My wife and I just got back at the beginning of March from a wonderful vacation in Cuba. While there, we took a taxi into the country's second largest city Santiago. It's located in the south-easternmost part of the island (about 100 miles west of Guantanamo Bay) on a long bay that provides sea accessto the Caribbean. The city of 500,000 people was founded by the Spamish some 400-plus years ago and was the first capital of Cuba. Its topography's much like that of San Francisco in California, with lots of steep hills and many narrow and winding streets. There once were cable cars like in Frisco but only the steel tracks embedded in some of the streets remain. The early Spanish Colonial architecture is still much in evidence everywhere, though some of it's been allowed to decay through neglect. Suprisingly, we wandered into the French Quarter called Tivoli almost by accident and learned that this part of Santiago closest to the harbour was built in the late 1700s by rich French coffee plantation owners who'd fled the slave revolt in Haiti at the time of the French Revolution.
We also saw the small yellow house where Fidel Castro lived as a teen with his family, as well as the converted cloister, now a high school, where he got his early education. On one side of the main square is the city hall. It was from the second floor balcony of this old building on January 1, 1959 that Castro proclaimed the success of the revolt against the Batista regime. Curiouslywe saw no statues or monuments of Castro or Che, just the odd painted mural or wall sign that commemorated the revolution. One of the highlights was our tour of the Morro Catle at the mouth of the bay linking Santiago to the Caribbean. We hitched a ride there from downtown in a fabulous-looking shiny black 1954 Buick that rattled and rolled through the rough streets but held marvellously well together for a 53-year old car (many other 1950s American cars were to be seen all over the town).The Morro was built in the 1500s by the Spanish as a tall, stone stronghold, garrison and advantageous look-out for spotting enemy ships approaching the capital. It stands majestically on a high point of rock andoffers magnificent views of the surroundin countrysideas well as an intriguing insight into the Colonial military past of the Spanish in Cuba.
Wherever we went, we met Cubans of all ages. They were genuinly friendly and very curious about the outside world, esppecially Canada and the USA. Though the embargo has clearly made life difficult for them (food's rationed and often not available as are many other consumer products, especially soap, these folk seemed to harbour little resentment. In fact, they love to talk about their country and their city, as well as congregate in the main square in the day and in many of the very lively bars a short distance away on the narrow side streets. Musical groups played in these, like the fanous Case De La Trova, all though the night while the patrons danced salsa and drank rum and colasamidst a colourful and exciting and authentic Cuban musical environment.
Santiago is truly a memorable and remarkable city to visit if ever you get the chance to do so.