ABOARD LOUIS CRISTAL –– Sailing in to Santiago de Cuba was dramatic. We passed under the massive stone walls of “El Morro”, or more officially, the Castilla de San Pedro de la Roca, the impressive Moorish castle built in 1637 and a Unesco World Heritage site. It is the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish American military architecture, designed initially to protect the city from pirates, and used to repel attacks from several enemy forces.
The ship then carefully navigated the narrow passage that winds and curves, before widening out into the large harbor of Santiago. This is the second largest city in Cuba, and is celebrated as the birthplace of the revolution. It was in the Sierra Maestra mountains behind the city that Fidel Castro organized his guerrilla forces and it was from the balcony of Santiago’s city hall that Castro announced the victory of the Cuban Revolution, on Jan. 1, 1959.
It was also here that the Spanish were defeated at San Juan Hill in the Spanish American war. The cemetery is the final resting place for many of Cuba’s heroes.
But it is also an architecturally varied and beautiful city. Today I took an excursion called Panoramic Santiago, which took me to the important sites in the city and its surroundings.
First stop was the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, where so many Cuban heroes are buried, and where Fidel will rest when the time comes. The tomb of the intellectual father of the revolution and national hero Jose Marti is here. The changing of the guard in front of his tomb each hour, with goose-stepping soldiers and patriotic music, is an impressive ceremony to see. If cemeteries can be said to be beautiful, this one is – immaculately cared for, full of white sepulchers, impressive memorials and a reverent resting place of those who died for Cuban independence.
We drove through the main parts of the city, past the elegant houses that once belonged to the wealthy but were nationalized and given to the people and now house small business, public social clubs and recreation halls. We stopped at the Moncado Barracks, where Castro and his men attempted a botched take-over, saw San Juan Hill, then drove along the coast to El Morro.
After that we descended once more to the city and walked through the main streets, stopping for mojitos at the Grand Hotel, where the rooftop terrace offers lovely views of the old plaza and the harbor.
There were also excursions to the Gran Piedra and Baconao Biosphere Reserve, tours to rum factories and an opportunity to learn to dance, Cuban-style. Santiago is famous for its musical roots.
It was an engaging and charming city, clean, in dire need of a facelift, but elegant and full of stories. I wish I had more time here.