In the morning we left to Santiago de Cuba. The road became narrow, with horse carriages, bicycles and the occasional truck that made driving more challenging, so it took five full hours to reach our destination including a half hour stop in Bayamo, a beautiful town, especially around Plaza del Himno, where the Catedral de San Salvador de Bayamo is built. It proved impossible to find a restaurant that could serve us and we got a bit irritated.
An hour later, we arrived at the Melia Santiago de Cuba to discover that our room was not ready yet. I was tired from the 5 hours of driving and got a bit upset again until we finally settled. From now on we did not need the car as the plan was to stay here for a couple of days and then fly back to Havana.
Food seems to taste good in Cuba, if you choose the right places and once more we followed Lonely Planet’s advise and enjoyed a great dinner at the nearby El Baracoa restaurant. Then we went to Plaza de Marte and joined the Patio los Dos Abuelos club, where a 7-man band was playing traditional cuban salsa. The narrow terrace was mostly empty, us and 5-6 more parties. The half hour walk back to the hotel was pleasant and despite the fact that the smaller streets off the main boulevard are dark, we did not feel insecure.
We woke up with a pouring rain. Boy, it did not look good and the forecast was gloomy for the next three days. The hotel was leaking water and the lobby was full of buckets and a large pool of water. We took a taxi to Cayo Granma, 20 minutes away for the town, only to find out that the ferry would leave at noon and return at 4pm. So we decided to get back to town. Fortunately the taxi driver was around so he dropped us at Tivoli.
Santiago de Cuba is the capital of the Orient, with a dominant African population from the slaves that were brought to work in the sugar plantations. It is also the hometown of many famous Cubans, like Antonio Maceo, Frank Pais and Compay Segundo. Supposedly the spirit here is very different than in the rest of Cuba, but honestly, we failed to recognize it. the city was established in 1528 by Diego Velázquez and received a big influx of French immigrants from Haiti in the late 18th century that created a Spanish-African-French cultural mix. The house of Velázquez is the oldest house in Cuba and Latin America and was renovated in the 1960s, but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance during our stay.
We walked through the narrow streets of Casco Historico and got soaked by the pouring rain but the diffused light and reflections on the tarmac helped me get some nice pictures. Sadly three of the museums we attempted to visit were closed and the city cathedral, la Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (1528) was is in terrible condition and full of buckets to hold the rain water pouring from the roof. It is evident that there is very little money to maintain and restore the full cultural heritage of Cuba. After a mojito stop in the beautiful Hotel Casa Granda, we went to lunch to a nearby paladar and walked all the way back to Melia.
We chose el Madrileno for dinner, a walking distance from the hotel. It has a nice terrace and simple but delicious dishes. Three of the neighbouring tables were occupied by elder Italians with local escorts, quite a sad spectacle otherwise the place is really great.
Despite the fame of a never sleeping city, Santiago seems to go to bed early. We walked to the center in empty dark streets and we entered Casa de la Trova. The band was ok, but the joint was full of tourists, not quite what we expected. After some more mojitos we walked through the darkest possible streets to Tivoli to visit another club, but at midnight it was already closed. Very disappointing after all the things we had read about the nightlife here.
Despite the gloomy forecast, the next morning the skies were clear. We took a taxi to el Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a 17th century castle turned into prison in 1800, located at the entrance of the gulf of Santiago de Cuba, with great views of the city. The castle was designed by 1637 by Giovanni Battista Antonelli and took 62 years to complete. By 1775, when the fear for pirates attacks was gone, it was converted to a prison for political prisoners.
The Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia is a wonderful necropolis where some of Cuba’s greatest lie in peace, among which Emilio Bacardi and Compay Segundo. The most important tomb is of course the mausoleum of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, a huge cylindrical structure with an ever burning fire in the center. Every half hour, around the clock, takes place a ceremonial guard change, tribute to the great poet, philosopher and symbol of Cuba’s bid for independence.
We spent the remaining day walking in the Casco Histórico to profit the good weather and see what we missed the previous day. In Mirador del Tivoli, a vantage point with excellent views to the port we met a beautiful girl with a wonderful smile. She was happy when we gave her some candies and pens and her mother who was watching from her house invited us in for some coffee. It seems that Cubans are indeed hospitable, although they rarely break a smile unless you make the first move.
The flight to Havana was supposedly leaving at 20:25 so we walked back to the hotel and killed some time by the pool, where a local band and dancers were performing. It turned out that the plain left with 3 hours delay and nobody at the terminal could share any information. The great Cubana de Aviacion! By the time we landed in Havana we were exhausted. After a half hour drive through the empty streets of Havana, we arrived at the hotel and dropped dead. Next: Havana.