Update: As of the end of 2016, Fathom is no longer operating cruises in Cuba.
Of all our days in port, Santiago de Cuba — hands down — was my favorite. We experienced more, saw more, met more people, and ate better food in this one day than we did on any other day of the cruise!
If Havana is a bustling capitol and Cienfuegos is a charming seaside village, Santiago de Cuba is the fusion of the two: a sprawling city punctuated with busy squares and tree-lined boulevards mashed up with a tropical beachfront paradise. Our tour incorporated a very satisfactory blend of both aspects of Cuba’s second-largest city, spending the morning in a serene coastal castle and the afternoon strolling the (often very narrow) streets.
You get a taste of Santiago de Cuba’s contradictory nature as you sail into port. On the one hand, you’ll see idyllic pastel homes nestled in lush flora:
While on the other hand, right smack in the midst of some of the city’s most exquisite beachfront property, you’ll be confronted a smoke-belching coal-fired refinery:
Despite our best efforts, Clyde and I had missed the ship’s excellent presentation on what to expect in Santiago de Cuba, so we had no idea what our day would hold. Fortunately, today, the luck of the draw put us in the hands of a passionate, capable young tour guide, Dani — the best of all the facilitators we met on Fathom tours.
Our morning started at San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle. The truth? It’s more a fort than a castle. (UNESCO says it’s “the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture.”) But as Dani notes, the locals like calling it a castle, and it is a little fancy just to be a fort:
I mean, how many forts have you seen with exquisite decorative stonework borders along the moat walls?
One very nice touch: inside the castle, a local quartet sat in a former armory, singing a cappella versions of songs from the Great American Songbook. (They were singing “New York, New York” when we strolled through.)
Many other tour busses — all from our ship — were here during our visit, but the castle and grounds are large enough to accommodate them without making the place feel terribly crowded. Foot traffic piles up, though, on the long walk from the parking lot to the castle itself because the path is lined with the best vendor stalls and shops we encountered anywhere.
In addition to selling the mass-produced trinkets you’ll find at every stop, we found people here selling inexpensive and beautiful hand-painted fans:
If you’re shopping for cigars and rum, you’ll find good prices here, too.
While you’re here, I recommend you find out when your bus is leaving, and then abandon your tour group. Make a beeline for the castle and explore it on your own before the crowds (who are drawn to the vendors like bees to honey) arrive. After having the castle pretty much to yourself, depart when you see the crowds arriving, and then you’ll have the vendors to yourself.
Because the selection and prices are good, I also recommend you buy all your souvenirs and gifts here. You can leave them on the bus and explore Santiago de Cuba unencumbered, then carry ’em all back to the boat at the end of the day.
After you snap up your goodies, look for the lighthouse:
You can’t go in, but very nearby, you’ll find a cafe that’s perfect for snagging a coffee, especially since you’ve taken my advice and avoided the crowds. Don’t miss the little wooden display box above the entryway to the dining room. In it, you’ll see an odd trophy: the plate, knife, fork, and spoon Paul McCartney used when he dined here decades ago!
From here, your bus will take you to San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders (without their horses — I suppose, on this adventure, they were Rough Walkers) were entangled in the Spanish-American-Cuban war. The Santiago Surrender Tree is at the heart of the little park atop this hill, surrounded by memorial plaques and statues.
Many tour groups simply drive past this historic spot; by contrast, we had about twenty minutes to walk around — just the right amount of time, I think. I even had time to visit the little amusement park, complete with a creaky ferris wheel.
We also spotted what I dubbed “The World’s Most Dangerous Hotel Room:
From the park, our bus crept through narrow streets and tight turns. These big busses packed with American tourists are still novel in Santiago de Cuba, and everywhere we went, folks were staring up at us:
The next stop? A practice session with the energetic, enthusiastic dancers of the Ballet Folklorico Cutumba. Don’t let the (longish) introduction put you off, because the performance is well worth waiting for. These artists don’t just dance; they become possessed by the music!
Instead of a fixed program, the choreographer steps members of the group through a series of moves, teaching as he goes. Each member then re-enacts the complex steps the choreographer demonstrates, adding layer upon layer, until the whole stage explodes with frantic motion. I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it.
At the end of the session, dancers work the audience for tips, so have your CUCs ready. These selfies with wild-eyed, sage-carrying dervishes will make for some of your most memorable photos — and when you see how hard these folks are working to impress you, you’ll agree they deserve every single CUC they extract from the crowd. Be generous here.
Our luck persisted at lunch, with thirty or forty of us packing ourselves into Primos Twice.
If you weren’t looking for this gem of a restaurant, you’d never find it, as it is sequestered away behind an unassuming storefront on Calvario Street (between Havana & Trinidad streets). Owned by two couples who are cousins (or “primos” in Spanish), Primos Twice served us food so amazing that I forgot to photograph anything but the very first dish:
Lunch here is served family-style, with servers bringing out huge platters laden with spicy pork, saucy chicken, and some of the best shrimp I’ve eaten anywhere. After days of indifferently prepared food aboard the Adonia, this will be the place you want to tuck in for one of those “always remembered” meals. From the rice to the flan to the after-dinner espresso, every note is perfect:
We loved the meal so much, we even clamored for the owners to come out of the kitchen and meet us:
The restaurant, by the way, was their home until they decided to take advantage of Cuba’s changing policies and open a privately-run restaurant. Now they’re squeezed in a back room — but they seem very, very happy to be serving food to a house full of people who adore them and their cooking!
We strolled another avenue or two, but our last major stop of the day was Cespedes Park — a central plaza awash with locals of every stripe.
Guitar-strumming elderly men? Yes. Aggressive panhandlers? By the droves. Ancient women, reaching out for CUC’s (Cuban tourist dollars)? More than I could count. Young men juggling, singing, turning cartwheels, or painting themselves to look like statues? Everywhere.
Rather than spend any time in the (small) tourist-oriented rum and cigar shop, Clyde and I invested our free time walking up to the Cathedral that overshadows the park. Along the way, we were approached for alms, donations, and CUCs about three dozen times. Every other man on the street tried to sell us discounted cigars (they’re usually stuffed with banana leaves, by the way) or cheap rum (usually resealed bottles refilled with water or tea). We’re experienced travelers, and even we were a little overwhelmed by all the attention.
By the time we returned to the ship, we were exhausted. (One elderly lady was literally suffering from heat exhaustion. Learn from her example, and drink bottled water like a fish while you’re in Cuba!) We couldn’t believe this was the last stop on our journey!
Everyone in Santiago de Cuba knew it would be our last stop, too, and so, while we were away, a tiny village of street vendors sprang up on the pier. Prices were high — one vendor wanted $8.00 for a tiny, faded deck of “I Love Cuba” playing cards — and lines at the money changing kiosks were long. (Cuban currency is worthless outside of Cuba, so everyone wants their dollars back.)
A tip: If Cubans exchange U.S. dollars for pesos, they get hit with a fee; if they exchange CUCs for pesos, though, they pay no fee at all. As a result, these “last chance” vendors are all eager to swap dollars for your last CUCs. Go ahead and do it. It’s faster than standing in line in the sun!
By far, our day in Santiago de Cuba was the happiest, busiest, and most engaging day of our cruise. Despite being on a bus with thirty other Americans, we managed to have some authentic interactions, eat some amazing food, and snag some time for ourselves.
I found myself wishing I had time for just one more platter of shrimp, just one more stroll around the castle, and just one more little cup of hot, sweet Cuban coffee. As we sailed away, it hit me that Santiago de Cuba (far more than Havana!) was the Cuba I had wanted to see all along.