Santiago de Cuba, near the east end of the island, 970 km from Havana, is Cuba's second city, with its own identity and charm. Its culture is different from Havana's, with more emphasis on its Afro-Caribbean roots and Santería plays a large part in people's lives. There are regional differences in the music, partly because of past immigrants from the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. Carnival is an experience worth going out of your way for, with energetic dancing, parades, music and increasingly sophisticated costumes as the economy improves.
The city centre is cluttered, with the feel of an overgrown country village, featuring many beautiful pastel-coloured buildings in much better condition than many of those in the capital. It is not a colonial gem along the lines of Havana or Trinidad and there is heavy industry around its edge but it does have an eclectic range of architectural styles from colonial to art deco. The Vista Alegre barrio is an outstanding example of a leafy Cuban suburb, with grand art nouveau buildings, an early 20th-century contrast to the Mudejar style of the city centre. Visit the Maqueta de la Ciudad, a scale model of the city by the Casa de Velázquez, for an overview of the city's development.
Ins and outs
International and domestic
arrive at the Antonio Maceo airport, 8 km south of the city on the coast. On arrival you are greeted by several taxi drivers, some of whom even manage to get right into the arrivals building; these are unofficial taxis but reasonably priced and safe. Official and unofficial taxis shuttle passengers into town for around CUC$5-8, depending on the company and the distance. Daily rail services to and from Havana link Santiago with all the major towns lying along the main rail route through the country. The railway station is central, opposite the rum factory on Avenida Jesús Menéndez, and within walking distance of many
and some hotels in the centre. There are several daily
from Havana, with morning and afternoon departures, and one from Trinidad, via many places of interest worth stopping off along the way. The long-distance bus terminal is to the north of the city, by the Plaza de la Revolución, some 30 minutes' walk to Parque Céspedes. Outside you will find
to take you to your destination. Arriving at night is not a problem as there are always taxis waiting for business.
Best time to visit
There are also horse-drawn coches, urban buses and
for short journeys around town, although tourists are supposed to take taxis. Plaza Marte is a central hub for lots of local transport. For excursions there are buses on some routes out of town but it is easier to negotiate a day trip with a driver who can take you to your destination. Make sure everything is agreed and clear before you set off, as drivers have a reputation for moving the goalposts when you're a long way from base.
is available if you want to drive yourself. The city is easy to
around with many of the sights congregated around the centre. It takes about 20-30 minutes to walk from Parque Céspedes to the Hotel Santiago and 30 minutes from the parque to the bus station.
Santiago's position at the foot of the mountains means that it is more protected from breezes than places along the north coast and is consequently several degrees hotter than Havana. This is not a problem in winter, but in the summer months of July and August it can be stifling. Unfortunately, this coincides with carnival in July, which just has to be the best time to visit Santiago. Nearly the whole month is taken up with festivities, starting with the Festival del Caribe, which runs into carnival in the third week with Santiago's patron saint's day on 25 July. Everything stops on 26 July, National Rebel Day and the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, then continues the next day.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF