For savvy travelers, there’s more to Santiago—Cuba’s second city—than meets the eye (and ear)
Cuba’s first capital (1522—1589) has long been a hotbed of rebellion and change—from the Battle of San Juan Hill to Castro to son cubano music—but it has long lived in the shadow of the big city to the west. But now, Santiago de Cuba is ready to step into the spotlight. With a legendary music scene; an eclectic culture influenced by African, French and Spanish tradition; and a bustling vibe, Santiago de Cuba is carving out a niche for itself as an alternative Cuba. As it readies itself for an uptick in visitors, attracted by its unique history and character, Santiago de Cuba is emerging as the country’s modern capital of cool.
San Juan Hill
Few sites in Santiago are more representative of its famed independent streak than the San Juan Heights. To the east of town among the foothills of the Sierra Maestra stands San Juan Hill, site of a pivotal battle of the Spanish—American War. Here on July 1, 1898, an 11,000-man-strong force of American and Cuban soldiers scaled the hill under heavy fire and seized a key position from the Spanish army. With the hill taken and reinforcements on the way, the joint American-Cuban force would soon liberate the city—and, ultimately, the country—from Spanish rule. Today, the site boasts memorials, an impressive collection of cannons and munitions from the battle, and breathtaking views from the fort’s watchtower.
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Pedro de la Roca—a stone fortress perched high atop Bahía de Santiago de Cuba that took over 60 years to complete—has guarded the city from invaders since 1700. Initially built to protect the city from pirates and freebooters, it’s stood strong through wars, revolutions and even earthquakes, repelling forces from France, England and Spain itself. Known locally as “Castillo del Morro” (or simply “the Rock”), the fortress earned UNESCO protection in 1997 due to its status as the largest surviving example of European Renaissance military architecture.
Cemeterio de Santa Ifigenia
Perhaps no single person represents Santiago de Cuba’s unique commingling of politics and art better than José Martí, the 19th-century poet and political theorist dubbed “the Apostle of Cuban Independence.” Martí remains a figure central to Cuba’s national identity, and his tomb, located on the grounds of this historic cemetery, is one of the country’s most meticulously preserved monuments. The remains of Fidel Castro—a Santiago de Cuba native and Martí devotee who as president instituted the three-man honor guard that watches over the writer’s gravesite—are interred at Santa Ifigenia, too.
Antonio Maceo Revolution Square
Considered by many to be Cuba’s greatest monument, the statue that dominates Antonio Maceo Revolution Square is definitely the most ambitious. The statue, centerpiece of a 570,487-square-foot plaza, features a striking depiction of Cuban Army of Independence general Antonio Maceo Grajales on horseback, beckoning for his followers to march forward into Cuba’s brave future. The massive 53-foot-tall effigy—fitting for a man dubbed the “Bronze Titan”—shares the square with 23 huge machetes aimed at the heavens, a symbolic reminder of the Protesta de Baraguá (Baraguá protest) of March 23, 1878, the date upon which Maceo and his allies rejected a peace treaty that, while ending the war with Spain, did not grant Cuba independence nor abolish slavery. In addition to this remarkable tribute to one man’s refusal to accept victory with dishonor, the square also features a museum of Maceo artifacts and the Eternal Flame of the Martyrs.
Afro-Cuban son and culture
Santiago de Cuba’s exports are not exclusively limited to rebel fervor and red-hot political discourse. Some of the country’s most popular musical styles—particularly son, the Afro-Cuban forerunner to the more refined salsa—call this seaside city home. Son has roots in traditional Afro-Caribbean culture, much like Santiago de Cuba itself. The city was settled in 1791 by Haitian landowners fleeing a slave revolt and built on the wealth of coffee, cotton and sugar cane plantations. The African slaves who worked those plantations brought their traditional music, dance, and religion with them, ultimately giving birth to changüí, trova, tumba francesa and other styles that would form the backbone of the Cuban sound. As a result, Santiago’s culture reflects a side of Cuba very different from what you’ll find in Havana. The son rhythm remains Santiago’s most popular cultural export, with artists like the Buena Vista Social Club carrying the traditional sounds into the 21st century.
A busy and dynamic city by the sea steeped in revolutionary history and colorful tradition, Santiago de Cuba is a rich, vibrant place with a character uniquely its own. As you walk its narrow streets, dodging motorcycles and pushy street vendors hawking their wares, you won’t just see and hear the difference; you’ll feel it, too. This is not Havana, and it’s precisely that which makes Santiago de Cuba so wonderful.