Santiago: Cuba’s Soul

Although my plan was to head west across Cuba, I decided to make a detour east to Santiago de Cuba, the country’s frenetic cultural capital. A far cry from mellow Holguín, Cuba’s second city is bursting with Caribbean vibrancy which makes it an exciting, fun place to visit.

Getting there from Holguín was easy. I headed to the Viazul (the tourist public transport service) bus station just outside Holguín city and booked my ticket the day before. I probably didn’t need to as the bus wasn’t full but with Cuba’s public transport being a little unpredictable, I thought it best to have a seat confirmed in advance. There are several buses a day to Santiago via Bayamo though I’m not sure of the times. The lady behind the desk just asked me if I wanted a morning bus and then booked me onto the 8.35am one. It cost 11 CUC (around £8) for the 3.5 hour journey. I was told to get there half an hour before which meant a bit of an early start but it was made better by my casa particular host giving me a lift to the bus station in his awesome 1954 Plymouth car. The bus was running late so I had to wait a while but it finally rocked up around 9.15. If you have an ETECSA Wi-Fi card, you can connect to the internet in the bus terminal while you wait. The bus journey was fine. Viazul buses are apparently the “luxury” way to travel in Cuba but are just standard, no-frills buses. I had to check my big bag in under the bus (free of charge) and was given a ticket to reclaim it later.

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The Viazul terminal in Santiago is next to the train station, about a 2km walk from the centre. It is walkable but if you want to avoid the stifling Cuban heat, there are plenty of taxi drivers waiting to bully you into submission at the bus terminal. I was staying in a casa particular I found on AirBnB, just north of the centre. Unlike in Holguín, my hosts spoke no English at all so it was a great opportunity to flex my Spanish muscles and realise just how much I’ve forgotten after 7 years of not speaking it. The very friendly host would spend the mornings chunnering away to me at lightning speed whilst I tried in vain to translate what she’d said 5 minutes earlier. I always knew the gist of what she was saying but couldn’t get the specifics which was slightly problematic when getting directions for example. I do believe that when you know a bit of a language you are more harsh on yourself when you don’t understand things. Even though my Spanish isn’t great, I was still able to ask and answer questions in a way I’ve never been able to do before in someone’s native language elsewhere in the world which is really good. Hopefully after 4 months in Latin America, I’ll be practically fluent. The casa was great – the hosts were very friendly and patient with my pigeon Spanish and the room itself. I had my own terrace to lounge on which was a particularly great addition. I think these casas might be my favourite type of accommodation I’ve stayed in. I love hostels but staying in a local family’s home just adds a completely different dimension.

In terms of Santiago itself, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. I just spent the first couple of days exploring its many nooks and crannies. Its architecture is fantastic, particularly the central Cathedral (1 CUC entry to get a great view of the bustling square below) and its huge pedestrian thoroughfare. The central park, Cespedes, is always a good people watching spot. It also has Wi-Fi, though acquiring an internet card was somewhat of a challenge in Santiago. Due to the restrictions on internet in Cuba, the web can only be accessed by purchasing cards (1 CUC) which give you an hour’s internet access, mainly in public squares and parks though some casas do have internet access too. Cards are bought at ETECSA offices scattered around Cuban cities. I thought it would be quite straight forward and you could just pop in, buy some cards and all would be good. But no, this is Cuba. On my first day, the offices were being fumigated or something so were all closed. The next day, I went to the ETECSA office right next to Cespedes Park. However I wasn’t aware of the queuing system. Everyone has to wait outside and each person is called in by the security guard one at a time. Given ETECSA deals with all communication related issues, this can result in a long wait. Because they’re not British, the Cubans opt not to spend this waiting time queuing in an orderly line and instead stand all over the place. As a result, when a new person joins the “queue”, they must ask “la ultima?” to verify who was the last person to arrive, that way you know who is going in just before you. Then the next person will ask the same question and so on. I didn’t know this so when I rocked up the first time, I ended up getting pushed out of the queue. Even though there were people who arrived after me (and clearly knew they arrived after me), there was no one to verify my place in the queue. I finally gave up after realising nobody was going to vouch for me.

