Covering scarcely two and half square kilometers, some 267 hectares, lies Old Santiago, so named for its architectural splendor.
In Old Santiago, one of the most attractive places is Parque Cespedes , a welcoming park where Santiago's citizens go to seek relief from the harsh and hot climate of the urban centre. The old elm trees provide the square with plenty of shade and fresh air throughout the day.
The Santa Basílica Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral is the most important architectural monument in Old Santiago. At each side of the main door to the temple, stand two statues: one of the great Christopher Columbus, and the other of Fray Bartolome de las Casas. Inside it is richly decorated with eclectic influences; it has a rich and remarkably interesting archdiocesan museum, where the oldest painting in the island, Ecce Homo, is to be found and admired.
The street with the most historical attractions in Old Santiago is undoubtedly Calle Heredia. Six long blocks, from Calle Calvario to Calle Padre Pico, full of samples of great architectural value, and which, today, hosts a considerable portion of Santiago's cultural life.
In a privileged position, from where one can see everything that is happening on Parque Cespedes, is the Casa del Te, on the corner of Calle Aguilera and Calle San Pedro, in a truly stunning building dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. And only a few steps away, is the Club 300, the perfect refuge from the burning sun and summer heat, a comfortable and very traditional place, open all night, and well into the morning.
Further down, only two blocks away, along Calle Aguilera, in a setting of Spanish Colonial architecture, is El Baturro, a restaurant-bar which is the pride of all santiagueros, and rightly so.
Of great interest in the Bacardí museum are the mummies. One of them is Egyptian, perfectly preserved and over 3,000 years old. There are also two Peruvian mummies exhibited, of great archaeological value and very important testimonies of pre-Columbine Cuba.
The south side of the block on Calle Aguilera, between Calle Carnicería (Pío Rosado) and Calle Calvario, is practically intact, in spite of the years gone by. Except for an eclectic building—numbers 402, 404, 406 and the house on the corner of Calle Calvario—the rest of the block is a beautiful architectural monument, dating back to the end of the 18th century.
Eastwards, along Calle General Portuondo, is the temple La Santísima Trinidad, which started construction in 1730 and was completed in 1787. Like other churches in the city, it had a small cemetery. The interior is very rich and its ceilings show the great woodwork, with very special techniques and star-shaped patterns.
Opposite the West door of the Cathedral, on Calle Santo Tomás, is the Cinemateca de Cuba venue, where cinema-lovers have the chance to indulge in quality films and related events.
Where Calle Padre Pico, Calle Santa Lucía (Joaquín Castillo) and Santa Rita (Diego Palacios) come together, there is a long flight of stairs, almost a century old, which has become one of the emblematic spots in the city.
El Morro , as the citizens of Santiago call the original military fort, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, was declared 'Patrimony of Humanity' by the UNESCO in December, 1997, due to its architectural value, excellent preservation and historical value. El Morro, as any castle worthy of the name, also has its legends regarding ghosts and apparitions.
There are other important areas in Santiago, although most of the activity goes on in the historical centre of the city.
The residential areas Reparto Sueño and Vista Alegre are quiet places, where the beautiful old constructions are now home to families, and to some of the main hotels in the city.
On the outskirts of Santiago, on the road to Baconao, are the hotel resorts, with all-inclusive offers, and the best beaches, among which Verraco, Siboney and Daiquirí are well-worth visiting.
It is also worth mentioning Tivolí, within the historical centre, where the French fleeing from the Haitian revolution settled, mingling with the Spanish settlers, natives and Africans who were already there. Tivolí is a centre of great interest where the fusion of all these different cultures is present at every step.
After walking through the streets of Santiago, you will feel the desire to get lost forever in the midst of the magic and charm of the city.
Santiago de Cuba offers a good number of restaurants with a range of traditional Cuban food, as well as all sorts of international cuisine.
What are known as "paladares" are restaurants which operate from private houses and are the perfect option when it comes to enjoying traditional Cuban cuisine. One of these is Doña Nelly, on Avenida Carnicería, 412, with a Cuban menu of excellent quality offering things like "congrí" rice, white rice with black beans, fried chicken or fish, salads and a wide range of side-dishes such as sweet potato, plantain, yucca, or "malanga" (similar to sweet potato).
Another "paladar" offering exquisite flavours and attention is the restaurant Las Gallegas, on Avenida Bartolome Masó, between Calle San Felix and Calle General Lacret, offering a similar menu to the one above, and also a variety of delicious Cuban desserts such as preserved fruit and fresh cheese.
Other alternatives include the cafes and restaurants in the hotels in the city, among which Balcón del Caribe, next to the Castillo del Morro, is well-worth visiting, offering a Cuban and international menu and excellent service.
