[dropcap type=”1″]T[/dropcap]ucked away between the towering Sierra Maestra and the wondrous blue Caribbean sea lies Cuba’s second largest city: Santiago de Cuba. A city rich in history and culture, Santiago de Cuba was among other things a Spanish Colonial capital, the birthplace of the son music genre (from which salsa was derived), the home of Don Facundo Bacardi’s first distillery as well as the birthplace of the world renowned cocktails Daiquiri and Cuba Libre (rum and coke) and the launch pad for Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Santiago de Cuba was founded in 1514 by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, and quickly rose to prominence as an industrious port city and a starting off point for many conquistador campaigns throughout America. This long history has left its mark on the diverse architecture lining the winding streets of the city. From the cathedral, colonial facades and fortifications of the casco historico (historic district) to the towering modern hotels and motorcycles that cut through the busy streets of the central district, Santiago de Cuba gracefully undulates between the days of quiet colonial life and the hectic pace of modern living.

Santiago de Cuba didn’t become the eclectic city it is based solely on architecture. This eastern city has served as a new home to many in the past: Spanish immigrants in search of a new life in the colonies, African slaves brought for labor, as well as French and British immigrants who fled the Haitian slave revolt of 1791. The result is a completely unique and unprecedented mix out of which so many musicians, poets, revolutionaries and musical styles have emanated.

What to Do in Santiago de Cuba

Parque Cespedes
parque cespedes
Parque Cespedes facing north towards the Ayuntamiento

If you are looking for the quintessential Santiago de Cuba experience then look no further. This tree lined colonial square houses the beating heart of the city. A seamless juxtaposition of Santiago’s colonial past with its modern present, it has served as a meeting place and hang-out spot for time immemorial and it clearly shows. It is surrounded by buildings which date back to colonial times, the Ayuntamiento, located at the north end of the park is a perfect example. It is the site which served as the office of Hernan Cortez’ office during his mayoral stint in the city. It also served as the site from which Fidel Castro would declare his revolution’s success. The other buildings surrounding the park have their own history and significance as well; they include the house of Diego Velazquez, Cuba’s first colonial governor and founder of the city, the Casa de la Cultura Miguel Matamoros which previously served as a social club for wealthy citizens prior to the revolution, and most importantly the Cathedral known as La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, which sits overlooking the park from its southern end.

The park itself serves as a slice of authentic Santiago life. From students, to gossiping old ladies, to street musicians on their way to or from the nearby Casa de la Trova, anybody from all walks of life can be found at this park on any given day. This human estuary gets its namesake from the statue which can be found at its center. It is a statue dedicated to Carlos Manuel Cespedes, the man often credited with starting the struggle for independence in Cuba in 1868.

La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

santiago-de-cuba-cathedralPerhaps Santiago’s most iconic sight, the cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion stands majestically overlooking Parque Cespedes at the heart of the city. Full of stunning frescoes and intricate hand carved art, the cathedral is well worth the visit. The site on which it sits has housed a cathedral since the cities inception in the early 16th century. It has survived, along with the rest of the city, a series of difficulties, from pirate attacks to earthquake damage.The church houses the remains of Diego Velazquez de Cuella, Santiago’s founder and first governor of Cuba as well as an Ecclesiastic Museum. The time has never been better to visit this magnificent cathedral as it was recently restored in 2015 for its 500th anniversary.

Casa de Diego Velazquez

After establishing Spanish settlements which would later become cities all over Cuba including Baracoa (1511), Havana (1515) and Santiago de Cuba (1514), Diego Velazquez was appointed governor of the island. In 1522 he had built an imposing two-story colonial home which has been preserved to this day, making it the oldest house in Cuba. Despite pirate attacks and earthquake damage, this early colonial work of art still stands to this day.

Diego Velazquez House
House of Diego Velazquez: the oldest house in Cuba.

Once housing a gold foundry in its ground floor and the residence of Diego Velazquez in its second floor, today it is open to the public as a museum. It is decorated in the style of the period, with decorations ranging from the 16th to the 19th century. The adjoining neoclassical house is also open to the public. The house itself overlooks Santiago de Cuba’s main square Parque Cespedes through its iconic two-ways wooden screens which hang over the second-story balcony windows.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca

Boasting one of the best views of Santiago’s coastline with a backdrop of the Sierra Maestra mountains, this multilevel series of fortifications sits perched atop a 60 mile high cliff overlooking the Santiago Harbor. The fortification’s construction began in 1637 when the city’s governor Pedro de la Roca de Borja commissioned Giovanni Battista Antonelli, an Italian military engineer from Milan who also designed the Morro castle in Havana, to design a fortress that would serve to defend the city against pirates. The story of the fort is a tumultuous one. In 1662, a British privateer by the name of Christopher Myngs took control of the fortification and destroyed part of it. The damage was repaired once the Spanish seized control once again. The fortress suffered earthquake damage between 1675 and 1692, and again between 1757 and 1766, which had to be repaired as well.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago de Cuba
Inside the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fortifications

As the 16th century drew to an end, so did the age of piracy. Parts of the fort known as the Rock (la Roca) and the Star (la Estrella) were then converted to a prison for political prisoners while the rest of the fortification became a military base. It once again served as a fortress during a brief episode of the Spanish-American war, when the United States’ fleet launched an attack on the city of Santiago de Cuba. Today the fort has been dubbed a World Heritage site by Unesco, considered to be one of the best preserved examples of Spanish military architecture in America. It is open to the public as a museum, housing exhibits on piracy as well as naval battles. Visitors can explore the fortress and enjoy the breathtaking views until sundown, at which time a cannon firing ceremony takes place (similar to the one in Castillo de la Cabaña in Havana).

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca lies 6 miles southwest of the city, to get there one must either take a taxi from Parque Cespedes (15.00 CUC round trip) or bus 212 to Ciudamar (this stop is a 20 minute walk from the fort). Once in the fort, free guided tours in English, French, or Italian are available. The telephone number is 22/69-1569.

Admission fee: 4.00 CUC Hours: 8am-7:20pm