Ask anybody what defines Cuba and they will immediately conjure images of classic cars, salsa dancing, Havana Club rum and Cohiba cigars. And while these are, in fact, icons that have made Cuba famous, they tell merely a fraction of a story. When most people think of Cuba, they imagine a time warp to the 1950s; they picture Havana as a bustling Caribbean metropolis and bucket list destination. Once so close and yet so far out of reach, when many U.S. travel restrictions were lifted in 2016, Americans flocked to the island nation like sharks to a feeding frenzy. Seemingly overnight, tourism skyrocketed and Cuba was the next hot destination. Well, at least Havana and Varadero were.
Since then, some things have changed. But while the Trump administration has rolled back some Obama-era changes, this remains a new era of possibility for Americans wanting to visit Cuba.
What defines Cuba goes far beyond the city of Havana or the beaches of Varadero.
For a different beat, a more authentic experience, one infused with culture and soul and what it really means to be Cuban, head to the east side of the island to Santiago de Cuba, one of Cuba’s oldest cities and the birthplace of La Revolución.
While Santiago has yet to encounter the level of tourism that Havana has, it is the place to go if you want to see Cuba “before it changes.” Cuba has been a hotspot destination to Europeans for decades. Cuba “as it was,” at least in large tourist areas such as Havana and Varadero, is a thing of the past.
Probably the most jarring aspect of Santiago, and Cuba in general, is the apparent poverty that runs rampant through the country. Everyone knows that poverty in Cuba is widespread. But it’s one thing to know something and another to experience it firsthand. Homes are left unfinished because construction materials and skilled labor are difficult to come by, even if people had the money to pay for them. Work is scarce and people roam the streets in the middle of the day.
Public transportation is unreliable and kind of grimy. Grocery store shelves are mostly barren and contain only a few canned goods. But tourists strolling the streets of Centro Havana are unlikely to see this side of Cuba. That would tarnish the facade, the nice shiny exterior that the rest of the world sees.
Wander through the narrow thoroughfares of Santiago dodging loco private taxi drivers; amidst colorful, deteriorating buildings; a reggaeton band with a one-legged bassist and shops displaying local, handmade crafts and feel strangely at home in the midst of chaos.
The grand tour of Santiago, from la Gran Piedra, where the most scenic panoramic views are a mere 452-step climb to the top; to Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a 17th century fortress built to protect the port of Santiago, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997; complete with private car and trilingual guide for eight-plus hours, will cost only 120 CUC (approximately $120 USD give or take a 13 percent tax). Entrance to most attractions costs between one and five CUC.
There are also many free, not to mention historically significant, sites throughout Santiago. For example, San Juan Hill, a homage to the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders’ involvement in Cuba, will leave you wondering why you didn’t get more Cuban history in high school. Revolution Square boasts a towering tribute to Antonio Maceo, killed in action fighting for Cuba’s independence from the Spanish; Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is the resting place of Cuban giants like Emilio Bacardi Moreau, José Martí, and most recently, Fidel Castro.
Santiago is best known, however, for its colonial architecture and revolutionary history, which can be seen at the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum (which is not about rum, but a mixture of local art and Cuban history) and the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle, situated across from the house Fidel Castro grew up in with his grandparents from the age of 6, which details the fight against the Batista regime and Santiago’s status as the cradle of La Revolución. Spend some time people-watching in Cespedes Park and admire the architecture of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and the Hotel Casa Granda firsthand.
Even more indicative of the city’s unique culture is its melting pot of Afro-Caribbean influences, predominantly from nearby Jamaica and Haiti. Even the Spanish sounds different here, with melodic French undertones hanging on every word.
On Sunday evenings, Casa del Caribe is the place to be for live local, African-inspired music and dancing (and really cheap beer). This is a local hangout, so make friends with some locals before you go.
With so much to see and do in Santiago, no matter how much time you schedule there, it will inevitably not be enough. And while Santiago may not be the typical vacation spot and is often overshadowed by Havana’s mass appeal, it is certain to leave a lasting impression, one that will redefine your global perspective.