Santiago de Cuba is only 16 hours away from Havana via Viazul (the Cuban intercity coach service) however it felt like a world away from Havana. The cost of the Viazul from Havana to Santiago de Cuba was CUC51. You will need ID to book your ticket so make sure you take it with you, also the route from Havana to Santiago is very popular so it is advisable to book 24hours in advance.
Havana is where my trip began in Cuba and you can read about it in my previous via this link. We stayed 3 days and 2 nights in Santiago de Cuba.
The city was devastated by Hurricane Sandy and it was still recovering from the aftermath, with many buildings destroyed and in disrepair. This is one of the reasons I believe the Cubans we met in Santiago De Cuba were a little more aggressive in selling you their wares or services. The worst offenders were the taxi drivers who were very persistent adopting a hard sell and stalk sales pitch.
Apart from those selling service or wares there are also young people who go around trying to befriend foreigners in the hopes of a tip or a hookup. We unfortunately encountered one such young man within 10mins of leaving our Casa particular on the first day in the city and it took 2 hours to get rid of him.
The temperature in Havana was a manageable 27 degrees for a British person like me, Santiago de Cuba on the other hand was HOT, the first day was a sweltering 37 degrees at the highest point
Where I stayed
This wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either, the lady in charge of the Casa (Yulia), was very lovely and made us feel very warm and comfortable. The breakfast was good and Yulia did her best to give us tips on things to do in the city. We paid CUC74 for 2 people for 2 nights and this included 3 lots of breakfast.
What I did
Balcón de Velázquez
This is a balcony overlooking the city facing seawards. It is great place to hide from the hot afternoon sun. It is literally just a balcony with a small shop selling souvenirs, therefore I suggest taking a packed lunch and some snacks along with you in case you want to spend some time there. Entrance is free but if you want to take pictures it is CUC1.
Casa de Diego Velazquez
The museum is the oldest building in Cuba and it is very well-kept. This museum is home to some of the best antiques I have seen anywhere. The French, Italian, Dutch and mostly Spanish influence are clear and evident. The only annoyances were the museum attendants that persisted in taking you around the museum so that you would tip them. However do not let that put you off the museum is too beautiful to pass by, I cant recall the exact entrance fee but I know it is less that CUC5.
Basilica del Cobre and Castillo del Morro
We organised a short excursion with Cuba Tour to Basilica del Cobre and Castillo del Morro, the tour costs CUC18 per person and included the hire of a classic car to the attractions and back to the city centre.
The first stop was to Basilica del Cobre a beautiful red dome Cathedral some 18 km north from the centre of Santiago de Cuba. The drive to Cathedral was so lovely that the hot afternoon sun became a distant memory as the wind lapped against our faces as we drove along. The cathedral is truly magnificent, it sits atop a hill overlooking the town below like a guardian. We were very lucky that at the time we went it was quiet and peaceful, which allowed us to really take in the views and feel reverence for the place. The drive to and the Cathedral itself was well worth the price of the excursion.
After the cathedral we drove to Castillo del Morro, a fort some 8 km south of the centre of Santiago de Cuba. Leading up to the fort were stall selling souvenirs, trinkets and such like there is also a restaurant and a bar. It was very calming being in the fort looking over the water and feeling the cool sea breeze. Like with many historical buildings in Cuba the fort is very well-kept. Entrance fee to the fort cost CUC4.
Museo del Carnaval
It was interesting to go to this museum to see the history of the carnival in Santiago de Cuba and to see costumes used in past parades. The city holds an annual carnival festival every July. It was free to go inside the museum but to take pictures was CUC3 and an attendant followed you around to make sure you didn’t take any pictures, don’t mind this as the museum is still worth a visit.
Jardin de los Helechos
It was worthwhile going to the mini rain forest on the outskirts of the city. The garden started out as a hobby by the owner Manuel G.Caluff in 1976 and has grown through love and care into one of Santiago’s most famous attractions. Entrance to the garden is only CUC3.
To get to the Jardin de los Helados we decided to travel like the locals. Unfortunately we couldn’t figure out which local bus to take, although it was very likely that we wouldn’t have been let on board anyway. However we did manage to get on truck taxis to take us there and back. We later found out that foreigner are normally also not allowed on the truck taxis. Lucky for us though we had two separate guys who didn’t mind foreigners. We did pay over the odds for our fare but for us it was still way cheaper than taking a tourist taxi. We paid CUC5 (CUC2.5 each) there and CUC2 (CUC1 each) back, the first guy certainly ripped us off.
Paseo La palcita Show at Parque Céspedes
Parque Cespedes is the main square at the centre of the city and we happened to come across some people setting up for the closing ceremony of Paseo La Placita. The festival is held every year as a closing ceremony for summer. The show was amazing with salsa dancers, Afro-Cubano song and dance and other forms of entertainment.
We walked around and explored the city, aimlessly wandering was a great way to discover the city’s unique and quirky character.
Food and Drink
We paid an additional CUC5 each morning to have breakfast at the Casa and it was worth it. Cuban breakfast is the best.
Casa Micaela was one of the best restaurants we ate at, in Cuba, I say this because it served wholesome food for a very reasonable price and not surprising it has a good rating on Tripadvisor and it is recommended in most travel books. We ate there every night we stayed in Santiago de Cuba. A meal with a drink was about CUC8.
El Baturro is a cool bar and I had the best Mojito I tried a Mojito in Cuba. The atmosphere was chilled and nice.
Hotel Casa Granda
We avoided this Hotel’s bar because it looked too plush and also we felt we would be surrounded by tourists only. However we went there and it was very nice, we sat on the balcony overlooking Parque Cespedes, a great place for people watching and the drinks were not much more expensive than the local bars.
Review of Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba although not as beautiful or bustling as Havana has its own charm, I am sure it was even better before Hurricane Sandy came along. Nevertheless it is still worth the visit with many things to do mostly around the city, I would recommend hiring a car so that you can get around easily. If I ever go back to Cuba I will return to this city.
So what next
Next stop is Sancti Spiritus in the middle of the island.
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