Set amidst the spectacular Sierra Maestra mountain range, with the Caribbean seacoast at its feet, Santiago de Cuba is the island’s second largest city and one of the country’s most significant locations due to its historic importance and its exotic cultural blend. Once the nation’s capital, Santiago sizzles with an upbeat rhythm as the birthplace of Cuban music genres such as rumba, son and conga. An important piece of Cuban identity is enclosed under the relentless sun and narrow uphill streets of Santiago de Cuba as well as a unique Caribbean flavour, enriched by the city’s rich cultural blend.
If you’re planning a trip to Cuba and wish to skip over to Santiago for a day, the best time to do so is during the summer, when the city lights up with the vibrant choreographies of Carnival and the fiery celebration of Fiesta del Fuego. No matter which date you choose, a limited schedule is not necessarily an obstacle for getting to know some of Santiago’s most amazing landmarks and observing the beauty of its majestic nature.
Those who don’t want to miss the opportunity of visiting this enigmatic city but only count with 24 hours for their trip will find that with the right guidance, it is possible to discover Santiago’s most impressive traits.
Morning of colonial past and Caribbean tradition at Caridad del Cobre Basilica and San Pedro fortress
The 24-hour tour begins in the outskirts of Santiago and works its way to the city centre. Getting up at the crack of dawn and hiring a round-trip taxi from central Parque Cespedes is the most efficient way of cramming in the city’s most important sites.
No trip to Santiago would be complete without heading to its most stunning and enigmatic place of worship: the National Sanctuary Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre Basilica. This first destination is a much-concurred spot; another reason why being an early bird will pay off as it helps you avoid big crowds.
Set high on a hill 20km northwest of Santiago de Cuba on the old road to Bayamo, the basilica is Cuba's most sacred pilgrimage site and was recently visited by Pope Francis in 2015. Built in 1926, the church is an isolated and beautiful construction boasting a central bell tower and two smaller lateral towers.
The reason for its great cultural and religious significance is that the basilica serves as the shrine of the nation's patron saint: La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity). In Santeria, the Virgin is syncretised with the beautiful orisha Ochun, Yoruba goddess of love and dancing, and a religious icon to almost all Cuban women. In the minds of many worshipers, devotion to the two religious figures is intertwined.
Even for nonbelievers, a visit to the Virgin is a fascinating look in to local culture. The road to the basilica is lined with sellers of elaborate flower wreaths, intended as offerings to La Virgen, and hawkers of miniature virgins. As the basilica is situated on a small village named “El Cobre”, which is renowned for its mineral copper deposit, it is also common to see local vendors selling small pieces of copper as souvenirs.
Climbing the 254 steps to the basilica is worthwhile not only to observe this magnificent construction but also to peek into the native culture and idiosyncrasy.
The second landmark on the itinerary is a place that symbolises the city’s great importance during 16th and 17th centuries: San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle. A fortress sitting impregnably atop a 60m-high promontory at the entrance to Santiago harbour, the city’s Morro was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The site is not only a wonderful place to learn about the Caribbean city’s history and admire colonial architecture but also proves a remarkable spot to indulge in the views of the bay’s deep-blue waters, backed by the velvety Sierra Maestra mountain range.
This impressive structure was designed in 1587 by famous Italian military engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli (who also designed La Punta and El Morro forts in Havana) to protect Santiago from pillaging pirates who had successfully sacked the city in 1554. Nevertheless, the fortress wasn’t ready until the early 1700s due to financial constraints and other pirates, like British privateer Henry Morgan, sacked and partially destroyed it in the interim. As the pirate era declined, the fort was finally used as a prison, until the 1960s when Cuban architect Francisco Prat Puig mustered up a restoration plan.
As you walk past El Morro’s massive batteries, bastions, cannons and walls, take in the feel of another time and observe from a distance the majesty of Santiago’s beautiful nature. Peek into the Piracy Museum and take pictures of the fortress’ impressive vistas from the upper terrace. As 24 hours aren’t enough to take a trip to stunning natural sites like the Sierra Maestra mountain range or la Gran Piedra, this is an excellent opportunity to take in as much of the city’s landscapes as you can.
Memories of Santiago’s historic glory at Cuartel Moncada and Santa Ifigenia cementery
After taking an hour for lunch break and resting your feet, the trip continues with more of the city’s convulsed history. Considered the cradle of the Cuban Revolution, Santiago's famous Moncada Barracks, a crenellated art-deco building completed in 1938, is now synonymous with one of history's greatest failed putsches. Moncada earned immortality on 26th July, 1953, when more than 100 revolutionaries led by then little-known Fidel Castro stormed Batista's troops at what was then Cuba's second-most important military garrison.
The first barracks on this site was constructed by the Spanish in 1859, and actually takes its name after Guillermon Moncada, a War of Independence fighter who was held prisoner here in 1874. After the Revolution, the barracks, like all others in Cuba, was converted into a school called Ciudad Escolar 26 de Julio, and in 1967 a museum was installed near gate 3, where the main attack took place.
