The Oriente, as it’s called by Cubans, is the exotic-sounding eastern end of Cuba. It’s primary city is Santiago de Cuba, the 16th-century Spanish colonial capital that is the most African and musical city on the island, a fascinating place that’s as different from Havana as a cigarillo (or, as Cubans say, a cagarrillo) is from a cigarro or cagarro.
In addition to its colonial pedigree, Santiago de Cuba is also renown for its role in two historic occurrences: first, as the place where Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders on their charge up San Juan Hill and, secondly, the city where Fidel Castro launched his revolution with the assault on Moncada Barracks. History notwithstanding, it’s also one of the most colorful and interesting places in Cuba.
After an early morning nonstop flight from Miami to Santiago de Cuba with the Grand Circle Foundation (see If you go at the end of this article), we cleared customs and then boarded a bus for a tour before heading to our hotel.
Driving into towards the city everyone in our group was fixated on the passing panorama, a road with no cars but many donkey-, mule- and horse-carts.
Along the way people waited at bus stops, 20 or so huddled together in a 10 foot by 10 foot square of shade beneath a tree, all seeking refuge from the intense sun. The buses they awaited were actually trucks, pressed into use as public transportation, their beds fitted with boards for seats, and crammed to overflowing.
San Juan Hill
Our first stop that morning was at San Juan Hill, which turned out to be considerably smaller and lower than I had envisioned. A nearby Ferris wheel provided an odd backdrop and as we walked about we passed two young boys sitting on the grass saying “hello” to everyone who passed, likely the only word they knew in English. Nearby several young women swept up leaves with their straw and stick brooms.
It wasn’t much to see – there were a few small statues and canons scattered about – and at the top of the hill a small monument with a plaque commemorating the event and another nearby noting that by Cuban law the “Spanish – American War” would now be known as the “Spanish – Cuban – American War.”
More impressive were two other sites we’d see a: the monument to General Maceo in the Plaza de la Revolución and the 17th century El Moro Fort, designed in 1637 to protect the city from marauding pirates. About a half-hour outside the city, it was below El Moro that the Spanish fleet was destroyed by the American navy, ensuring the end of the war.
The Caribbean Sans the Infrastructure
After leaving San Juan Hill we continued on down towards the city, passing numerous colorful buildings in various stages of disrepair along the way. Several buildings had roofs caved in, although people still lived in some of them. This would pale to what I would later see in Havana where on average two buildings collapse each day.
Stealing glimpses of local life through open doors and windows, I soon began to feel the rhythm of Caribbean life. But I also sensed it was somehow different from other Caribbean towns, and then realized that was due to the near-total lack of cars, with none even parked along the streets.
A City of Music
Despite the extensive poverty in a country where the average wage is $20 per month, Santiago de Cuba continues to be a vibrant city of music due to its African heritage. In fact, you find music everywhere.
The Grand Circle tour was part of a People-to-People Program and one morning before visiting a senior center we went into the adjoining Iglesia San Francisco, a church badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy a few years earlier. It was in terrible need of repair, and would likely be deemed uninhabitable by U.S. and European standards, but up on the altar a group of teenagers were practicing their dance steps for an upcoming show.
Dance and music are important ingredients in Cuban life and during our four days in the city we met several other dance troupes and watched short performances of groups ranging from a children’s dance group to the Ballet Folklorico de Oriente.
One of the most amazing was the performance by a Tumba Francesa troupe, a dance of Afro-Franco-Haitian-Cuban origin unlike anything else you’ll experience in Cuba. The music is a fusion of West African and traditional French and its robust beat is pounded out on African-style drums, to which men and women attired in colorful eighteenth-century costumes dance. In the small room where we enjoyed our performance the pounding rhythm was almost hypnotic.
Following the performance one of the women came over and asked me to dance with her, and was soon followed by more women approaching the other men in our group. Cuban men soon followed, asking women in our group to join them. We soon formed a long conga line that swirled about the room, weaving in and out for several minutes. Following it we had surprisingly delicious anise tea and Cuban rum while we talked with the group.
Flamboyant Street Life
In the center of the city the pedestrian streets of Calle Aguilera and Calle Heredia proved to be as flamboyant as the Tumba Francesa. There’s a vibrant energy along these calles due to the crush of shops and shoppers, strolling guitarists, ice cream vendors and locals and tourists strolling about. Both streets lead to the city’s famous Parque Céspedes that is overlooked by the Catedral de la Asunción on one side and the old City Hall on the other. It was from the balcony of City Hall that Fidel Castro made his first public speech after winning the revolution.
Around the park and on the adjoining street there’s a litany of historic and popular buildings including the 16th-century residence of the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez, thought to be the oldest building in Cuba, and the house where the poet José Heredia was born. Near his house is the popular Casa de la Trova, which features daily performances of live music.
The colonial-style Hotel Casa Granda on Parque Céspedes is adjacent to the Cathedral, whose Neo-Classical façade belies the fact that the church itself is more than 400 years old. Like many other historic buildings around Cuba it is undergoing repair and restoration and is closed to the public.
Nevertheless, while having a drink on the veranda of the Casa Granda one afternoon I decided to wander over to the cathedral to see if I could view the ongoing restoration.
After I was told it wasn’t possible when I enquired in the adjoining museum, one of the staff pulled me aside and told me he would show me inside for five dollars. Well understanding how things work in Cuba, I acquiesced and paid him his fee.
He then brought me around to the entrance of the church and peered in. When I went to go further he told me I couldn’t since no one was allowed beyond the entrance, and refused to give me my money back.
Just then one of the officials in charge of the restoration came over and told us we were forbidden to be there. When I explained what had just ensued he told my “guide” to leave and not return. He then invited me into the site and gave me a private tour of the restoration efforts underway.
It was the best five dollars I spent all day.
If you go:
I traveled to Cuba with the Grand Circle Foundation, which at the time offered tours both to Eastern Cuba as well as to Havana (the tour I was on included both itineraries). It has since limited its tours only to Havana, which is also a very good tour I would recommend (see Four Fascinating Days in Havana and Traveling to Cuba Legally – What It’s Really Like).
Grand Circle Foundation
347 Congress Street
Boston, MA 02210
Tel: (800) 221-2610
By Jim Ferri, August 27, 2014