Santiago de Cuba | Neighbourhood

Cuba’s onetime capital, sheltered by the Sierra Maestra, is a living history museum and a cultural epicentre, especially during the July Carnival

Photo by iStock.com/LiselottemathiasenPhoto by Marc Venema/Shutterstock.comPhoto by iStock.com/OrukojinPhoto by Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock.comPhoto by Stefano Ember/Shutterstock.comPhoto by iStock.com/Alxpin

Streetscape

The heart of Santiago de Cuba is the paved Parque Céspedes — more of a plaza than a park. Around it are the cathedral, the house of Diego de Velázquez — sometimes said to be the oldest surviving residential house in the Americas — and other historic buildings. From here, the city sprawls into the Sierra Maestra foothills, with streets and alleys often ascending steeply. The city centre still contains numerous colonial-era buildings with ornate columns and balconies. To the southwest, commanding the entrance of the bay, the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca is a seventeenth-century fort designed to protect Santiago from pirate raids. Built over a period of six decades, the Castillo is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best surviving examples of Spanish military architecture in the Americas.

 

History

Founded in July 1515 by Spanish conquistador Diego de Velázquez, Santiago de Cuba — named for St James, the patron saint of Spain — was the capital of the island for most of the sixteenth century, until it was replaced by Havana. A favourite target of English and French pirates and privateers, Santiago was the first port in Cuba to receive enslaved Africans, and later on was a destination for French settlers fleeing nearby Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. The resulting social and ethnic diversity has made the city a cultural hotbed, especially for music and dance.

In the twentieth century, Santiago was best known as the place where the Cuban Revolution began in 1953, with the famous attack on the Moncada Barracks — and where, on 1 January, 1959, Fidel Castro proclaimed the Revolution’s victory from the balcony of the city hall.

 

Carnival city

Santiago is famous throughout Cuba for its Carnival. Originally, there were two separate Carnivals in the city each year: a pre-Lenten festival observed mostly by the upper classes, and a second celebration around the feast of St James in July, coinciding with the end of the sugar cane and coffee harvest, and therefore popular with the largely Afro-Cuban estate labourers. The “winter” Carnival died out in the early twentieth century, while the more energetic and egalitarian “summer” Carnival thrived. Conga provides the traditional soundtrack for the festival of parades and processions, floats and dancers and bonfires.

 

A touch of Egypt

Bacardi rum is no longer made in Cuba, but the family legacy — and the connection to Santiago — is preserved in the Emilio Bacardí Moreau Museum. Founded in 1899 by the head of the rum dynasty, and housed in a white neoclassical building like a giant slice of wedding cake, the museum includes exhibits devoted to the history of Cuba and the architecture of Santiago de Cuba, plus an excellent collection of colonial-era Cuban paintings and sculptures. But its most famous exhibit may be the Egyptian mummy in the archaeology gallery — a favourite of schoolchildren, and many adult visitors as well.

 

Remembering Martí

Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is the final resting place of numerous Cuban heroes, including Fidel Castro, but its patriotic centrepiece is the mausoleum of José Martí (1853–1895) — poet, essayist, political philosopher, and revolutionary, killed during the Cuban War of Independence against the Spanish empire. Built in the form of a tower, Martí’s mausoleum is ringed by six monumental sculptures of women, representing the provinces of Cuba at the time of his death. “Do not bury me in darkness,” Martí once wrote, “I will die facing the sun” — and indeed the structure is designed so that a beam of sunlight illuminates the poet’s statue inside.

 

Co-ordinates

20° N 75.8° W
Sea level

 

Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to Miami and Kingston, Jamaica, with connections on other airlines to Havana and Santiago