Take a stroll through the impressive construction and visit the museum. Inside, you will find a scale model of the barracks plus interesting and sometimes grisly artifacts, diagrams and models of the attack, its planning and its aftermath. Most moving, perhaps, are the photographs of the 61 fallen at the end.
The final tribute to Santiago’s glorious past comes in the form of the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. Visiting graveyards may not sound like a fun way to spend an afternoon, but this mausoleum is so achingly beautiful and filled with historic importance that you will want to spend time wandering amongst the tombstones.
Nestled peacefully on the city's western extremity, the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia was created in 1868 to accommodate the victims of the War of Independence and a simultaneous yellow-fever outbreak. Amongst the many impressive monuments and statues are the names of Cuban heroes like Antonio Maceo and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes as well as prestigious local musicians like the legendary Compay Segundo.
The most beautiful mausoleum is perhaps that of the island’s national hero Jose Marti. Erected in 1951 during the Batista era, the imposing hexagonal structure is positioned so that Marti's wooden casket (draped solemnly in a Cuban flag) receives daily shafts of sunlight. This is in response to a comment Marti made in one of his poems that he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun. A round-the-clock guard of the mausoleum is changed, amid much pomp and ceremony, every 30 minutes.
Now, the cemetery's most famous resident is a recent arrival, situated alongside his hero, Jose Marti. After a cross-country procession that re-created the revolutionary's 1959 victory march in reverse, the ashes of Fidel Castro Ruz (1926–2016) were buried here on 4th December 2016. Castro has famously insisted that he wants no tributes, statues or honours in his name. This simple monument takes the form of an enormous boulder bearing a plaque with just the name Fidel.
Cultural blend and contagious rhythms in Santiago city centre: Parque Cespedes, Tivoli and Casa de la Trova
As the sun goes down, it’s time to take a more relaxed approach to the trip and observe Santiago’s beautiful city centre, which boasts a remarkable mix of old and new intertwined with the rhythm of its boisterous uphill streets that tell the story of miscegenation. Santiago de Cuba is known as the island’s most Caribbean city, not only for its geographical position, but also for its rich blend of cultures. The mix of Spanish descendants and African slaves was enriched by French and British landowners who fled Haiti after slaves revolted. A number of Haitians followed, giving Santiago de Cuba a truly multicultural mix of citizens.
After taking a taxi to visit landmarks further away, you can finally enjoy Santiago’s urban centre. Archetype for romantic Cuban street life, Parque Cespedes is a throbbing kaleidoscope of walking, talking, hustling, guitar-strumming humanity. Surrounded by colonial architecture, this most ebullient of city squares is a sight to behold with a bronze bust of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who kick-started Cuban independence in 1868.
Your stroll continues as you head down to the beautiful Tivoli quarter. Santiago's old French quarter, Tivoli was first settled by colonists from Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Set on a south-facing hillside overlooking the shimmering harbour, its red-tiled roofs and hidden patios are a tranquil haven these days, with old men pushing around dominoes and ebullient kids playing stickball amid pink splashes of bougainvillea. Just below, lies Parque Alameda, a narrow park that embellishes a dockside promenade opened in 1840 and redesigned in 1893. Recent refurbishment for the 2015 quincentennial has made it the centre of the Malecon (boardwalk) in the style of Havana's, also featuring a playground, palm trees and public Wi-Fi. The north end features the old clock tower, aduana (customs house) and cigar factory. With smart architecture, sea air and a dash of port-side sketchiness, it is ideal for a laid-back walk.
As the sky darkens and your trip comes to an end, the vibrant beats of Cuban music are just what you need to keep the energy up and treasure your final moments in Santiago. Keep walking or take a rickshaw to Heredia Street. The music never stops on Calle Heredia, Santiago's most sensuous street and also one of its oldest. Melodies waft from the paint-peeled Casa de Cultura Josue País García, where danzon-(ballroom dance) strutting pensioners mix with svelte teen rap artists.
One door up is Cuba's original Casa de la Trova, a beautiful balconied townhouse redolent of New Orleans' French Quarter. This is the perfect spot to finally sit down, enjoy the music and say goodbye to the city. Santiago's shrine to the power of traditional music is still going strong five decades on, continuing to attract big names such as Buena Vista Social Club singer Eliades Ochoa, winner of numerous Grammy awards. Sit back and enjoy the rhythms of son, trova and rumba whilst sipping a delicious mojito or join in on the action by dancing the night away as tunes start to get a shade more “caliente”.
This action-packed 24-hour tour around Santiago is sure to leave a lasting mark, as you discover the enchanting traits that make the city tick; from its courageous history, stunning nature and impressive landmarks to its upbeat urban rhythm and rich cultural blend that make Santiago de Cuba the capital of the Caribbean.