Santiago de Cuba is a moving city, and quite literally so, we're not just saying spiritually. Its location in a moderately seismic region adds to its unique "moving" character.
The so-called "La tierra Caliente" (Cuba's hot land) is shaken from time to time by small tremors, but these movements are usually barely noticeable by its energetic people who are used to walk in a dancing motion as they go about the city and up and down its hills.
As I am not from Santiago, I didn't follow the urban crowd and instead looked for the heart of this large city, the place where everything converges, and take it as the starting point for my local heritage quest… And what's the epicentre of this quake city? Cespedes Park!
Look for the towers of the Cathedral
"Excuse me… How can I get to Cespedes Park?", I asked when I arrived at Marte Square, a picturesque spot and home to gatherings that give way to intense sports discussions.
"You can't get lost. Go down Aguilera Street and you will be right there. If you happen to lose your way, look for the towers of the Cathedral."
I was told in the famed local friendliness of its people.
Cubans have a saying: "On the way down, all saints help" which more or less means to say that you need no help when going downhill. But instead of going down Aguilera Street, I took Enramada Street, a popular street littered with shops and stores, cafeterias and many people going up and down like ants, but exchanging kisses, compliments and greetings along the way.
The people from Santiago are true extroverts; noisy, humorous and unfettered; they are never ashamed of anything and come across as very straight-forward folks, approaching everything and everyone in their peculiar singing accent.
Sometimes their approach may be intimidating, but they're not dangerous to be around. However a wise travel precaution you should exercise in most places is to carry just the essentials when you're out and about, no expensive jewellery or flashy state-of-the art gadgets. And, because of the relentless heat you should always carry a bottle of water or two and wear light clothing as you climb steep streets under the scorching sunshine.
The paved ramps are impressive, but the descent is barely noticeable once you're amidst the crowd. The characteristic beat of the Cuban clave rhythm pattern indicated that I should turn left next and look for Dolores Square.
Dolores Square, a stop before the final destination
This small square is famous for its fauna of crazy, religious and old folks who survive on "making soup". In Cuba "to make soup" is to play music for tourists for whatever they tip. Some of the stars from Buena Vista Social Club used to earn their living this way, before they were "discovered" well past their prime.
On a corner, I stumbled upon some old street singers strumming their guitars, setting the beat and beautifully singing sones and guarachas (traditional music genres from Santiago) with a voice broken by their Bohemian lifestyle, rum intake and the inexorable burden of the years.
"Do you happen to know Convergencia?"
I asked, and it was like inserting a coin in a jukebox: it seemed that Miguelito Cuni (a famous Cuba folk singer) had come from the afterlife to sing one of my favourite, most soulful sones. They really deserved the dollar I gave them…
Just be careful and don't fall in the trap of one of the many hustlers looking for easy money. Watch out for the "self-made guides", those that approach you pretending to be knowledgeable tour guides who simply take you through the maze of the colonial centre of Santiago, and end their tour in a "paladar" (private restaurant) where they obtain a commission for bringing you there.
Finally getting to Cespedes, passing by the Bacardi building
I finally took to Aguilera Street and on my way towards my final destination passed by aging houses and neo-classic buildings; evidences of a long-gone past of wealth and opulence. I was impressed by the magnificent grey Bacardi Museum, a must-see landmark for its Peruvian and Egyptian mummies as well as its collection of patriotic relics.
There I also found some folks "making soup". They wanted to play something for me, but I rejected the offer with a smile and kept on walking: if you don't do this at one point or another, you won't be able to get away from them.
In front of the museum, I took an alley to the left and got to Cespedes Park through Heredia Street. There, I passed by the house of poet Jose Maria Heredia and by the Casa de la Trova, with its traditional Cuban stools, its photographs of iconic Santiago musicians (Matamoros, Sindo Garay, Pepe Sanchez) and its fantastic live music sessions.
Then, at last, I spotted the towers…
The soul of Santiago de Cuba
At first, I disliked the treeless condition of the park. Hurricane Sandy was responsible for the destruction of leafy trees that once sheltered those looking for shade and peace. However, the park preserves its gentle beauty, the grace of its location and its neighbouring buildings like the Hotel Casa Granda, the house of Diego Velazquez. On one of its corners stood another group of "soup-makers".
Long ago, this place was known as The Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral), Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Reina Isabel or Plaza Isabel La Catolica. The park was given its present name in 1953, when a monument to Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the Father of the Homeland, was added to it.
Close to Cespedes' bust, a craftsman with long dreadlocks was weaving guano items. He wanted me to buy a hat for $5.00 CUC and a fan for $3.00 CUC, but I was not interested. I could have bargained over the price and I would have probably got them both for $4.00 CUC, or less. You should always carry money in small bills and coins, because they rarely have any change.
You don't get to the heart of Santiago de Cuba to simply buy a souvenir, but to see all the historical spots surrounding it. For example, you cannot miss the house where Diego Velasquez, The Conqueror, lived, which probably also is Cuba's first ever dwelling after the Spanish conquest. On the opposite side you find Hotel Casagranda, founded almost a century ago. To one side, there is the Municipal Council and it was from its balcony that Fidel Castro addressed the people of Santiago when he came down the mountains. In front of it you'll see the majestic cathedral.
Aside from the sights you can spot from Cespedes Park, the very route to get to the core of Santiago is an adventure. That is why I had to sit down for a while when I finally reached it due to the intensity of making my way down there. I lay down on the granite benches and had a faint suspicion that soon became a sound confirmation as I witnessed it at night: these benches might not be too comfortable, yet they're ideal for ending the day among drinks, friends, trova; and the "soup makers", of course…