know how much they should charge you, then it is up to you to tip the guy). The Square, inaugurated on 1991 by Fidel Castro, is split into two parts: one is the combination of sculptures such the majestic monument dedicated to Antonio Maceo riding his horse, and one dedicated to a small Museum. Note: the view on top of the Square is pretty good and often you won’t find many people there. Also in front of the Square you can visit the Heredia Theater, and enjoy a big area of green where you can chill out a little from the heat.
• Santa Ifigenia Cemetery: resting place of notable Cuban such National Hero Jose Marti and Fidel Castro luxurious grave, and many others. The entrance to the cemetery is free , but you will pay a small fee to visit Mausoleum to Jose Marti and Fidel Castro grave
• Calle San Francisco : back to the center of Santiago, this road is one of the oldest of the city and yet one of the prettiest with some handcraft gadget/souvenirs stands, nice restaurants (I use to go to restaurant San Francisco) and close by, my favorite breakfast stop: a little humble kiosk where a nice man called Mauro Doria Garcia (ask for him around so you can get there easily) will sell you a nice and hot cup of Cuban coffee, that you can drink it up to wash down some yummy mango Jam pastry you can buy in the bakery on the corner. Do not miss this!
WHERE TO SLEEP:
You Can either opt for a Casa Particulares (my suggestion) or a hotel: both available on booking.com and on the website Casa Particular (check also: Airbnb and Homestay). For the bravest one who prefers not to book but go on spot and check, it is very possible. I still suggest you to book the first night, reach Santiago and knocking on few Casas checking on their availability (this is the best way to negotiate on price, but be very sensitive as they pay a considerable tax to the government on the tourist house’s rent, so avoid to be too pushy on the discount).
I have been hosted at the lovely Casa Salgado.
Direccion: Sta Lucia n. 253 – Entre Sto. Tomas and S. Pedro
With a nice patio where to chill in the hottest hours of the day, having some homemade food cooked by the house’s owner or drinking something very cold, you will straight away feel at home. Also, the house offers a terrace, if you are keen to wake up early in the morning you can get some nice Sunrise shoot from there.
WHAT TO EAT/DRINK:
• Breakfast: if you fancy getting something different from what offered from your Casa/hotel, you can opt for the breakfast I have mentioned above in the paragraph dedicated to Calle S. Francisco: the bakery offers a big variety of cakes and pastry, each of them very delicious and fresh and prices start from 2 CUP per pastry. They do not sell coffee or drink, but in front of the bakery, you can find a little house-restaurant (locals call this kind of lunch-restaurant La Fonda) where to get some gorgeous natural juice and meet our friend Dario at his kiosk for a nice smokey cup of Cuban coffee.
• Lunch/Dinner: Enramadas offers a various option, from the on-street kiosk selling sandwich and pizza as the cheaper option, to bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a nice meal. I use to go to Restaurante El Treno, on the upper side of the boulevard (ask for Nermis, a Cuban chef who used to live in Italy, or Yovani the handy guy at the bar, and they both will give you the best on-Menu options). General price in a not high rated restaurant can be 5-7 CUP, and food tastes delicious. Also, you can find many other options around the town, like the street food at Park Ferreira.
• Supermarket: called Panamericana, they offer basic needs and not really the cheapest option. They are usually very crowded and slow. Only for an emergency!
WHERE TO PARTY:
Santiago is the right city for Fiesta! Generally, the city hosts many music and festival events, you can join them in different sites of the town. Here more info: Frommers.
You can join Cubans dancing on the street, to learn Cuban Salsa for free and have lots of fun. Last but not least for the party animals, there are many available clubs on the boulevard like Club 300.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE MONEY:
It is easy to find a bank where to exchange money with the best change currency, try to avoid to exchange money from guys on the street, as you will obviously get the worst exchange. Also, try to get always with you some CUP to pay the cheapest things, like a snack on the street.
TRAVEL AROUND THE CITY:
• By taxi: general price is 4-5 CUC within the city. No need to find one, they will find you: is plenty of people that will work as taxi promoter, stopping and asking if you need a taxi, so if you need one go with them, as they will get a commission on you (something that will help their low income)
• By Moto-taxi: each person riding a motorbike will be keen to give you a ride, just stop them waving your hand. Price 10-20 CUP based on distance and if night time
• Walk: although plenty of hills, it is always pleasant to walk in a new city, the best way to enjoy and discover the surrounding
• Terminal bus: soon after the port, 2 km away from the center. Terminal bus for local and Viazul. Remember that you will need your passport to purchase your Viazul tickets. You can also purchase your ticket online, but do not forget to print a copy.
• As mentioned above the city is very hot: keep hydrated all the time and eat only fresh food, possibly fruits daytime. Keep a bottle of water in your bag at all time, and avoid to drink tap water.
• Mind the naïve and too-much-friendly promoters that generally hang on the main spot of the city like Park Cespedes: they will try to sell you everything they can, and I have explained to you why, so nothing wrong with that, but some of them might really overcharge you so always try the technic of negotiation (“well, I have heard that it was cheaper” etc) but do not be too pushy on the bargain. Also, if you do not speak Spanish, you won’t be able to get much discount and you might be overcharged very easily. On top, most of all for all my ladies, some of these young guys can be very much friendly with you.. and with another tourist.. and with another tourist… mind that, not everybody can be genuinely interested in to get to know you as a person and not as ATM.
• Talk with people, be open to get to know different things and different point of view on life. Cuban are very much friendly and people in Santiago even more, so they will easily welcome you in their houses even if they can offer you a little .. they will.
• Be responsible with your belonging: Cuba, in general, is a very safe country and the robbery is low-rated, but Santiago it can be slightly less safe in this sense. Most of all over the crowded events, try to go out with the minimum necessary. Then, do not be scared to walk around even alone (for my solo-travelers), as this city is quite safe overall and people very helpful.
• Have fun: Santiago is Caliente (hot) in every sense: people dance all the time, they will chat you up all the time, so here you can really get to know the Cuban culture.