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I returned in the afternoon (which, incidentally, was much less busy), did it the correct way and it went without a hitch. I stocked up on internet cards so I wouldn’t have to endure the queuing system again for a while. I needed to show some ID (a driver’s licence will do). On the card is a username and a password which you scratch off. The scratch material is so bad. I ended up ruining one of my cards because scratching it with a coin completely scratched off the first four digits – scratch gently. As well as Wi-Fi, Santiago also had other amenities that smaller Holguín was lacking, such as normal(ish) supermarkets where you could actually go in, browse and buy stuff. This is the modern world of Santiago de Cuba.

Elsewhere though, it’s Cuban life as normal. The buildings are colourful and colonial, the cars are old. The city also has a small Malecon (promenade) since it just about touches the Caribbean Sea. It makes for a good sunset spot and in the evening it was very vibrant and filled with families and young people. What Santiago is really known for is its entertainment though – music really does fill the streets, it’s practically everywhere. To get a more intimate experience of Cuban music, you can head to one of the city’s many live music bars. They’re usually set up quite formally, rather than being a bar with live music in the background. I paid a visit to Casa de la Trova right in the centre which has multiple performances throughout the day. There’s a board outside stating performance times. It’s set up like a mini theatre but there’s also a bar and it’s just 1 CUC (£0.70) to come in and watch a live Cuban performance. The place was practically deserted when I visited on a Thursday evening but the music was no less invigorating. It’s all acoustic as well which is so refreshing. Definitely check this place out. Just across the road is Bohemia Bar, a slightly more casual little bar which also has great live music (1 CUC cover charge). To be honest, pretty much anywhere you go you’re not going to be disappointed. There’s live music at every turn – just follow your ears.

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In terms of its food scene, Santiago isn’t rated too favourably (Cuba as a whole doesn’t usually do too well) but there are some good haunts to be found. My casa recommended a restaurant called San Francisco, with a fantastic rooftop terrace and really delicious, cheap food to boot. I went for a fish dish and it was the first meal I had in Cuba that I thought was genuinely really tasty. With a drink, I didn’t pay more than 7 CUC (around £5). St Pauli is another restaurant which is popular and tasty, with some cool murals too. A meal and drink here will certainly cost less than 10 CUC (I added a starter and it was still less than 10) and is really wholesome. It filled me up ahead of my long bus ride to Trinidad. Similarly priced is El Holandes, literally just across the road from Casa de la Trova. The food is good but it’s also a great spot because if live music is playing over the road, it drifts into here. So far, I’m not understanding the food criticism of Cuba. It’s not award-winning cuisine but most of the food I’ve had has been simple, tasty and well-priced, often in really nice little restaurants. I should note that, up to now, where I’ve followed recommendations (from my hosts, Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor), I’ve rarely been disappointed whereas when I’ve just popped into the nearest place, it’s been a lot more hit and miss. Whilst wandering into a random bar often yields great results in Cuba, for restaurants I think it’s better to stick to the better reviewed places.

One frustrating element to Santiago is the number of jinteros (touts) and their refusal to leave you alone. Santiago is well-known for them and whilst I’m used to taxi drivers or tour guides approaching me in the street, Santiago did seem quite relentless. I don’t mind so much when I’m on the move but it would often happen when chilling in Cespedes Park. A local would sit next to me and start chatting, declare that we were best friends and then demand money for the privilege. One guy even claimed to be a champion Cuban boxer and offered me “free” merchandise… if I gave him money. It’s annoying because you then have to stop chilling and move away elsewhere. I think it happened more to me because I was on my own. It’s also a shame because when locals genuinely want to talk to you with no ulterior motive, you end up a bit more on your guard. Usually it doesn’t take too long to sort out the “hey amigo!” touts from the genuinely friendly locals though.

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A traveller I met remarked that they thought Santiago was much more laid back than the likes of Havana and that’s why they liked it – the Caribbean vibe is strong here. It’s a different sort of laid back to the likes of Holguín or Trinidad though. It’s not mellow or soft, it’s loud and energetic and yet still somehow soothing. It’s a city where walking out your door each morning is an adventure because you don’t know who or what you’re going to find that day. One afternoon I stumbled across two gigantic inflatable men which had closed an entire road off for seemingly no reason at all. Apart from anything else, Santiago is quintessentially Cuban. If Havana is Cuba’s heart, Santiago is its soul, infecting its visitors with a rhythm they find difficult to shake off.

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