The cafe at the Hotel las Americas offers light meals such as pizza, fried chicken with fries, cold drinks and beer, with the added advantage of being open 24 hours.
The restaurant Don Antonio in the Parque Dolores is one of the best in Santiago, with an excellent menu of traditional Cuban dishes. Try the smoked ham and all the other pork delicacies they offer. Next door, you will find the bar El Marques, with a great selection of drinks and cocktails. La Isabelica, on Calle Calvario, is the perfect place to taste the best Cuban coffee.
On the road towards El Morro, is San Pedro del Mar , specializing in seafood. Enjoy your meal and the stunning view of the Caribbean and Santiago's mountains.
On Calle Basilio, in the former residence of Emilio Bacardí, is the restaurant1900, beautifully decorated and offering the best traditional food, with specialties such as roasted suckling pig. The restaurant Casa Grande is also renowned for its elegance and service, as is the hotel which bears the same name, offering Cuban specialties and succulent desserts.
The Perla del Dragón, on the Parque Dolores, offers an excellent buffet with traditional cuisine, at very reasonable prices. In the same area, there are several other restaurants, including fast food joints, Italian restaurants, etc.
On Plaza de Marte, you will find the Buró de Información Cultural , with its Patio de los Dos Abuelos , where you can enjoy the sound of live traditional music, while you sip a long drink and have a bite to eat.
Surrounded by beautiful Colonial buildings, near the Parque Cespedes, is the UNEAC (Cuban writers and artists'union), with an art gallery where you have the chance to admire the work of local and national artists, and a pleasant patio where you can sit and enjoy a long and refreshing drink.
The Casa de la Cultura also organizes events every weekend, and you can enjoy them while you sip on one or two drinks.
Enjoy Santiago, the capital of AfroCuban culture!
Hill-walking and mountaineering
For those of you who love nature at its purest, and who enjoy mountain-climbing and hill-walking along routes full of history and stunning beauty, Santiago de Cuba offers you the opportunity to get to know the tallest peak in the mountain range "La Gran Piedra". In order to reach La Gran Piedra, you must first get to the "Guásimas" and, from the Prado de las Esculturas make your way up the 1,226 metres to the top of this mountain. It is an impressive walk along a well-designed road surrounding the cliffs and crags. The beautiful springs, vegetation and murmur of the Carpintero river are part of this landscape which will make you forget about any apprehension you may have had with regard to arriving at the gigantic volcanic rock which scientists estimate weighs over 70,000 tons. At the foot of this stone monument there is a hotel entirely a species of its own, hidden among pine-trees and beautiful vegetation. The temperature ranges from 18ºC to 20ºC.
What is known as the Sierrra Maestra is the "youngest" geological formation in the country, dating back to the Holocene period and 240 km. long and 10-40 km. wide. To the north of the coast, there are some 20 peaks over 1,000 metres in height. Among these, is the 'Pico Real del Turquino', 1,974 metres tall, which, surrounded by other peaks such as the "Cuba" and "Suecia" peaks, is the tallest in Cuba. All this mountain-range is covered with unspoiled forests of splendid trees and beautiful vegetation.
On the 'Gran Piedra' you will find the garden 'La Idalia', with the most impressive collection of wild exotic flowers you have ever seen. If you decide to visit the garden, ask to be shown the flower known as "Ave del Paraíso", one of the most sought after flowers in the garden.
Towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, many French, fleeing from the Haitian revolution, arrived at the coasts of Santiago and settled in the Eastern mountains, establishing many coffee haciendas. La Isabelica is one of such haciendas. It is two km. East from the hotel at La Gran Piedra, on the mountain range, at 1,150 metres above sea-level, and exhibits original household objects and furniture from the French who inhabited this area over two centuries ago. It is an ethnographic museum, divided into seven exhibition halls.
Not far away is the mountain village "El Uvero", which, prior to 1959, used to be the sawmill and shipment area belonging to a wood company, famous for its indiscriminate exploitation of the forests. It was closed when the Rebel Army forces attacked the headquarters of Batista's army there and took it successfully.
In order to get to the foot and climb the "Pico Real del Turquino" -which you must necessarily do with the help of a guide (ask at "Río las Mulas" or at any of the hotels in the area), you must walk along a difficult route passing by "Bella Pluma" and "Potrerillo", until you reach the "Cuevas del Turquino", from where it is possible to climb the mountain. From here, the climb starts until you reach "El Alto de la Emajagua", "El Caldero" (over 1,300 metres), the "Paso de los Monos", the "Paso de las Angustias" (also known as "El Cadete") and "Pico Cuba" (1,872 metres)--here, it is well worth having a rest before making your way up to the top of the "Pico Real del Turquino", where you will find the National Hero Jose Martí Monument. It is bound to be a truly unforgettable experience. We strongly recommend you climb the mountain in the morning and, if possible, in winter to avoid the summer's burning sun.
