Located on the southeastern coast of Cuba on the Caribbean sea, Santiago de Cuba was founded by Spain in 1515. It is situated on a large bay that is accessed via a zig-zagging narrows that meanders between a rocky coastline on one side and the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fortress on the other. UNESCO World Heritage Site designation protects either side of the passage from being modified to accommodate ships much larger than the CELESTYAL CRYSTAL, meaning that if mega ships intend to visit Santiago, they will be forced to anchor offshore, entailing a complex tendering process followed by a twenty minute drive to reach the core of the historic city of 431,000 residents.
We were serenaded by a band of local musicians as we disembarked at Santiago’s makeshift cruise terminal.
Before heading off on a coach for our first Cuban tour, we had time to exchange our American and Canadian dollars for CUP (Cuban Pesos), which were at an even rate with the US dollar, minus a mandatory 15% banking fee. Potential visitors to Cuba should note that cash, namely smaller notes, is especially handy to provide tips to the ever-present musicians and guides whose livelihood depends on them. After catching a few furled brows, our guide soon informed us that the ever-abundant Fidel Castro and Che Guevera memorabilia in high-traffic tourist spots is more of a concession to souvenir-hunting foreigners than it is an expression of local ideology.
Our first stop was the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, the fortress we passed while entering Santiago Bay. Designed by Giovanni Batista Antonelli in 1637 to help ward off pirate invasions, it was completed in 1700 and later used as a prison.
We would have some 20 minutes to explore the fortress, where a CUC 5 fee is levied for photo-taking. I did my best to document the stone fortifications in the time provided, even descending some 300 crumbling steps to its lower recesses on the water’s edge.
As I climbed back up, so did the temperature, which was hovering in the 90 degree range with more than its fair share of Caribbean shoulder season humidity. Maybe it was my arid Southern California imagination, but even the lizards seemed lethargic.
At a neighboring cafe, we were greeted with ice cold mojitos, the first of many that would augment our Cuban escapade.
Apparently, we were following in the footsteps of some important music icons. One wonders if they washed Paul McCartney’s table settings before entombing them?
As tempting as it was, I had to leave my sugar-and-rum-laden mojito on the rocks of Santiago, but not before toasting the view.
It was a short walk back to our coaches where local vendors offered up yet more provocative artwork.
Our air-conditioned van navigated its way back to the center of Santiago, stopping in the square named for Cuba’s “Padre de la Patrina” Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the Cuban lawyer and plantation owner who freed his slaves and began the ten year war for Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1868. Our guide pointed out the surrounding buildings, most of which were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after earthquakes, fires and hurricanes leveled what came before them.
The Catedral de Nuestra de Senora de la Asuncion is one of the most prominent buildings in Santiago and interestingly, there are numerous retail shops at its base, encountered when accessing its interior, which features a barrel ceiling inset with a painting of Christ.
We had a half an hour or so to wander on our own. Battered by time and the elements, the moods and colors of Santiago were electrifying. American tourism will inject much needed revenue but will surely gentrify much of its unique character which is thus far free of Starbucks, McDonalds, et al.
A scraggly man followed me to a rooftop overlooking the city, claiming to be a guide and demanding a Peso when I took a photo. This charging for photo taking thing is a big income generator in Santiago and other parts of Cuba. I’m pretty certain my new friend was a scammer but I pretended not to know better, as he really looked like he needed the cash.
Having paid my “dues”, I lingered for a few more shots, including a zoom or two of our sparkling ship in the shanty skyline.
Our guide mentioned there was a local farmer’s market in walking distance from the square, so I kept an eye out for people carrying vegetables and other sundries and began tracing their steps.
I found the farmer’s market in a large, crumbling warehouse. The carniceria, with its slabs of room temperature flesh, made a lasting impression but then, so did the vast rows of farm fresh veggies, baked breads and ground spices.
On the way back to the square, it began to rain, so I took momentary shelter in the lobby of an apartment building. It was like stepping into a 1950s waterfront film noir directed by, say, John Huston.
Back at the base of the Catedral as the clouds parted, a classic blue sedan pulled up for its music video close up. But this was the real thing.
With ten minutes to spare, I headed into the Hotel de Casa Granda, where a lift took me to its rooftop cafe. For a mere three Cuban Pesos, I savored the best view in town, along with an ice cold bottled water and the aroma of fresh Cuban coffee.
Our next stop was the Moncada Barracks, where Fidel Castro and 140 or so rebels attacked its garrison on July 26, 1953. The rebellion was unsuccessful but it was the first major step towards the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that eventually brought him into power. The bullet holes in its Art Deco facade remain to tell the story.
From the Moncada Barracks, we were off to the Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, whose centerpiece is a massive bronze monument depicting Antonio Maceo Grajales, one of the leaders of the ten year war for Cuban independence.
The sculpture by Alberto Leacay, the tallest in all of Cuba, was erected in 1991 and the steps leading to it are made of green marble that was a bit tricky to tread in the rain’s aftermath.
Twenty three giant bronze machetes by local artist Guarionex Ferrer commemorate March 23, 1878, when the fight for independence from Spain began.
Our final stop was actually the final resting place of many noted Cubans, the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, which was founded in 1868. Time was running short, so we enjoyed a quick overview of some of its more elaborate marble tombs and its centerpiece memorial to apostle Jose Marti before returning to the ship.
From the terminal, I raced out to Santiago’s new malecon for a few quick photos of the CELESTYAL CRYSTAL, making it back to the ship in time for lunch in the Olympus Restaurant.
I loved the fried plantains and rice main course, a fitting tribute to my first day in Cuba.
Up on deck, I felt a twinge of sadness as we left Santiago, knowing it will probably be a very different place should I ever return. This November, some 90 flights per day will be zooming off to Cuba from the U.S.
On my way out to aft Hera Deck, I grabbed some wonderful almond and pistachio butter cookies from the afternoon tea in the Leda Restaurant. I can resist those delicious cakes, tarts and even the bread pudding but crispy cookies will get me every time.
The CELESTYAL CRYSTAL may not be an ultra deluxe cruise ship but I think she has some wonderful deck areas and public spaces. And, at 25,000 gt, she is the ideal size.
Soon, we were zig zagging through the narrows and approaching San Pedro de la Roca, which once guarded Santiago from pirate attacks and will now protect her from megaship invasions.
We left Santiago in our wake as the CRYSTAL turned on a north easterly course into the Caribbean sea.
I enjoyed a stroll around Dionysos Deck in the misty sea air.
High winds greeted me on Zeus Deck as I prepared to ditch the camera gear and squeeze in a quick workout.
As I was wrapping up my session on the elliptical, Danny, our friendly Romanian cruise director, announced that we would soon be passing Guantanamo Bay. I ran down to the cabin for my cameras, capturing a rather uninteresting, distant photo of one of the world’s most controversial places. So much seen in one short day…
After dinner, in the Muses, I caught the Afro-Cuba Folkloric show.
Later, in the Helios Bar, there was the Tropical Buffet and Carnaval de Santiago and in my cabin, a comfy bed and a new towel animal awaited as CELESTYAL CRYSTAL rounded the northeastern edge of Cuba to meet the Atlantic for a day at sea.
Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea. With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications. Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."