The 1520 Catedral de Nuestra de Senora overlooks Parque Cespedes and Santiago Harbour.
If Havana is the heart of Cuba, Santiago is its soul. The city was founded in 1515 by the Spanish Conquistador Diego Velazquez and for over 100 years was an early capital of Cuba. One of its first mayors was another conquistador, Hernan Cortez, who was later to claim Mexico for the Spanish.
Culturally Santiago is regarded as the birthplace of Cuba’s signature Son musical genre, best recognised through Buena Vista Social Club’s sound, an irrepressible mix of Latin and African rhythms and harmonies with other influences thrown in. Santiago’s cultural melting pot persona was enriched by its proximity to Cribbean islands Jamaica and Haiti from where both English and French speaking slaves were brought to replace dwindling indigenous workers in local plantations and mines. Today the city retains pride in its cultural roots with a strong representation of museums, clubs and cultural associations and world-famous institutions such as the Afro-Cuban dance company Ballet Folklorico Tucumba. One of the best-preserved Spanish fortresses of the 17th century sits atop a cliff face at the entrance to Santiago Bay reminding visitors of Spain’s early and many tussles with pirates.
The centre of Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago is known as the Hero City of the Republic as the incubator of the Cuban Revolution. It was from the Moncada Barracks in 1953 that Fidel Castro first struck out against President Batista in an abortive attempt to overthrow the dictator, its mustard-coloured walls still bearing the bullet holes of the uprising. It was during his trial for the insurrection that Castro made his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech. Castro was imprisoned following his trial but later exiled to Mexico.
(Top) Moncado Barracks still bears its insurrection scars; (above) Castro announced the success of his revolution from this balcony.
It was Santiago’s citizens who were the first to rise up against Government troops in 1956, the start of the revolution that would ultimately topple Batista. With the Revolution finally succeeding in 1959 Castro chose a hotel overlooking Santiago’s main square Parque Cespedes to announce the victory.
World Heritage-listed Castillo de San Pedro del Morro at the entrance to the Bay of Santiago.
Another landmark Santiago attraction is the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, the final resting place of many of Cuba’s historical figures and heros including Jose Marti. Built in 1868 for the victims of the War of Independence against Spain, and the yellow fever epidemic, its 8000 internees include Emilio Bacardí of rum dynasty fame; “martyrs” of the Moncada Barracks attack; the “father of Cuban independence”, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819–74); and internationally famous Buena Vista Social Club member Compay Segundo. Marti’s final resting place is an impressive mausoleum where each half-hour every day a round-the-clock guard is changed with great ceremony. We were told that Santa Ifigenia will be the final resting place of Fidel Castro when the time comes.
The entrance to Cementerio Santa Ifigenia.
(Top) Jose Marti’s mausoleum; (above) changing of the guard.