Santiago: Heroic City

After Havana, I flew to Santiago, the second city of Cuba, located in the Oriente region at the eastern end of the island. It is called “heroic city” for its role as the cradle of all the revolutionary wars of Cuba. It was founded in 1515 and its first mayor was Hernán Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico. Its wealth came from the production of coffee, copper, sugar, and, more recently, rum.

Santiago is a charming and relaxed city, with few outstanding individual monuments, but with a preserved historic center composed of unique vernacular architecture, currently in great need of conservation despite the heroic efforts of the Conservator of the City. It is the only Cuban city with a monument to US soldiers (from the Spanish-American War), and is the home of the Cuban musical expression known as trova. It has a museum of lucha clandestina to commemorate the underground fight against the Batista regime, designed by a New York architect, Walter Betancourt, and a cathedral surrounded by stores expressly built by its bishop to generate income. Its most recent claim to fame is the visit of Paul McCartney in 2000. The chair he sat on at a local restaurant has been preserved as a relic.

There are two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Santiago: El Morro of San Pedro de la Roca fortress, now a museum featuring not only monumental military installations, but also a preserved historic landscape that offers spectacular views of the Santiago bay and its distant mountain ranges; and the coffee plantations of the Orient of Cuba, which were developed by Haitian émigrés who escaped the slave revolution of Saint Domingue in the early 19th century.

I ended my trip with a visit to the sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, located at the foot of the Sierra Maestra, a region important for its role during the Cuban revolution, as a center of copper exploitation, and the place where escaped slaves or “cimarrones” found freedom. Their struggle has been memorialized by a bronze monument that can be seen for miles around.

Visiting Cuba is always an enriching experience and a good reminder not to take anything for granted. Sometimes even the most basic necessities we are accustomed to, such as soap, pens, internet access, receipts, and street lights, are scarce, but the warmth of its people and the beauty of its monuments make up for the little inconveniences.