Saturday, March 4 (Day 4): Santiago de Cuba

We met our Highlights of Santiago de Cuba tour just after 8:00 a.m. and after quickly clearing Cuban immigration boarded our well air-conditioned bus.  Our first stop was a fort originally built to keep pirates out, but later was used as a prison.  We then stopped at the original Bacardi rum factory which dates back to the 1830’s.  The factory was taken over by the Cuban government during the revolution and is now the home of Havana Club.  Bacardi moved its location to Puerto Rico and has become the world’s largest rum producer.  However, only Havana Club can claim to sell Cuban-made rum.  After sampling some rum and purchasing some along with coffee we continued on our tour.

The homes of the wealthy families from the 1950’s were taken over by the Cuban government just after the revolution and the large homes were repurposed into schools, museums or other public buildings.  Our next stop was the cultural exchange where traditional African-Cuban dances were performed.  Toward the end the dancers invited us to join them as we danced to ‘Guantanamera’.  The song refers to those who live in the hills of Guantanamo Bay, sometimes the term is used in a respectful tone, while other times as a joke.  We then went to a contemporary art gallery and enjoyed the sculptures, pottery and paintings in the gallery.  Our final stop was the San Juan Hill where several important battles were fought and monuments to the Americans, Cubans and Spaniards still stand today.  We were very fortunate as the high for the day was 31 degrees Celsius / 81 degrees Fahrenheit and not humid.  It’s usually much hotter.

Santiago de Cuba was the original capital of Cuba before the capital was moved to Havana.  It currently boasts a population of about 500,000 and another 500,000 make up the million in the metropolitan statistical area.  Prior to 2014, Cuba saw about 2.5 million tourists per year, many coming from Canada and Europe.  Once the Obama Administration announced that they intended to normalize relations with Cuba the number of tourists to Cuba skyrocketed, partly due to the fact that Cuba was in the international news.  In 2015 Cuba saw about 3.5 million visitors and in 2016 four million and in 2017 the island nation is projected to host 4.3 million.  This has caused the Cuban government to begin to more aggressively invest in infrastructure.  As we sailed away from Santiago de Cuba we saw several large construction craines dotting the waterfront.  Many people want to visit Cuba before it becomes very expensive and too touristy.

About 90% of Santiago de Cuba residents own their own home, among the highest percentage in the country.  Cuban homes are typically small with jalousie style windows for ventilation.  It is common for Cuban families to build houses on top of each other and each successive generation lives above the prior one.  The government built some large high-rise condominiums which were sold to families at very low prices.

My impression of Cuba is that while the people are poor, they take great pride in their surroundings.  We saw very little trash and the homes and buildings are as well maintained as they can be given the small cash flow.  The Cubans are also innovative, several times during our tour locals would pick fruit off trees and offer to sell it to us.  We of course saw many 1950s American automobiles, along with several 1970s and 1980s Ladas and a few newer Kias.  Many of the classic American automobiles are used as taxis and while the bodies are authentic, many replacement parts are used which are not original or even retrofit.  For instance I saw a 1970s Jeep steering wheel on a 1950s Buick.  Some of the engines have also been replaced with newer ones.  We didn’t notice too many motorbikes.  Cuban drivers are very polite and we didn’t notice any unnecessary horn honking.

Santiago de Cuba Fort with flag close up

Santiago de Cuba fort with Cuban flag

Santiago de Cuba Fort Bill and Matt

Bill and Matt at Santiago de Cuba fort

Santiago de Cuba Seaside view

Santiago de Cuba, view from top of fort

Santiago de Cuba Cultural Exchange Center blue 1

Santiago de Cuba Cultural Exchange Dancer

Musica by Liudmila Lopez

Musica by Liudmila Lopez

Galleria Rene Valdez MaryKay, Matt, Bill and Jared

Galleria Rene Valdez, MaryKay, Matt, Bill and Jared


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