Discovering Cuba’s Lively “Second City” – Santiago de Cuba

Posted by Rich Mancini on 7/25/2014
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Tauck, Cuba

After decades of staying largely “in the dark” about our Caribbean neighbor just 90 miles from the Florida coast, many Americans are finally getting to know Cuba through People-to-People cultural exchange trips licensed through the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) – like the one-week trip to Cuba that Tauck has been operating since 2012, based in and around the capital, Havana.

Settled more than a hundred years before the Pilgrims landed in New England, Havana has long been known in the U.S. and around the world as Cuba’s heart, rich in history, architecture and culture. But as remarkable as that city is, there is much more to Cuba … as Tauck travelers will discover in 2015, on our new 13-day Cuba: Connecting With People and Culture, as they head out across the length of the island to meet the people and experience the culture from Havana through the countryside and other cities including Santa Clara, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba.

Castillo

All of these destinations offer special treasures of their own. Site of a pivotal 1958 battle in the Cuban Revolution won by troops under the command of Ernesto “Che” Guevera, Santa Clara is also home to Che’s mausoleum and memorial complex. Camagüey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 1520s and nicknamed “the Maze” for its labyrinth of winding, irregular streets, is a perfect backdrop for cultural exchange with local artists and artisans. Near coastal Holguín, rich in 19th-century architecture and leafy squares (it’s called the “City of Parks”), you’ll also find the town of Birán, where Fidel and Raul Castro’s boyhood home still stands.

And Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southeastern coast, may surprise and delight not only first-time travelers to Cuba, but even folks whose Cuban experiences had focused on Havana and its environs. That was certainly the case with yours truly, who like many Americans had known little of Cuba’s “second city” before my recent visit… and quickly fell in love with its unique history and vibe, its people and its passion.

A close second to Havana in population and importance throughout its nearly 500-year history, Santiago de Cuba, with its distinctively African cultural influences, pulsates with a rhythm and a passion all its own. As you walk its centuries-old streets, you’ll hear music everywhere, day and night, from traditional son to conga and many other styles – especially during Carnaval season, when the whole city seems to be singing and dancing. You really have to experience it for yourself!

cathedralSantiago de Cuba’s original old city, a treasure trove of historic architecture from the 17th through 19th centuries, spreads out from Parque Céspedes, the main square and center of city life. Here, along famous Calle Heredia, you’ll find gems like the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción – the city’s main cathedral, dating back to 1522, but largely rebuilt in the 17th century – and the Diego Velázquez House, built during the first half of the 1500s for Spanish conquistador and early governor Diego Velázquez. Arguably the oldest home in the country, it’s a fine, restored example of early Cuban architecture and a national monument displaying a fascinating collection of furnishings dating back nearly 500 years; you can just feel the history here.


guardsHeading out from the old city, you’ll discover many more unique offerings. There’s the Moncada Barracks – once an armory, and now a school and a national historic museum, it’s the site of an ill-fated attack by Fidel Castro-led rebels on 26 July, 1953, one of the earliest actions in the Cuban Revolution; you can still see bullet holes in the outer walls. This and other sites have earned Santiago de Cuba the title of “Cradle of the Revolution.” In the Cementario de Santa Ifigenia, final resting place of many notable Cubans, you’ll find the monumental mausoleum of 19th-century Cuban revolutionary José Marti, as revered by Cubans as George Washington is by Americans. Watching the Changing of the Guard here (pictured at right) reminded me of the solemnity at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Further beyond the city, U.S. visitors may be surprised (as I was) to find still well-tended monuments to American forces at San Juan Hill, made famous by Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War of the 1890s. And another iconic Cuban site, the imposing 17th-century fortress of Castillo del Morro de la Rocca, sits high above the Bay of Santiago; its ramparts and lookouts offer truly astounding views of the bay.

San Juan Hill

I could go on and on about the many treasures of Santiago de Cuba, but I won’t – except to say that Cuba’s second city has much to offer, and should not be missed. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca saw it as “a harp made of living branches, a caiman, a tobacco flower”… but however you see it, you won’t soon forget it – as you’ll discover for yourself on Tauck’s new 2015 Cuba trip. Even if you’ve visited Havana with us before, experiencing Santiago de Cuba and the other cities you’ll explore will give you a fresh new perspective on this intriguing island “next door.”
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