Santiago de Cuba, the second most important city in the country, is one of the oldest towns on the island, nestling in an attractive bay surrounded by mountains. It is a vibrant, cultured city with its own identity and charm. Its culture is different from Havana’s, with more emphasis on its Afro-Caribbean roots and Santería plays a large part in people’s lives. There are regional differences in the music, partly because of past immigrants from the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. Carnival is an experience worth going out of your way for, with energetic dancing, parades, music and increasingly sophisticated costumes as the economy improves.
The city centre is cluttered, with the feel of an overgrown country village, featuring many beautiful pastel-coloured buildings in much better condition than many of those in the capital. It is not a colonial gem along the lines of Havana or Trinidad and there is heavy industry around its edge but it does have an eclectic range of architectural styles from colonial to art deco.
Santiago de Cuba was one of the seven towns (villas) founded by Diego Velázquez. It was first built in 1515 on the mouth of the Río Paradas but moved in 1516 to its present location in a horseshoe valley surrounded by mountains. It was Cuba’s capital city until replaced by Havana in 1553 and capital of Oriente province until 1976. During the 17th-century Santiago was besieged by pirates from France and England, leading to the construction of the Castillo del Morro, still intact and now housing the piracy museum, just south of the city. Because of its location, Santiago has been the scene of many migratory exchanges with other countries; it was the first city in Cuba to receive African slaves, many French fled here from the slaves’ insurrection in Haiti in the 18th century and Jamaicans have also migrated here from the neighbouring island. Santiago is more of a truly ethnic blend than many other towns in Cuba.
The city played a major role in the early days of the Revolution in the 1950s and boasts two major landmarks of the clandestine struggle: the Moncada Garrison, now a school and museum, scene of Fidel Castro’s first attack on the Batista regime in 1953, and La Granjita Siboney, the farmhouse where 129 revolutionaries gathered the night before the attack on the Garrison, which is also now a museum.