Total distance travelled: 33,551.3 kilometres (20,839.32 miles)
Long before Havana was the jewel of Cuba, there was Santiago de Cuba.
It was here where once sat the seat of Cuban government, as well as the head of the Catholic Church, for the city was held in such high regard.
Over time however, Havana’s strategic position on the north coast, saw it rise in prominence (Havana was actually originally also first founded on Cuba’s south coast), a key port for Spanish treasure fleets and also a good base for operations and support of their Florida colonies, it was only a matter of time before it usurped its southern capital.
It was this rich history however, that lured us to Santiago, and as such we allowed ourselves a couple of days in Cuba’s second city.
Arriving at the main bus station, which is a decent distance out of the town centre, we were again thankful to spy a figure in the crowd holding a sign for ‘Sarah, Julie & Chris.’
First impressions of this former jewel, like most other Cuban cities, it had lost a lot of its lustre. It was also the first city where we really felt that the exhaust fumes of the cars and the cities manufacturers, to the point where it at times stung the eyes!
Still, there was a certain gritty charm to the place, hints of past glories and stories within its faded facades, somehow similar to Mexico’s Veracruz, a place with such strong links to Cuba in the history of New Spain (all of Spain’s Mexican treasure fleets sailed from Veracruz, with Cuba their last major stop before crossing the Atlantic).
Hitting the main plaza brought us up close to both religious and literary history in the shape of the city’s grand cathedral (at the time undergoing some restoration works), as well as the Hotel Casa Granda, apparently a location heavily frequented by Graham Greene when penning his work, ‘Our man in Havana’.
It was also the same place in which we got closer to lunch, in the form of three plates of very ordinary Spaghetti (remember, this is one of the cities finer hotels)… if the severely lacking in tomato, slop that we consumed could be called that.
Still, it filled a by now, rather large hole in our stomachs, and the terrace was a beautiful place from which to take in the plaza below.
Subsequent explorations further afield identified alternative dining options that appeared far superior, before we eventually found ourselves on the cities industrial harbour front.
We eventually tired of the dirty air (I had a rather irritated throat by this time), so retired back to our casa for the remainder of the afternoon.
Following up on the recommendations of our host (and also because we couldn’t be bothered making our way back into the heart of town), we dined that evening on a nearby terrace, giving us a lovely view of the city lights.
Incredibly, we also got a bit of a surprise to witness part way through the meal, the arrival of some customers other than us (and not tourists)!
A much duller day greeted us for our first morning in the city (on our 2nd day), a morning on which we’d resolved to take ourselves on a walking tour of some of the more historic sights.
The Monumento Abel Santamaria and nearby Moncada Barracks kicked things off, one of the most famous revolutionary sights in the country (it was here a failed attack on the barracks, saw Castro later tried and exiled).
We unfortunately found several of the sights we’d hoped to investigate wouldn’t allow us access on this particular day, one church hosting a Cuban television crew, whilst for some inexplicable reason the Bacardi museum simply wasn’t open.
Exploring a few adjacent neighbourhoods (and spying a gargantuan Danish cruise ship in the harbour), we again found ourselves back down by the waterfront, conveniently right before a decent sized restaurant/bar the jutted out over the water.
We decided a cooling beer would be a nice option, then had to chuckle when the three were served, all the same beer, in three completely different coloured bottles. Just another indication of how necessary it is for these people to recycle anything when they can.
Just as we were making ready to depart, the aforementioned grey clouds opened up a little, so it was through a light drizzle we walked when we ultimately did decide to leave, after lingering a little longer in the hope it would pass.
Some more average pizzas did us for lunch, before we found ourselves short on ideas on how to pass the final hours of the afternoon, so again retired to our casa.
Apparently there wasn’t much more to entertain us here, as Julie throughout the course of the evening (we dined in our casa thanks to our hosts), proceeded to repack her case three or four times…
One afternoon wouldn’t have been long enough, but a day and a half was certainly more than necessary.
Had we longer time here, I’m sure we’d have made excursions further afield, but with what we had, it was truly ample.
* Upon arrival in the Camaguey bus terminal, we made our booking (and paid) for our onwards journey to Santiago de Cuba the following morning at $15.00 CUC per person.
* Our casa particular, Casa Mirador, was another arranged by our previous hosts, so again cost us $25.00 CUC.