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Santiago de Cuba (Photo:Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock)
3.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Santiago de Cuba

With 1.2 million inhabitants, Santiago de Cuba is the country's second biggest city, located at the far eastern tip of the island. The largest, Havana, could be described as refined (and defined) in a Colonial-style way, with big boulevards, squares and architecture, spread out flat along the sea front; Santiago by contrast is a jumbled mess of streets laid out chaotically on a steep hill side, more reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Santiago de Cuba has a got a strong Caribbean vibe to it, evident in the people, the food, the history, the nightlife and the culture.

Santiago is also where Cuba's revolution began, and there are monuments and modern-day graffiti all over the city to commemorate the various rebel leaders, including Antonio Maceo, who led the fighting in the Wars of Independence against the Spanish and the Americans, as well as Fidel Castro, who studied at university there. On July 26, 1953, Castro and his small revolutionary army launched an attack on the Cuartel Moncado military barracks. While the incident was a disaster, it laid the foundations for the revolution to come -- and it was there in a show trial that Castro made his famous "History will absolve me" speech.

Founded in 1514, Santiago served as the capital of Cuba for almost 100 years before the Spanish decided to shift it to Havana in 1607. Santiago enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years and became a major trading post for slaves brought from West Africa, Haiti and Jamaica (hence the makeup of its population). Its remoteness means it developed at a slower pace than the rest of the island, with a distinct cultural feel. It also means it is decidedly un-touristy, and you'll find a sometimes startling naivete and warm welcome from the inhabitants.

Santiago also has a strong musical heritage, influenced by these cultures. Cuba's popular national music, Son, originated in Santiago and is best encapsulated by the music of Buena Vista Social Club, a popular music venue in Havana. Santiago also hosts one of the most riotous and legendary Carnivals in this part of the world in July.

About Santiago de Cuba


Pro

Cradle of Cuba's revolution is a vibrant city, with sites that span the country's history

Con

Vendors will be more aggressive here than elsewhere in the country

Bottom Line

Cuba's second-largest city spotlights modern and historic Cuba, both good and bad


Find a Cruise to Santiago de Cuba

Where You're Docked

The ship docks at the bottom of town at the Bahia de Santiago de Cuba. You'll find the Cadeca and a woman selling postcards and stamps. That's it. You need to cross the road and head up the Calle Aguilera, the road directly opposite the port to get to town. Be warned, it's a steep climb and Santiago de Cuba is hot and dusty.

Good to Know

While there is no serious crime, Santiago is well known for its jiniteros -- local touts -- who will try to sell you everything from cigars to a taxi ride to a chica (girl). It's exhausting at first, but if you are firm (and no is the same in Spanish and English), then they will leave you alone. If all else fails, tell a police officer -- they are very much in evidence in the town center. Apart from this low-level hassle, you should be mindful of pickpockets and being ripped off in shops because you are a tourist.

It's also worth noting that Santiago has two sets of street names (as do many Cuban towns) -- pre- and post-revolution, and these are used interchangeably, which adds to confusion when asking directions.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

You'll see the Cadeca, Cuba's national exchange, as you get off the ship. Change your money there; the rates are fixed throughout the island and there are no touts. Take local currency -- credit cards are hardly used, and U.S, credit cards cannot be used.

Language

Spanish with a distinct accent (Cubans tend to "swallow" parts of words); limited English in the more tourist establishments. It's always useful to know a few phrases:

Si: Yes
No: No
Por favor: Please
Gracias: Thank you
Cuanto es?: How much?
Donde esta?: Where is?
Quiero: I want
Dejame en paz: Leave me alone
Habla usted ingles?: Do you speak English?

Shopping

Hunt the streets running behind the central square Parque Cespedes, where you'll find shops full of souvenirs, with wooden carvings the most popular, as well as castanets, cigar boxes and paintings. You can negotiate a bargain if you are prepared to haggle or buy more than one item.

Best Cocktail

With Daiquiri beach nearby and Santiago being home to the island's first rum factory, it has to be a daiquiri.