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Touring Santiago de Cuba — A Beautiful City, Even In The Rain

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TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti was recently in Cuba on the first US cruise to the country in more than 50 years. Read on for her thoughts and experiences from the ship’s eight-hour stop in Santiago de Cuba, the last port of call. Be sure to keep up with her travels on Twitter and Instagram.

You can’t always control everything when you’re traveling, especially the weather. Throughout the cruise, we’d encountered intense 90-degree heat and a ton of humidity (especially in Havana), with almost-daily showers — even some downpours with lightning while at sea, which had me keeping my trusty bottle of Dramamine handy. We had a bit of a break in Cienfuegos with temperatures in the 80s instead of the 90s, but it all came to a head when we got to Santiago de Cuba and the sky opened up.

Driving by the Moncada Garrison, the site of an attack led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953, that led to the start of the Revolution.
Driving by the Moncada Garrison, the site of an attack led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953, that led to the start of the Revolution.

Luckily the day’s eight-hour schedule on land called for bus tours with stops in historical places instead of all-day walking tours through the Old Town like we’d done in Havana, so we were able to stay dry through the worst of it — at times, it looked like we were driving through a car wash! We still managed to visit some cool historic spots in between showers, retreating to the buses whenever they started up again. This is exactly why it’s a good idea to pack a small umbrella, especially when traveling to Cuba.

Arrival in Santiago de Cuba

Cuban musicians and dancers greeted us at the port in Santiago de Cuba.
Cuban musicians and dancers greeted us at the port in Santiago de Cuba.

The port was located about a 10-minute drive from the city center, so there wasn’t a big group of people waiting for us when we got off the ship. Instead, we were treated to some Cuban music and a performance by locals who danced as we waited patiently in line to pass through customs and immigration and make our way to the tour buses, which were waiting to show us around town. Santiago de Cuba is a very hilly city, kind of like the San Francisco of the Caribbean, so I was grateful to not have to walk as much here, especially when the storms came rolling in.

Highlights of Santiago de Cuba

Driving by San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba.
Driving by historic San Juan Hill, the site of an epic battle during the Spanish-American War.

Since it had already started to rain as soon as we left the ship, the Havanatur and Fathom tour leaders on our bus adjusted their schedule so we would stay as dry as possible. We did a quick drive-through of the city center, where there was originally supposed to be a walking tour (we’d be back here again toward the end of the day when the weather calmed down), and started making our way to some of Santiago de Cuba’s more popular historical spots, like San Juan Hill.

Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain, we weren’t able to get off the bus and explore — in the end, the driver stopped the bus in front of the Battle of San Juan Hill Memorial so we could take photos through the rainy windows. Our tour guide explained the significance of this site and described how Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his band of Rough Riders had stormed San Juan Hill in an epic battle during the Spanish-American War in 1898. I remember learning about this in school, so it was really interesting to be there and see these places in person.

A peek at the lunch buffet at the Tropicana, Santiago de Cuba.
A peek at the lunch buffet at the Tropicana, Santiago de Cuba.

Next, we drove out of the city to have lunch at Tropicana Santiago de Cuba, home to the famous nightly cabaret show. We were greeted by some of the dancers, who performed a quick routine in their Las-Vegas-style cabaret attire, before being led through the building to a gigantic buffet, which was stacked with several tables worth of food. We were treated to a variety of fruits, vegetables, pork and fish dishes, as well as a table full of sweet, delicious desserts, most of them soaked in rum.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago de Cuba.
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago de Cuba.

After lunch at the Tropicana, the weather cleared up for a few hours and we were able to drive 20 minutes through the green countryside of Santiago de Cuba to visit the impressive Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fortress. We parked the bus and walked down a long walkway leading to the fort where artists and vendors had set up stands full of their goods. One thing I’ll say for American cruise tourists — we sure love to shop. There was even a restaurant next to the fort where they were giving out free samples of Cuban rum and rolling cigars so you could pick up some delicious and authentic souvenirs if you wanted.

I bought a few gifts for my friends and family back home, then quickly headed over to the fort, which I definitely wish we’d had more time to explore. Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca was immense, with several levels up and down, all offering great views of the Caribbean and surrounding areas. After about 20 minutes, the clouds gathered and it started to drizzle, so we quickly made our way back to the bus. Note that the entrance to Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca was free for Fathom cruise passengers, but the people there were charging 5 CUCs for each camera you wanted to take photos with — I put my phone away and paid so I could take all the photos on my digital camera instead.

José Martí's mausoleum at Cementerio Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba.
José Martí’s mausoleum at Cementerio Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba.

