Santiago de Cuba is the second city of Cuba and said to be the most colorful, hot and musical city of the island. It’s a city with an interesting history and an important part in the Cuban revolution. Santiago de Cuba was the place where Fidel Castro attacked Cuartel Moncada and where the resistance against the Cuban government first took hold.
Because the city celebrated its 500 year existence in 2015 many buildings in the city center have been renovated, giving the city lots of bright and beautiful colors.
But once you stray one block from the main street you’re back in the ‘real’ Santiago, seemingly abandoned buildings with peeling paint, unpaved streets and a tangle of electricity lines.
I really enjoyed visiting Santiago de Cuba, as with my entire trip in Cuba, mostly because of the people!
From the welcoming owner of our Casa Particular to the friendly fisherman who hopped aboard our tour boat while it was sailing around the harbor. Spoiler: the boat broke down, more on that later in this post…
And from the horse carriage drivers who tried to convince me to go on a sightseeing tour (no sane person would want to walk in this heat!) to the lady from the ice cream stall who walked us several hundred meters down the street to help us buy a bottle of water (leaving her customers waiting).
Besides the friendly people, Santiago has a lot of sights to see. During our 2 days of exploring Santiago de Cuba I came across many beautiful and interesting places. In my opinion, the best way to get to know the city is see where your feet take you and who you meet on your way.
Also read this 2 week Cuba itinerary
Exploring Santiago de Cuba
First up was Parque Céspedes, which I crossed several times before discovering I had already arrived at my desired destination. I was looking for a park with lots of trees, but Parque Céspedes is actually plaza. If you look carefully you may find a tree. But it’s a pretty plaza, with beautiful buildings all around.
One of the famous buildings looking out over Parque Céspedes is Casa Diego Velazquez, which was built in 1522 and is the oldest house still standing in Cuba.
The beautiful and brightly colored Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion is also adjacent to Parque Céspedes. The current cathedral was built in 1922, it’s the third cathedral on this spot as it has been rebuild several times because the previous versions didn’t survive the pirate raids and earth quakes.
On the other side of the parquet is the Ayuntamiento, an imposing building. I loved how the whitewashed walls contrasted with the clear blue sky. I admired all this beauty while having a nice cold drink at the veranda of hotel Casa Granda.
Strolling through the colorful pedestrian street José A Saco, I came across markets, shops and long lines of people waiting for the bank. Or the pharmacy. Or something else they needed and had to stand in line for…
As I mentioned previously, because of Santiago’s quincentennial many buildings have been repainted in pretty colors.
But I wanted to see the real Santiago as well, so I took a right and kept on walking…
I kept on walking for half an hour and eventually I got to the Cementerio Santa Ifegenia.
Mind you, you can walk here but don’t do so on the hottest time of the day. You can also hop into one of the many horse drawn carriages.
And now the boat story…
Having walked a lot, my mum and I were resting for a bit on a bench near the harbor. From a nearby boat, a man waved at us and shouted: do you want a tour around the harbor? Sure, why not!
We hopped aboard and were seated at the front of the boat, a perfect place to enjoy the view. The Cuban reggaeton was fired up and rum flowed freely. And did I mention we were the only tourists on the boat?
We sailed around the harbor and moored at Cayo Granma, where we picked up some local fisherman who had just finished work.
They joined the party on the boat and many came up to talk to us, it was so much fun! And then, with Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro in sight the boat slowed down. In fact, it kept going slower and slower. Eventually it stopped altogether.
There we were, floating around the harbor. But there was more rum and the mechanic went below deck to see if he could fix the problem. Turned out he could not.
After floating around for an hour and a half we were picked up by another boat which took us back to the harbor. I didn’t mind the delay, it gave me more time to talk to people about their lives and their views on Cuba’s future. It remains to be seen how Cuba will change now that the borders have opened up…
Where to stay
I traveled around Cuba with my mom and in Santiago de Cuba we stayed at a casa particular near Plaza de Martes. You can find the casa and all the places mentioned in this post in the map at the bottom of the post.
It was a really nice casa which cost us 25CUC per night. We also had dinner at our casa, which was 7CUC per person and breakfast in the morning for 3CUC per person. Our hostess was lovely, the casa was clean and had a roof terrace with a great view.
Definitely a recommended place to stay when you find yourself in Santiago de Cuba. They also have 2 rooms for 20CUC per night, but these don’t have the beautiful view over the city.
Where to have a drink (and a bite)
My mum and I had drinks at cafe Rumba, a cute café with a patio that feels miles away from the busy traffic in the frantic streets of Santiago. The coconut milkshake is highly recommended!
And as mentioned, the views from hotel Casa Granda are hard to beat. Besides the pretty buildings around Parque Céspedes, I loved looking at the Cuban street life. A band was playing on the plaza, old cars were passing by, and people were meeting and greeting each other in the streets…
I could have sat there for hours. I didn’t, I had lunch and went on my way. But if you want to get a feel of the vibe of Santiago, this is a great place to spend some time!
How to get to Santiago de Cuba
The best way to get around in Cuba is with the Viazul bus. We had a bit of trouble buying the ticket as the man behind the counter didn’t want to sell the ticket more than an hour before the departure time of the bus.
You can make reservations online and you can make a reservation for the next day, which I recommend if you want to be sure of a spot in the bus on a particular day. We did manage to get a Viazul bus ticket to Holguin eventually and from Holguin we took a taxi to Guardalavaca.
In the picture below you can find more information about the bus schedule and ticket prices. This information can also be found online.
There are several places in Santiago de Cuba I didn’t visit but probably should have, such as Casa de la Trova, Tropicana and Cuartel Moncada. But I had a bus to catch and there is always next time…
You can download the map below. Looking for more things to do in Cuba or Cuba travel tips? Check my diving post, read about my visit to Biran (the birthplace of Fidel Castro) and the Salto del Guayabo waterfall or check out this post about where to stay in Havana!