For those of you who want to make the experience complete, why not stay at the hotel El Saltón, located in the heart of the Sierra Maestra itself.
An historical tour of the city of Santiago de Cuba is a project which one would have to spend a great deal of time on, perhaps even years.
Santiago de Cuba is history, beginning with its name, and there is no stone, wall, street or corner, staircase or house without a history of its own to tell, full of historical importance and beauty.
No matter where you decide to start off, you will never be "at the beginning" or "at the end", but rather in the time and space where the events took place. It is difficult to frame the entire history of this city in a single tour; it is impossible. We could, nevertheless, whimsically suggest you make your starting point La Casa de Diego Velázquez, on the corner of Calle Aguilera and Calle Felix Peña, whose façade takes up half of the block and is said to have housed the "Casa de Contratación y Fundación de la Corona" on the ground floor, and Diego Velázquez's residence on the first floor. This house is considered to be the oldest Colonial house in Cuba, and probably in America. Of Mudejar influence, its decorated batten roofs are a unique feature of the building. The house opened to the public as the Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano on the 30th of November, 1970.
Making your way along Calle Felix Peña, eight blocks ahead, on Calle Los Maceos, number 207, we come across the birth house of the Major General Antonio Maceo y Grajales, the greatest and most legendary figure of the Cuban Revolution. The house was declared a National Monument in 1978. It was built between 1800 and 1825 and is one of the finest examples of the simple Colonial architecture typical of the families with less economic resources in the city, which combined with the indigenous techniques, provide a very special touch to the building. During the first five decades of the 20th century, it was a centre of revolutionary conspiracy.
Very near Diego Velázquez's house, is the Emilio Bacardí Moreau Museum . This was the first public museum in the country, and has been a distinctive feature of Cuba since February 1899. Emilio Bacardí Moreau, a cultured and educated man, was an anti-colonialist leader and was sent to prison and exiled for this reason. He was Santiago's first mayor and later became senator of the Republic. He was born in May 1844 and died in August 1922, before having the chance to see the new building of the museum bearing his name. It is one of the most important buildings in the city, housing valuable art, history and archaeological collections.
Making your way back along Calle Felix Peña (Santo Tomás), at number 352, on the corner of Calle General Portuondo (Trinidad), we come across a mid-eighteenth century building which is one of the most notable examples of the buildings known as "corredor esquinero", and is the former residence of Antonio (Tony) Alomá, the young revolutionary who fell in the battle he fought next to Pepito Tey and Otto Parellada on the 30th November 1956, when the city took to arms in support of the landing of the Granma expeditionary men.
Not far from the old Plaza de Armas, known today as Plaza Marte, on the corner of Calle Aguilera and Calle Padre Pico, is what was one of the most important places in the city during the Colonial period, and where the most chilling and terrible stories and events took place: humiliation, torture and all sorts of crimes against men and women alike. The building was constructed as a prison in 1845, and has had to be restored several times.
History is the greatest patrimony of Santiago's citizens, their past and present history alike; this is clear from the pre-baroque style building where today one can visit the Museo de la Clandestinidad, with permanent exhibitions about the actions carried out in the city by the "26 de Julio" Movement, the Partido Socialista Popular and the "Directorio Revolucionario 13 de Marzo".
Music and Culture
Carnival is the oldest living cultural institution in the country. Its precise origins are lost in the midst of time. However, it is thought that its routes are related to the holidays which the slaves were given for the celebration of Epiphany (6th of January) or to celebrate the Patron Saint of the city's day, according to the Roman Catholic tradition. Santiago's carnival is the most colorful and lively in the country, and its inhabitants are rightfully proud of it.
Since June of 1983, there has been a museum in Calle Heredia, 301, exhibiting objects of all sorts narrating the history of the carnival, from the beginning to the present. It has six exhibition halls, with photographs, clothes and instruments on show. Making your way further along Calle Heredia until you get to Calle Carnicería, you will come across UNEAC (the Cuban writers and artists' union), where talks, encounters and workshops of all the arts, including theatre and performing arts, take place, all in a perfectly Colonial setting.
The prosperous Colonial atmosphere of Calle Heredia, between Calle Carnicería and Calle San Felix, is broken by the monumental building which houses the "Biblioteca Provincial Elvira Cape". This building has an area for exhibitions of all sorts, as well as several patios, where different cultural activities regularly take place. Its rare and valuable book collection is open to the public, and the library offers many other services.