Our next stop was Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. Luckily, after our 20-minute ride back into town, the rain was starting to let up so we were able to leave the bus and have a look. By this point in the day, a big chunk of our group was more interested in shopping than seeing the graves of some of Cuba’s most famous national heroes, so I was extremely disappointed when our guide announced we’d be cutting this visit short — from a 45-minute stop to a 25-minute stop! — so we’d have a chance to go shopping for souvenirs back in the city center. Unbelievable.

During the quick version of our Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, we were able to visit José Martí’s mausoleum, pictured above, as well as memorials built to honor the Spanish soldiers killed in the attack on San Juan Hill and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who is considered to be the father of Cuban independence. We also stopped by the grave sites of many members of the Bacardi family and the places where the widow and wife of local hero Antonio Maceo were laid to rest. It turns out that the founder of Bacardi was actually from Cuba and had started the company there, not in Puerto Rico, like many of us thought.

We returned to the city center after making a mad dash back to the tour bus once again. Thankfully, it was a short (albeit strong) downpour and we were able to hop off and snap a few photos in Parque Céspedes before our guide asked us what kind of souvenirs we were looking to buy. Someone in the group yelled out, “Cuban coffee!” and a bunch of people shouted their approval, so we headed off on a hunt around the city center for a place that sold bags of beans or already-ground coffee to bring home.

After some confusion (since half the group was involved in our coffee hunt and the other half were trying to find a place to exchange the rest of their Cuban pesos before returning to the ship), we finally located a local market. In an effort to prevent theft, we were asked to check our pocket books in a locker area at the front of the store, which honestly seemed pretty sketchy, so our tour guide instead offered to hold all the purses if we wanted to go inside for a few minutes. Esther was a wonderful tour guide, so we all opted to leave our bags with her instead of missing out on this unique opportunity.

Once inside, we saw shelves of basic foods and items you’d need to survive, as well as a fully stocked liquor section and a small aisle with snacks — I couldn’t resist snapping a quick picture of these amazingly designed Cuban-style chips, pictured below.

Shopping in a local Santiago de Cuba market was a fascinating experience.
Shopping in a local Santiago de Cuba market was a fascinating experience.

After about five minutes, I heard someone from our group say, “Hey! I found the coffee!” so in a matter of seconds, 10 of us had swarmed the aisle where a rather tall Cuban man was helping us reach the stashes on the highest shelf. The coffee packets cost about $1.50 each, and people stopped to stare as the group of American tourists (myself included) quickly raided the coffee section.

As we lined up to pay, some of the locals approached us and tried to make conversation. I studied Spanish in high school and college so I can read and understand the language, but I have trouble responding since I’m so out of practice. I started chatting with a man (in my broken Spanish and he with his broken English) about how much I liked Cuba and wanted to stay longer. He said, “Oh! The ship!” and indicated that he understood we were in a hurry and needed to get back to the ship soon, then spoke to someone in line who started helping us pack up our purchases and speed through the line, which was very nice!

When I got to the front of the line, I noticed some odd things mixed into the piles of my fellow cruise mates and asked what was going on. One lady explained how someone had approached her and asked if she would mind buying a small bowl (worth about $2), so that’s why she had added it to her things. A few minutes later, the tall man who had helped us reach the coffee earlier came over and asked if I would mind adding a bottle of cooking oil to my pile of presents so he could cook more at home for his family — it was only worth about $0.80, so of course I said yes, and thanked him for helping us before.

Sailing From Santiago de Cuba

A last look at Santiago de Cuba as we sailed for Miami.
A last look at Santiago de Cuba as we set sail for Miami.

Amazingly, by the time we set sail from Santiago de Cuba at about 6:00pm, the clouds had parted once again and we were able to stand out on the Lido deck and wave goodbye to the people lined up along the shore without having to worry about the rain. As in the other two port cities, there were people lined up, pulling their cars over and waving — we spotted a green car that followed the ship along the coast, driving from the port all the way to the end of the inlet, its driver stopping every so often to get out and wave to us. Unfortunately, it started pouring again shortly after dinner and the ship was rocking so much I could barely walk in a straight line, so I popped some more Dramamine and turned in early for the night.

It had been such an eye-opening, inspirational trip — especially when we did get a chance to stop for a few minutes and talk to (or dance with!) the locals who live there — and now it was time to go home. Stay tuned for an official review of the Fathom Adonia experience, coming soon to TPG!

Have you ever visited Santiago de Cuba? Tell us about your experience, below.

Featured image of colorful buildings in Santiago de Cuba courtesy of the author. These residential apartments were actually built by the Cuban government to house people who had lost their homes after Hurricane Sandy.

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