Day 4: Port of call: Santiago de Cuba
Sailing into Santiago de Cuba we get a thrilling sense of bustling industrial metropolis. Look over there, a major power generation plant with a plume of dark smoke rising to the sky and, in the bay, many cargo ships are moored or moving about.
Santiago is Cuba’s second largest city with a population of over a million inhabitants (when you include the surrounding province). It reminds one of Havana, the largest, but is even more neglected in terms of chipped paint and decaying masonry, if that can be imagined. Nonetheless, the city is bubbling with activity and commerce while its cobblestone avenues and city squares beckon enthusiastic tourists. It is also considered the city where the Cuban revolution was born and these landmarks are well celebrated with historical monuments.
We were due to dock around 10:00 AM. I strongly suggest getting ready for the day’s activities early so that you can get on the upper deck and take in the experience of sailing into this exciting port. As we first entered the channel, I was standing next to one of the Cuban cruise staff members who could not believe her eyes as we passed the shoreline. She was bursting with excitement as this was the first time she had seen this part of her country! She told me breathlessly “ I am gong to tell Mama about this!”
I had opted for the Panoramic Santiago excursion which was a shorter version than the Santiago Special. Not only did I want an overview of the city but I also wanted to budget some time for some personal exploring of the city later on. Our boarding time was for 7 PM so we had a full day ahead of us.
There is lots to see in Santiago, that’s for sure. And lots to photograph as well. Our bus excursion began at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery where many legendary Cubans are buried including Emilio Bacardi from the famous rum distillery family and Company Segundo, a beloved member of the Buena Vista Social Club. However, the most revered resident here is Jose Marti. One of the highlights of this stop (and don’t dilly-dally since the stop is brief) is the changing of the guard that protects the Jose Marti mausoleum. This exercise is a feast for the eyes and a reminder what precision discipline looks like. Get your camera ready (for which you must pay 5 CUC at the gate, by the way).
Next up is a drive to the spectacular El Morro Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site, that protects the bay’s entrance from way up high. The castle is well maintained and has a number of historical displays inside detailing past battles that have taken place in the region as well as the pirates who used to patrol these waters. Lovely views prevail and there is an impressive corridor of artisans lining the fort entrance with their wares for sale. This is a good opportunity to load up on local souvenirs, rum and cigars, if you are so inclined.
Back to Santiago, we drove to Revolution Square which features a massive statue of a local hero, Antonio Maceo, mounted on horseback. Next stop was at the famous Moncada Barracks, long considered the first battleground of the revolution (which ended in disaster for the revolutionaries and resulted in many casualties). Here the bullet holes in the side of the building are fastidiously retained as a harsh reminder of this failed attack on the local military.
With so much history, it is time for a drink, no? Our bus took us back into the heart of Santiago, to Parque Cespedes where the Casa de Diego Valazquez is located and which is considered to be the oldest building in Cuba (circa 1516).
Also here is the ‘ground central’ Hotel Casa Granda which features both a lovely ground level terrace as well as a rooftop bar (take the elevator, not the steps, you will thank me) complete with stunning views. Here we were treated to a nice, cool mojito which was a relief since it had been hours since my last one!
At this point I politely excused myself from the tour (it was winding up anyways) since we were mere blocks from the cruise ship. There were still plenty of hours left ashore. I ran into my three Jamaican cruise mates and we opted to do some renegade exploring ourselves.
With a city map in hand, we walked along tiny streets, came across more lovely city squares, popped our heads into some local music halls and picked up some CDs featuring local musicians.
By the end of the day, and the walk back to the ship (where we had to go through customs once again) we were exhausted. But there was no time to rest. We freshened up for dinner and all headed to the Amalthia Restaurant where we laughed about our adventures of the day.
Unfortunately this was the Jamaicans’ last night on the boat as tomorrow we are arriving in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which was their disembarkation point. We had a few more cocktails in the Eros lounge and chatted into the night. Who knew if we would ever meet again…?
Cuba Cruise travel tip: Some cruisers prefer to “do their own thing” as opposed to participating in the organized excursions. Near most of the docks will be an army of taxis and bike rickshaws waiting to service these intrepid travellers. Be sure to negotiate a price before you get in a taxi. I heard of some hiring a cab for two hours for 50 CUC.
That is a small fortune in Cuba where the average monthly wage is 25 CUC! If you don’t like the sound of a price begin to walk away; the price will then begin to fall quite rapidly!
And stay off the rickshaws unless you relish the thought of a
Ja Jamaica, Mon!
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer
To begin AJ’s cruise on Day 1 click here