Music is an essential feature of Santiago's spirit. The city has been the birthplace of important musicians and musical genres which have made Cuba famous all over the world. The "son", the "bolero" and the "trovadoresco" tradition, all have their origins in Santiago. On the corner of Calle Heredia and Calle San Felix, is the Casa de la Trova, bearing the name of Jose "Pepe" Sánchez (1856-1928), who is considered to have started the tradition of the 'trova cubana'.
For the tourist, the 'Casa del Estudiante' (Heredia, 204) is an original and interesting place to visit. You are as likely to find old age pensioners dancing the 'danzón' (the national dance), as you are to find groups of teenagers and children performing modern dance shows, rumbas, etc. All this while further along, in its spacious rooms, talks about literature or art are taking place. The former church of Nuestra Señora de Dolores, by an agreement between the Catholic Church and the Cuban State, was made into a concert hall and is now the official building of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Oriente. It has been conditioned and refurbished for this purpose, and national and international experts agree that the acoustics are quite exceptional. It is considered to be the best in the country.
Very near Calle Calvario, on the northern side of Calle Enramada, is the theatre venue Nguyen Van Troy, built in the 60s. This is the official venue of the Cabildo Teatral Santiago and a very busy venue indeed during the many festivals and competitions that take place in the city.
Much further down, crossing Calle Padre Pico, is the Teatro Oriente, the oldest theatre in the city. It was opened in July, 1850, with a performance by the famous company of Jose Robreño. Until the beginning of the 90s it was the largest theatre in the East of the country.
"La Claqueta" is the name of the bohemian corner which has been done up in the patios of the Rialto cinema, where one can spend very pleasant afternoons and evenings enjoying the sound of traditional Cuban music.
On the corner of Calle Hartmann (San Felix) and Calle Castillo Duany (Santa Lucía), behind the Museo del Ron, is the old house known as 'El Palacio', a building of great architectural interest which is now used as the venue of the Compañía de Ballet de Santiago. The "Ateneo Cultural" (calle Santo Tomás, 755) is host to the increasingly prestigious international event "Cultura: Tercer mundo, tercer milenio", where lectures, workshops and cultural events of all sorts take place, with more people attending every year.
In Santiago de Cuba, as in the rest of the island, there is an excellent selection of rums and quality tobaccos. The tobacco factory Cesar Escalante is a good starting point for this shopping tour. Located in front of the port, on the Avenida La Alameda, it offers the chance to walk through the premises where several of the most famous Cuban tobacco brands are made, as well as going on a guided tour where you will learn the manufacturing process of the "habano" cigars.
On your way out, you can pay a visit to the Casa del Habano, right next door, where you can buy their tobaccos in beautiful wooden boxes.
Also on the Avenida Alameda, is the factory of Caney rum, where the famous Bacardí rum used to be made. Here you will be able to enjoy a complete tour of the premises, where a guide explains the distillation process of one of the Cuban products par excellence: rum. The factory produces nine million litres a year, most of which is exported, and only a small percentage is for internal consumption.
On Calle Enramada, the busiest shopping street in Santiago, you will find a great number of shops, offering a variety of products, from clothes, books, handicrafts, flowers, to toiletries, as well as several supermarkets.
The Bazar Raíces, on Calle 8, between Calle 11 and Calle B, offers a wide range of traditional handicrafts from the region, as well as leather articles and jewelry.
At the Emilio Bacardí museum, on the corner of Calle Pío Rosado and Calle Aguilera, there is an outlet of the Cuban chain Artex, offering souvenirs with the image of Che Guevara, postcards, traditional music and "nueva trova cubana" CDs and cassettes.
In Parque Cespedes, there is a wide range of shops, where you can buy handicrafts, rums, tobaccos, music, etc. The largest one, with the widest variety of articles, is the outlet of the chain Caracol, on the ground floor of the Hotel Casa Granda.
For contemporary art lovers, the Galería de Oriente, next to the Hotel Casa Granda, is not only a beautiful building dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, but also exhibits an interesting collection of art from Santiago. The Galería de Arte Universal, next to the Las Americas hotel on Calle Terrazas and Calle M, has a good selection of contemporary Cuban art, and is an excellent place to buy artworks at very reasonable prices.
On Calle Heredia, in front of Parque Cespedes, is the International bookshop, with a wide range of literature, as well as CDs and cassettes of traditional Cuban music.
In every hotel in the city there are also shops, selling a similar range of products. At most of the tourist attractions in Santiago and surroundings, there are also handicrafts and music, among other things, on sale.