Since it is almost on the other side of the island from Cuba’s most popular destination, Havana, few tourists make the long journey to Santiago de Cuba. The few who do, however, are treated to a unique cultural experience, as Santiago de Cuba has a strong Afro-Cuban history and also is the sight for many Revolutionary events such as the historic July 26 attack on the Moncada barracks and Fidel’s victorious march into the Plaza de la Revolucion on January 1, 1959. In addition, Santiago boast its own brand of salsa called “son,” which means steamy, sizzling nights are ahead of you in such well-known establishments as La Casa de la Trova or Casa de las Tradiciones.
Getting to Santiago de Cuba
From anywhere west of Trinidad, there is only one bus, flight, or train per day that goes to Santiago de Cuba. Normally, it takes 12 hours to get to Santiago from Trinidad, I had a stroke of good luck at the Trinidad bus station when I found out a taxi was heading to Santiago directly, thereby saving me 3 hours of needless stopovers along the way! was in luck! I was very grateful for the ride, got to sit in the front seat, and practiced my Spanish the whole way down, asking lots of questions to my driver Jiovane. Nine hours seemed to whiz by, but I certainly got a better sense of the transportation system in Cuba.
As you would guess, transportation all over the country is quite unreliable. There are essentially two bus lines that travel across the island: Viazul and Astro. Viazul is the preferred bus line for tourists and richer Cubans. Astro is about 20% cheaper, but sometimes a little less reliable and more crowded with Cubans. The other option for nationals is to stand on the side of the road, hold out a peso or two, and hitch a ride with any passerby. The only problem is that few Cubans have enough money to own a car or travel long distances, so you could be waiting a long while for a single car to cross the national highway.
It is impossible for tourists to hitchhike in Cuba. The government considers it illegal to give tourists a ride — even if it’s a few blocks. There are hefty penalties including imprisonment if private transport is picking up a local Cubano or if locals are spotted giving tourists a ride.
My taxi ride to Santiago
National taxis like the one Jiovane drives are not allowed to pick up Cubans, or the driver will lose his job. It’s common to find at least a dozen Cubans at any given bus stop waiting – some patiently, others not so patiently. On our 9-hour drive, we passed at least 10 men waving money in the air, visibly upset that we weren’t stopping to let them in. It didn’t help that there were plenty of seats available in our taxi van. Only once did we pick up a mixed-race couple with their daughter from the side of the road on the last hour of our journey. Jiovane kept repeating, “Lento! Tan lento!”, complaining how they hopped in the car so slowly, which reconfirmed the risk he was taking to give them a ride. We dropped them at a junction about 20 minutes later.
My journey covered the southern and central coast – nearly half the island. We passed through several small towns, but more notably Sancti Spiritus (known only for a scenic bridge), Camaguey (a fairly well-kept colonial city), Las Tunas, and Holguin (with some good northern beaches closeby). We also passed through Biran, the town where Fidel was born. They turned his childhood home into a museum.
Jiovane was very curious about life in the U.S., and even spoke openly about the injustices in Cuba. I was very interested in snapping photos of the propaganda scattered on “billboards” along the highway (Cuba propaganda will be discussed in greater detail in a post tomorrow) , so Jiovane purposefully slowed down at nearly every one of them to let me take good photos. I explained to him that we don’t have any patriotic signs like these in the U.S. When I told him the only signs we have on the side of the road are advertisements for Coca Cola and commercial products, Jiovane laughed and then proceeded to ask me how much my iPhone cost or how much money I make as a teacher per year and how many taxes I pay. I was honest in my reply, and Jiovane was quite silent in response (he was probably struck by the unfathomable numbers I gave him).
Is this the right casa particular?
Ask any independent traveler in Cuba about how they came upon staying at their casa particular, and nearly every one will tell you it is a purely arbitrary happening (unless that traveler made plans several weeks ahead of time). If you’re using the Lonely Planet guidebook to Cuba, there is little to no chance you will actually be able to stay in one of the recommended casas particulares in any given city. This is because of the casa particular two-guestroom policy. It is illegal to rent out more than two guestrooms at a time.
So I wasn’t that surprised when the casa that Margaret (the host of my casa in Trinidad) had reserved for me was unavailable, and I was promptly transported across the street and a few houses down to another casa particular. Manrique, my host, was a perfectly nice gentleman, the casa was in a perfectly convenient location just blocks from Parque Cespedes (Santiago’smain plaza), my room (though smaller and more expensive than the one I had in Trinidad) suited me just fine. I also had to share the bathroom with the other guest, an Italian guy by the name of Andrea, who served as my travel companion for the rest of my stay in Santiago.
Suena Cubano, where are you?
I had come to Santiago on a mission to find Suena Cubano (the band I had liked in Trinidad) and possibly serve as their “groupie” for the remaining days of my stay in Cuba. I circled the city twice over, asking every music venue in Santiago whether they knew of the band or where it played. The only lead I got was from a man at Santiago’s Casa de la Musica, saying he had seen the band’s director earlier that morning, and that if I really wanted to find the band, I should find the director. He gave me the director’s address, and I embarked on an hour-long manhunt along the streets of Santiago looking for this person.
By the time I found the director’s place, I had been discovered by two “jineteros” (or Cuban escorts who latch onto tourists hoping to serve as longer term companions). When I finally spoke face-to-face with the director, informing him that I was a writer hoping to write about their band, he looked at the men on both sides of me and pretty much scoffed, told me they wouldn’t be playing until Wednesday night (the day I was leaving for Baracoa), and shut the door in my face. My conclusion: my request got me nowhere because I was surrounded by Cubans requesting my attention. I kindly told the “jineteros” that I preferred to walk alone, and they promptly let me go.
Salsa and Son
Andreas and I enjoyed two evenings out in Santiago listening to Santiago’s unique salsa music. On our first night, we went to the Casa de las Tradiciones, a smaller, more authentic music house in the quaint residential neighborhood of Barrio Tivoli. Here, we listened to an 8-piece salsa band as we sipped on mojitos and danced to slow son-bolero music.
The next evening, we made our way to the more touristy Casa de la Trova, just a block from Parque Cespedes on Calle Heredia. The dance floor was twice as big here; the live music twice as loud; and the drinks twice as expensive.
The following morning, I would be heading to Baracoa along a scenic and winding mountainous road, so I retired at an early hour and readied for my final destination.
For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —