Ben Howe
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Travel, videos and music written, filmed and photographed by Ben Howe.

The Voodoo Streets of Santiago De Cuba

Santiago De Cuba has a reputation. Voodoo, witchcraft; a hotbed of hustlers, pimps and thieves. The home of Bacardi and the country’s most energetic carnival. Apparently, it’s Cuba’s rough and gritty city. The wild east - Haiti and Jamaica just over the horizon. More Carribean. More Pirate. 

This reputation attracted us to the city, so Sonya and I decided to stop in.

The City of Santiago De Cuba

What we found was something a bit different to the reputation. Dilapidated, yes. Dirty also. The central Plaza did have its share of scammers. But it’s character was more slumbering, slow and humid. It was a very appealing city. 

The second biggest city in Cuba was snoozing, a permanent tropical siesta. It was also compact, quite walkable - if you could cope with the steaming heat. 

Arriving late in the afternoon,  we found our accommodation. The grand and hospitable Hotel San Bastillo. An excellent place to relax with a cold drink in the open green and foliant foyer. 

Our host insisted the room rate included dinner. We had read somewhere Santiago cuisine was not something to write home about, so we accepted. Her firm but friendly manner indicated it was an argument we wouldn’t win.

In the evening we sat alone waiting for dinner in the formal dining room. Windows open to the street, a creaky fan high overhead. The burly solemn chef was visible behind the counter, wielding a giant cleaver banging away at what was soon to be our fish dinner. 

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Walking the Streets of Santiago De Cuba

The next morning we started a walk through town down at the waterfront, near a strangely cartoonish “Cuba” sculpture and sign. The concrete park in which it was located looked like it had been built for tourists. It was almost deserted.

Trying to make sense of our map, we meandered up through the old town. It was an area once, populated by French escapees from the 19th-century Haitian revolution. While I wouldn’t describe it as “French”, the place did have a lot of character. Children and old people idled in front of crumbling, colourful doors, windows and verandahs. An infrequent horse with cart or motorbike puttered down the baking laneways. Groups of men huddled around decrepit automotive hulks, tinkering and fiddling. Nobody was in a hurry. 

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Most people paid us little attention. We perspired our way onwards. Firstly to the central plaza, then climbing through a maze of dusty and sometimes steep staircases and byways. 

At one point a couple of under-employed youths ushered us onto a rooftop garden. We admired the harbour vista while they pointed out places of historical interest. Inevitably we were parted with a few pesos for their services. In Cuba, you can’t go far without getting the hustle. Most hustlers aren’t bad; they’re just destitute. Often they are out of work engineers, lawyers and professionals. 

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Our final destination was the old art deco Moncada Barracks, significant because they were the location of Fidel Castro’s first amateur attempt at a revolution against the dictator Batista. Their attack on the barracks - during the annual carnival - was bungled from the outset, some revolutionaries getting shot while others - Fidel among them - were captured. After a court case and jail, Castro later returned to fight another day.

After a few wrong turns and more sweating, we finally arrived at these barracks. Unfortunately, they turned out to be closed. We stood outside and admired at the bullet holes on pocked into the canary yellow walls. 

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San Pedro De La Roca, Santiago De Cuba

In the evening we headed out of town to the old Spanish stone fort of San Pedro de la Roca, which sits imposingly at the harbour mouth. From it’s UNESCO sanctioned turrets, we surveyed the decaying fishing villages in the bays and inlets below. More impressive was the sweeping arc of the tropical coast and a sheer drop to the harbour entrance. Built-in 1663 to protect against marauding pirates, to the fort was fully intact, never seeing proper action, although apparently a good vantage point to witness the US-Spanish naval battle of 1898. 

After all that informative history it seemed appropriate to return to town, head to the rooftop bar at the Hotel Casa Granda, get a drink and recount the day's activities. Sonya went for the Pina Colada, and I chose most drinkable Cuban beer - the Bucanero. 

While tourists are sparse in Santiago De Cuba, the few that make it eventually end up at this rooftop bar. The views of the Cathedral, Plaza, Harbour and Hills are incomparable. This more than makes up for the doughy pizza and dry sandwiches. After the sun finally set in a fiery glow behind the Cathedral de Nuestra, we retired downstairs to the airy restaurant. This handy spot, overlooking the plaza, was apparently a favourite Hemmingway hangout.

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Our Three Favourite Things in Santiago De Cuba

Walking the Streets
Similar to many characterful cities, walking the streets and exploring the back alleys is the most rewarding things to do in Santiago de Cuba. If well lived in asymmetric and colourful windows, doorways and steps are your thing, then walking these streets is a good idea. The section between the waterfront and the plaza is the most unkempt, crumbling but also satisfying. Up the hill from the central plaza also has its spots. 

The Rooftop of Hotel Casa Granda
The food, drink and service are at best average, but who cares with such an appealing urban vista. The harbour and hills shimmer in the distance, and you are almost on top of the Cathedral. 

The San Pedro De La Roca Fort
Out near the harbour mouth, most impressive is the location - perched on a high outcrop and positioned to survey the sweeping arc of coastline and narrow harbour bays. 

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