Feel like attending a 500th birthday party this this summer? If so, then book yourself a plane ticket to Santiago de Cuba, reserve a room at the Hotel Casa Granda (located on party–central Parque Céspedes) and get ready to party like it’s 1515!
On July 25 Santiago celebrates its founding by Spanish conquistador, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, and as one of my local contacts says “ The Cubans do 500th anniversaries well”!
Santiago de Cuba is in the southeastern region of Cuba and is one of the closest points to Jamaica (walking down the street this winter I came upon a “reggae cluster” grooving to some proudly loud Bob Marley, just to prove a point.)
More importantly, however, Santiago de Cuba is also widely considered the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution where many historic events occurred. This includes the ill-fated attack on the Moncada Barracks by an enthusiastic but under-armed gang of rebels who were successfully repelled by the incumbent army and whom were able to arrest their leader, a certain Fidel Castro.
Any tour to Santiago includes a pilgrimage to the Moncada Barracks where the massive bullet holes are still faithfully displayed as a testament to this heroic event. In addition, on the balcony of the Ayuntamiento (town hall) on Parque Céspedes, is where Fidel Castro made his first speech to the Cuban people on January 1, 1959, declaring the success of the Cuban Revolution. Beat that Havana!
Wait, there’s more. Continuing with its foothold on Cuban history, Santiago is also the resting place of Jose Marti, Cuba’s national hero, poet and politician (there is a statue of Marti in virtually every city on the island and sometimes many.) At the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery one finds the Jose Marti mausoleum, which is protected by a ceremonial guard contingent. If you are lucky, you will be there for the “changing of the guard” which involves goose-step marching of jaw-dropping precision.
By the way, while you are at the cemetery you can also visit the tombstones of Company Segundo of the Buena Social Club band and perhaps tip a tumbler to Emilio Bacardi of the rum empire. Bring your camera; there is lots to shoot here!
Next up is a side tour to the Castillo del Morro (castle) built over 60 years during the mid-to-late 1600s and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. This architectural and military marvel offers stunning views of the Bay of Santiago.
But you came here to party so let’s head back to town.
Did I mention that Santiago is famous for its traditional dances such as “son” known as the precursor of salsa? Walking through the side streets you will come across many tiny clubs, somewhat dormant during the day but running full tilt at night (forget about sleeping in Santiago if incessant music keeps you up. You will be up!)
And the heat? Yes, it will be steamy in July where the average temperature is 87 degrees F (31 C) but this is Cuba’s second largest city and the heat is simply there to pump everyone up. This is one of the few places in the world that also celebrates “carnival” in July. Soaring temperatures are simply ignored.
Check it out! Santiago de Cuba will only turn 500 once! Be there to be its witness.
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.