By Lázaro Hernández Suárez
Photos: Carlos Gómez
I felt like my trip to Santiago had truly begun when I reread the lines the great Granada-born poet Federico García Lorca penned as he succumbed to the charms of the most Caribbean of Cuba’s cities. My mind replays the sensations of the city: its special smell, its natural beauty, its nearness to the mountains, the Caribbean sea that kisses its feet, caresses it, envelops it, pervades it, and gives it a tang of salt and a singular light and character. Moving to the beat of son and drums and perfumed by tobacco, coffee, and rum, the people make this mestizo city unique and genuine. Regardless of whether you visit for work, leisure, or to see friends, you will experience an exceptional city.
Even if they do not admit it in Havana, there is no city more intimately connected to the country’s independence from Spain than Santiago. Santiago de Cuba was the birthplace of twenty-nine generals who fought for independence and it is privileged to have been the stage for significant historical events, while also donning the mantle of the island’s happiest and liveliest city.
A little bit of history makes touring the city more interesting. Santiago is one of the first seven towns established by the Spanish conquistadores; it was founded in 1514 and named a city in 1522. Located 547 miles east of Havana, the erstwhile capital of Cuba is now the second most populated city, with more than one million inhabitants. With the exception of the port, it is surrounded by the country’s largest mountain range: the Sierra Maestra.
Fortunately, Santiago is more than heroic history, sunshine, conga, and carnival. The best way to become familiar with the allure of Santiago is to stroll through the streets and mingle with its people. But we cannot forget that a visit to “Hero City” —another of its nicknames— is an encounter with history. Many house façades feature a plaque informing passersby that a person honored by the nation for his or her works or courage was born, lived, or died in this house.
The St. Ifigenia Necropolis shelters the mortal remains of myriad national heroes and martyrs, including national hero José Martí, and Santiago pays them due tribute. This is a city of monuments that preserve the memory of figures who made history, from Liberator Simón Bolívar to Antonio Maceo, “the Bronze Titan,” and poet José María Heredia.
A good overview can be had by taking a turn around the city’s Historic Center, home to Céspedes Park, previously known as Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Constitución; the Metropolitan Cathedral, seat of the Archdiocese of Cuba; the Bacardí Museum; the former residence of Diego Velásquez; and San Juan Hill. History also permeates the old El Tivolí residential neighborhood of deeply-rooted cultural traditions dating to the exodus of French colonists from Haiti in 1791; their descendants have preserved their ancestors’ dances, rhythms, rituals, customs, and culture. The outskirts of Santiago offer other attractions in the form of the ruins of dozens of French-Haitian coffee plantations established in that area in the late 17th and early 19th centuries. Although it might seem incongruous, Santiago is the final resting place of Francesco Antomarchi, who served as Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal physician until the emperor’s death.
Guarding the entrance to the bay is San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle, a linchpin of the city’s system of defense against attack by corsairs and pirates; it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1977. This fortress is considered a fine model of Renaissance military engineering in the Caribbean.
Another not-to-be-missed site is the historically significant July 26 Monument Complex, representing the nation’s evolution and social changes. This ensemble includes the Moncada Barracks, known today as Scholastic City, the Courthouse, the Teachers’ College, and Abel Santamaría Park.
The summit of Mt. Maboa, outside Santiago, is topped by the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, declared the patron saint of Cuba in 1916 and crowned by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba in 1998. This church is one of the most visited on the island. Its reputation for bestowing miracles attracts hundreds of visitors who carry away a piece of copper and the hope of returning some day to give thanks for miracles conferred.
Just outside Santiago is Baconao Natural Park, offering incomparable beauty and scenic wealth that cannot fail to enchant lovers of ecotourism, adventure, and water sports. The park’s profusion of flora and fauna, along with innumerable waterfalls, earned the 31,000 acres a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve designation.
Santiago is a city of music. Every corner or building vibrates to music; it is impossible to imagine the city without its rumbas, its trova, its joy, and its congas. The wellspring of son, guaracha, and bolero, this city of musicians has nurtured and nourished the most diverse genres of music, from the haunting sound of Chinese horns to the thump of leather drumheads and the plaintive lament of violins.
Where could guitar arpeggios be more bewitching than in the hands of the old musicians of the Santiago Trova? Where does the strumming of guitar strings speaking of love more quickly open windows? The mystery of this city of secrets, masked by its historic streets, age-old parks, and timeworn houses, still endures. If Santiago never seems to sleep, it could be because the party never ends.
Santiago residents are always happy and they always have a store of spontaneous laughter to share, but you will need to follow their rules if you wish to see into their souls: unless it is a matter of life and death, time is an entirely flexible construct.
No one will take issue if you arrive late for appointments. Life is tranquil here. The failure to understand this could keep you on the edge of a nervous breakdown during your time in Santiago. Don’t be surprised if people grab your hand, hug you, share their sorrows, or ask: “How is your family, my friend? Your folks? The kids?” The offer of a shot of rum or a shared meal always hovers on their lips as if they had known you their whole lives instead of just twenty minutes. Because this is Santiago de Cuba. As poet Manuel Navarro Luna pointed out: “Nothing will come as a surprise!”