Celestyal Crystal Cruise: Touring Santiago de Cuba, drinking mojitos, seeing Revolution Square

ABOARD THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL – Hearing the loud clank of the metal cell door slamming shut sent chills down my spine. Being locked in this Cuban prison must have been a living hell. Or a death sentence.

Today is a busy itinerary in Santiago de Cuba on our Celestyal Crystal cruise. So much to see and do. Tour guide Ricardo is a wealth of information and his English is excellent.

I know that I am going to wish I had even more time here but am lucky to have the experiences on my trip, including this visit to Castillo del Morro.

The “punishment cell” at del Morro offers barely enough room to sit.

The fortress on the coast of Santiago looks forbidding but that is what it is supposed to be. Officially named Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, Castillo del Morro was built as a defense against marauding pirates. The Spanish word “morro” means a rocky promontory and this one is quite visible from the sea.

This Santiago fort is not to be confused with Morro Castle in Havana Bay. I’ll be visiting that one later.

The second largest city in Cuba, Santiago was founded in 1515 by Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez de Cuellar. From 1522 to 1589, Santiago was the capital of the Spanish colony of Cuba.

Santiago also is known as the Cradle of the Revolution because it was here in 1953 that Fidel Castro led his ill-prepared attack on Batista Barracks at Moncado. It took a few more years but Castro did successfully uproot American-backed dictator Batista. Castro gave his victory speech in Santiago.

Walking up to the fort, we passed through a gauntlet of souvenir stalls on both sides. The booths were selling everything from paintings, wood carvings, pottery and books to straw hats, jewelry and T-shirts. I’ve noticed that Cuban sellers are not pests. They might ask once but a polite “No thanks” usually ends the sales pitch.

Climbing to the top of the fort offers a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the most popular images on items for sale is that of revolutionary Che Guevara who was executed in 1967 and has become a counterculture symbol of rebellion. I hope to write more about him later because his face seems to be everywhere, even more so than longtime dictator Fidel Castro.

Built high on an overlook with stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, Castillo del Morro is cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Crossing the moat, we climbed the fort’s stone stairs and learned about the swashbuckling pirates in the fort’s pirate museum and the unfortunate souls once imprisoned here. The “punishment cell” barely has room to sit, let alone stand or lie down.

Moncada Barracks was the site of Castro’s ill-prepared attack on Batista’s government.

With piracy in decline in the 1800s, the fort was converted into a prison. During the Cuban War of Independence, our guide said that patriots, military personnel and high-ranking civilians who fought for independence from Spanish rule were held in the fort’s dungeons. Some never left alive.

Don Emilio Bacardi Mureau of the famed run family was thrown into del Morro’s dungeons for helping the rebel guerilla army. Of course, he survived and went on to live a long life, serving as mayor of Santiago and winning a seat in the national senate in 1906. I took a photo of his grave in the same cemetery where Fidel Castro is buried.

After the fort, we walked to a nearby tavern where cold mojitos were waiting on the bar and the bartender proudly pointed out on the wall a framed white dinner plate, fork, knife and spoon that Paul McCartney used during a 2000 visit. The Beatle also left his autograph.

 Driving tour of Santiago

Loading back on our small air-conditioned bus, we next took a driving tour of Santiago, passing by famed San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders led a victorious cavalry charge against the Spanish on July 1, 1898.

19th century war hero General Antonio Maceo is honored on Revolution Square.

That is one thing I really appreciate about this Celestyal Crystal itinerary – it includes driving tours of our destinations because there is no way we could walk the city in the time we are here. The combo of driving/walking gives us a nice overview of Cuba but I certainly would love to return and live in Santiago for a month to learn even more.

Passing by the bright yellow Moncada Barracks, guide Ricardo pointed out that the former military barracks was the site of the unsuccessful July 26, 1953, revolution led by 26-year-old Fidel Castro. The date on which the attack took place was adopted by Castro as the name for his revolutionary movement which eventually toppled the dictatorship of Batista in 1959. Castro was later caught and jailed but the seeds of the revolution had already been sown. Flags and signs emblazoned with “26 Julio” are seen throughout the country.

A monument to Che Guevara is part of Revolution Square.

Moncada Barracks is now a school and a museum. Bullet holes riddling the building are not the original ones from the revolution. Batista had those holes filled in. But the bullet holes now are where the original ones once were, Ricardo said.

                                                 Revolution Square

On our last stop before heading back to the ship, we went to Revolution Square, one of the most popular gathering places in Santiago. It was here that Fidel Castro delivered many speeches (including one that lasted nearly eight hours). Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis both held large masses here during papal visits to Cuba.

The most striking feature of the square is a massive dramatic monument dedicated to 19th century war hero General Antonio Maceo with his arm outstretched and his hand beckoning people to follow him. Twenty-three huge saw-toothed machetes rise from the grass to surround the 1990s sculpture of Maceo on horseback.

Fidel Castro confidant Camilo Cienfuegos is honored on Revolution Square.

A Jose Marti Memorial with its 358-foot-tall tower and 59-foot statue also dominates the square. Construction on the square started during the Batista presidency and was completed in 1959, the year Fidel Castro came to power. Originally called Plaza Civica (Civic Square), the site was renamed Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Across the street two government office buildings bear steel sculptures with the faces of Cuban Revolution heroes. One of Che Guevara has the quotation “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory Always) and one of Fidel Castro confidant Camilo Cienfuegos has the quotation “Vas bien, Fidel.” (You’re doing fine, Fidel).

The Cienfuegos facial sculpture is sometimes mistaken for Fidel Castro, although I don’t see a resemblance at all. I guess people just expect to see a memorial to the beloved/hated Cuban dictator since this is his Revolution Square.

Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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