At the end of February I hit the road to visit the Oriente for 10 days. Santiago de Cuba is known as the birthplace of the Revolution, as well as the origins of many cuban rhythms such as salsa, rumba and son.
Located within the Sierra Maestra mountains and the Carribean sea, Santiago is a feast for the eyes, even while the city was in the midst of rebuilding itself after Hurricane Sandy. While the second largest in Cuba, it feels significantly smaller with only 450,000 inhabitants (only 1/4 of the population of Havana).
I had planned to visit Santiago much earlier during my trip, but since the city was hit hard by the hurricane, rumours had it they were struggling with issues related to cholera, so I had reservations about going. That said, many travelers came back from the Oriente and reported no problems, just extra precautions at the airport and at bus stations. During my stay, other than stores insisting you rinse your hands with chlorinated water and step onto a towel soaked in chlorine before entering, everything seemed fine.
After the hurricane, some repairs have been neglected, or put aside, some have been rebuilt, or are in the process of doing so. I spent two nights in Santiago and then headed to Baracoa, a small town at the very end of the island, and planned to return to Santiago for the weekend.
The afternoon of my arrival in Baracoa, was the day of Hugo Chavez's passing. While perhaps not a good news story in some countries, Chavez did a lot for the Cuban people and his death was a national tragedy. There was an official period of morning for three days, but it was more like four or five in reality. Music was not allowed to be played publicly, and the television reported news of the death and the funeral at all hours - the overall mood in the country was very heavy. News coverage many people in tears at the memorial and the square in Baracoa was completely empty in the evenings. I can only imagine what Habana and Santiago must have been like.
The three great lies of Baracoa
Baracoa is the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba and the first place where Christopher Columbus landed in Latin America. I visited the beautiful white sand beach of Playa Maguana, hiked the mountain El Yunque (575 M), and visited various coconut, cacao plantations across the Rio Miel, a 20 minute walk after the end of the black sand beach near the end of the town.
There are three famous lies (mentiras) regarding Baracoa:
- El Yunque (translates into bone) is made out of rock not bone
- Rio Miel (river of honey) flows water not honey
- La Farola (lightpost) is a winding road leading into Baracoa not a light post.
ere are photos from Baracoa (the first three show the mentiras)
Baracoa is famous in Cuba for its cuisine. The food here is unique and more flavourful, partly because of its Creole influence (given its proximity to Haiti). Many of the dishes and desserts also used coconut milk or oil, which I adore.
In the photographs below, you have fish stew with coconut milk, bacan (similar to a tamale but made with platano and also with crab meat), and tostone de guapo (a large green fruit that grows in high trees and is native to the area which is smashed and fried, and finally a frijoles (beans) but made with white beans rather than the traditional black ones.
As for the desserts, the chocolate ice cream from Baracoa which they were nearly giving away for 0.30 MN (2 cents a scoop) was the best I’ve had in Cuba. They also have a coconut dessert called chuchurucho that is mixed with honey, spices, and various fruit juices, and is wrapped in a palm leaf, and coco-chocolate (being made in on of the photos) is also a well-known specialty from this area.
I returned to Santiago, eager to go dancing. It was four days after Chavez’s death, and the official mourning period was over but many venues were still closed. I met a group of Cubans and foreigners hanging out at Parque Cespedes, and we found a live band playing at Salon de Son. In this group included three cyclists touring the country and then heading down south through Mexico - their journey made my travels sound like a stay at the Four Seasons. On one leg, they rode 14 hours in the back of an open truck with other locals from Havana to Holguin. They said it was almost comfortable, until it started raining. A tarp covered the truck, although it seemed to let in the rain, and keep in the heat. The trip probably cost only a few dollars compared to the regular $50 Viazul bus ride.
My last few nights in Santiago, I went out dancing almost every night. During the days I visited Cayo Granma, came within 200 m of Raoul Castro at the cemetery in Santiago, and also visited the local beach, Siboney. Lianne, Erwan and Ali from Santiago were wonderful hosts and made getting around the city a breeze. Lianne and Erwan also invited us for a few of the best meals I’ve had in Cuba.
Nightlife in Havana vs. Santiago:
- Santiago offered a greater variety of live music venues in the historic centre, all within walking distance and entrance fees were significantly less expensive in Santiago, and costed between $1-5 CUC, with the average being $2.
- Generally the music in Santiago plays more traditional son than contemporary salsa. This is similar to the music played in many of the restaurants in Havana, but I found the quality better in Santiago. Many of the live venues in Havana also cater to bigger groups which play more salsa and timba. My favourite venue tho was La Claqueta which actually played salsa.
- For dancing tho, because there are more venues in Santiago but a smaller population, I found there were fewer people to dance with in Santiago.
- Finally, Santiago also has big street parties on the weekends, with different music genres stationed at different areas along the same street. I only caught the tail end of a Sunday night party, since the following weekend I arrived during the mourning period for Chavez. I imagine tho, it can get really lively, especially in the months leading up to and of course, including carnival. In the third week of July, Santiago holds a huge carnival, that is involves a week-long street party.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Oriente. If you are interested in more contemporary Cuban music and enjoying seeing the big groups, you might prefer Havana. If you are interested in having a variety of venues to visit with a greater emphasis on son, check out the Oriente. But with adequate time, please check out both! I flew one way to Santiago for $140 CDN and bussed back the 14 hours to Havana for $51, but the bus trip was actually much more manageable then I had expected.