Santiago de Cuba's famous fortress that guards the entrance to its harbor is the first place Cuba cruise visitors see as their ship sails into the long, narrow bay. What a stunning introduction! This old 16th century fort is less than 10 miles from Santiago de Cuba and is worth a visit for its views of the sea and its history.
Can U.S. Citizens Cruise to Cuba?
Americans have been able to cruise to Cuba and visit Santiago de Cuba for the past few years by flying to Jamaica, sailing Celestyal Cruises to Cuba, participating in a People-to-People educational program, and then disembarking a week later when the ship returns to Jamaica. This program obtains all Visas and the cruise fare covers the food, cabin, and all tours ashore. I sailed with Celestyal to Cuba in early April 2016 and loved the program. I would have cruised to Cuba sooner had I known that Celestyal made it so easy. This article on Santiago de Cuba was written after my visit to Cuba with Celestyal Cruises. The cruise circumnavigated the island and visited Santiago de Cuba on the southeast coast, Havana, and the Maria la Gorda beach on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula at the far western tip of Cuba.
Fathom Cruise Line had its first cruise to Cuba from Miami in May 2016, and other cruise lines are finalizing their plans to sail to Cuba and will soon have similar programs in place. Because of the continuing U.S. embargo, U.S. citizens cannot travel to Cuba when their primary goal is "tourism", it must fall under one of the 12 allowable categories, one of which is "educational activities".
Background of Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's second largest city with over 500,000 residents, and is located on the southeast coast of the island nation, about 540 miles from Havana. It is also Cuba's second most important city historically.
Those who have cruised to some of the small islands in the Caribbean will appreciate Cuba's size--the main island is over 780 miles long, and the country has 4000 additional small islands and cays.
Santiago de Cuba was founded in 1515, so the city celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2015. Like Trinidad and Havana, Santiago de Cuba was one of the first seven Spanish towns on the island of Cuba. Pope Francis visited Santiago de Cuba as part of the anniversary celebration, and early 16th century Spanish expeditions to Mexico embarked from Santiago de Cuba, as did De Soto's expedition to North America in 1538. The city was invaded by French forces in 1553 and by the British in 1662. Today's population is made up of Spanish, African, French, and British descendants, so its culture is diverse and eclectic. The city is known for its music and dance, especially the "son", from which salsa is derived. Santiago de Cuba has a marvelous Carnival, but it is celebrated in July rather than the week before Mardi Gras.
Since Cuba has been a Communist country since 1959, many residents are atheist, but Catholicism has made a resurgence the past few years. In addition, a relatively large number practice Afro-Cuban religions, most notably santería.
Santiago de Cuba has played an important role in much of Cuba's fight for independence dating back to the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). Since San Juan Hill is located in Santiago de Cuba, the city was also important in the Spanish-American War of the late 19th century. More recently, the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro started in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, and Castro proclaimed victory in the city on January 1, 1959.
Visitors come to Santiago de Cuba to see its colonial architecture, experience its festivals (most notably Carnival in July and the Feast of Fire), and learn more about its important place in Cuba's history.
Cruise ships sailing to Santiago de Cuba dock in the industrial port, but it's just a short ride into the old city. Since the six major historical sites are spread around the city, most visitors take a bus tour that includes stops at the Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, Cespedes Park, Moncada Barracks, San Juan Hill, Revolution Square, and the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.
Knowing something about these six important historical sites before you cruise to Cuba will make seeing them more meaningful.
Santiago de Cuba - Castillo de San Pedro del Morro Dry Moat
The Castillo de San Pedro del Morro or San Pedro de la Roca Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its well-preserved Spanish-American military architecture. Since work on the current castle on the promontory guarding the harbor entrance was sporadic, it took 62 years to build, but was completed in 1700.
Pirates were the main enemy of the first settlers of Santiago de Cuba, and the fortress was attacked several times. An earthquake also damaged the castle. However, by 1775 the pirates were mostly gone, and the facility was turned into a political prison. As seen in the photo above, the castle was surrounded by a dry moat because of its location on the top of the cliffs. When the castle was a political prison, bodies of prisoners were thrown into the moat. Kind of gruesome, isn't it?
Bus tours take visitors up to the castle, and guides provide information on the facility before giving guests free time to explore on their own. Most of the signage is only in Spanish, but it's still interesting to explore inside and see all the old cells from when it was a prison.
As seen on the next page, one of the best parts of the castle is the views of the Caribbean Sea from the top of the promontory.
Santiago de Cuba - View of the Sea from Castillo de San Pedro del Morro
Visitors to Santiago de Cuba who arrive via a Cuba cruise ship have the best of both worlds. They get to sail by the San Pedro de la Roca Castle twice while sailing into and out of the Santiago de Cuba bay. If they take a bus or car up to the castle, they get the opportunity to see the harbor and the Caribbean Sea from the top.
Santiago de Cuba - Castillo de San Pedro del Morro on Cespedes Park
In the middle of the main square of old town Santiago de Cuba is Cespedes Park, named for Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, one of the leaders of Cuba's 1868-1878 war of independence (The Ten Years' War). and a native son of the city. In 1844, Cespedes bought a plantation near Santiago de Cuba and was a slave owner until October 10, 1868. On that date, he called his slaves together, gave them their freedom, and asked them to join him in fighting Spain for Cuba's independence. The Ten Years' War was Cuba's first attempt at gaining freedom, and many Cubans consider Cespedes the "Father of Cuban Independence" since he was the first to free his slaves and declare war on Spain.
The park is surrounded on all four sides by important historic buildings--the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption seen in the photo above, the historic Hotel Casa Granda, the former San Carlos Club, the old City Hall, and the Casa de Diego Velazquez.
A cathedral has stood on this spot in Santiago de Cuba since 1520. However, because of earthquakes, pirates, and hurricanes, the current Cathedral completed in 1922 has undergone many renovations, most recently for the 2015 quincentennial.
Santiago de Cuba - Old City Hall on Cespedes Park
The old Santiago de Cuba City Hall sits opposite the cathedral on Cespedes Park. This building is famous because Fidel Castro proclaimed victory of the Cuban Revolution from one of its balconies on January 1, 1959. It was Castro's first speech. From there, the Santiago guerrillas marched across Cuba and arrived in Havana about a week later.
Santiago de Cuba - Casa de Diego Velazquez on Cespedes Park
Casa de Diego Velaquez is celebrated as the oldest residence in all of Cuba. It was built between 1516 and 1530. Diego Velazquez de Cuellar was one of the Spanish conquerors, the first Governor from Cuba, and founder of the first seven villages in the country.
Today the house is the Cuban Historical Colonial Environment's Museum. It is interesting to see the building's carved ceilings, thick walls, and solid construction, which provide an idea of the wealth of Spanish conquerors like Velasquez. Given the number of renovations necessary because of earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes of the past 500 years, it's amazing that any of the original house is still standing.
Santiago de Cuba - San Carlos Club on Cespedes Park
The 300 Club is a popular bar and jazz club on Cespedes Park next to the famous old Hotel Casa Granda. Until 1959, this historic building was home to the San Carlos Club, a gathering place for the wealthiest and most influential men of Santiago de Cuba to drink, socialize, and gamble.
The Hotel Casa Granda has a rooftop bar and a comfortable lobby bar. It's a great place to have a drink while waiting to meet up with a tour group.
Santiago de Cuba - Moncada Barracks
The July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba is celebrated as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro led this small attack (about 140 rebels) and named his revolution Movimiento 26 Julio or M 26-7 in honor of the date.
Castro selected this date and the 6 am time for the attack since Santiago de Cuba has its annual Carnival on July 25. He thought many of the soldiers might be either sleeping or hungover from the previous night's celebration. Since the revolution was named for this attack, one might think it was a major victory for the Castro-led rebels. On paper, it was not. The attackers were outmanned and outgunned. Nine rebels were killed in the attack, and dozens captured or injured were executed soon afterwards. A few of the insurgents made their way into the mountains, but were soon captured. Both Fidel and Raul were imprisoned. However, even though the battle was lost, the war was won less than six years later.
Although the Moncada Barracks is now a museum, it still has many of the bullet holes left from the assault in its exterior walls.
Santiago de Cuba - San Juan Hill
Santiago de Cuba has played an important role in other wars. Those living in the USA are familiar with San Juan Hill, since it was the site of a July 1, 1898 important battle during the Spanish-American War. (Cubans call this the Spanish-Cuban-American War since some Cubans fought alongside the Americans.) Today, San Juan Hill is part of a memorial park located about a mile from downtown Santiago de Cuba.
Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders became famous at this battle. He led his cavalry troop up the San Juan Heights and Kettle Hill, fighting in hand to hand combat before taking the hill. Other American troops performed admirably at this battle, but it was the Rough Riders who got most of the acclaim. Although the Americans won this battle, their losses were much greater than the Spanish, with 205 killed and 1,180 wounded. The Spanish had 58 dead, 170 wounded, and 39 captured.
This battle was the turning point of the war. Just two days later, in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, the U.S. Navy decisively defeated the Spanish fleet. The U.S. Navy had one sailor killed and 10 wounded while Spain lost all six of its ships, and had 323 killed and 151 wounded. Approximately 70 officers and 1,500 men were taken prisoner. Santiago de Cuba fell to the Americans on July 16. Although the war continued until August, it was over in Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba - Billboard at Revolution Square
All cities in Cuba have a Revolution Square, with most honoring Cuba's long fight for independence from Spain or freedom from the dictator Batisa. The Ten Years' War of 1868-1878, the Little War of 1879-1880, the War of Independence of 1895-1898, and the Castro-led Revolution of 1953 to 1959 are all celebrated in Cuba.
This billboard honors Fidel Castro and sits across from the impressive Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba which is dedicated to another war hero, Antoino Maceo Grajales. A huge outline of the face of Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the heroes of Castro's Revolution, looks down on the Square from one of the buildings nearby.
Santiago de Cuba - Revolution Square
The huge Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba sits on the edge of the city and is named for native son Antonio Maceo Grajales, who fought in the Ten Years' War of 1868-1878 and was second in command in the Cuban Army of Independence from 1895 until he was killed by Spanish troops in December 1896.
A 50-foot high statue of Maceo on horseback is a centerpiece of the Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, but the 23 machetes soaring into the air grab our attention. These machetes represent March 23 1878, the date when the 10-year independence fight with Spain was renewed after the Protesta de Baraguá, a meeting where Maceo and other officers declined to sign the truce ending the Ten Years' War. They refused to sign since none of the war objectives had been met, including the two most important ones--abolition of slavery in Cuba and Cuban independence from Spain.
The Square also has a small museum on Maceo's life. He is considered by some to be as important a Cuban patriot as Jose Marti.
The square was completed in 1991 and has been used for political, social, and cultural events in Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba - Jose Marti Mausoleum at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery
Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is the burial site for many famous Cubans, and it's definitely worth a visit. The cemetery was created in 1868 to bury some of the war dead from the Ten Years' War. Over 8000 souls are buried there today.
The most important person interred at Santa Ifignia is the "George Washington" of Cuba, Jose Marti. His mausoleum, seen in the photo above, is dramatic and the largest in the cemetery. There is a changing of the guard ceremony at the mausoleum every 30 minutes. It's impressive and worth watching.
Marti's mausoleum was built in 1951, and his wooden casket is draped with a Cuban flag. Designers of the mausoleum selected the position in the cemetery because the casket gets daily shafts of light. Marti was a patriot and a poet who once remarked that poems that he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun.
Santiago de Cuba - Emilio Bacardi Grave at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery
Many other important Cubans are buried at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, and not all are politicians or war heroes. One such historical figure is Emilio Bacardi who died in 1922. Yes, he is one of the Bacardis of the rum dynasty. Another popular figure is singer/guitarist Compay Segundo, who was made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.