- Days 1-3: Miami, FL
- Days 3-9: Cuba (Havana, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba)
Dates: October 13-23, 2016
Our third and final stop in Cuba
was to Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city. It’s situated in a
protected cove on the southern shore of the island, only about 2 hours driving
from infamous Guantanamo. It’s also very, very hot – even in October. Having
been a disembarkation point for slaves, Santiago had briefly been Cuba’s
capital city in the 16th and early 17th centuries- up until it was usurped by
Havana in 1607.
The Cuban flag atop a rooftop bar.
Our day in Santiago was one of my
favorites of the whole week. We had made some friends on the ship (Colleen
& Hank from Los Angeles and Jim and Stacy from Ohio) and were lucky to end
up in the same small group with them for the tour for the day. The tour started
with a visit to San Juan Hill, site of the last land battle in the Cuban
With Hank, Colleen, Stacy, and Jim on the hill.
The hill itself is marked with all the typical battleground
accessories. Cannons, trenches, plaques and memorials. All of this is
interesting in its own right, but, for better or worse, a bit overshadowed in
my opinion by the neighboring dilapidated and empty amusement park, complete
with creepy Ferris wheel and loudly playing Disney’s “Under the Sea”
in Spanish. I found this peculiarity much more interesting than the tourist
site we had come to see, though I was never able to learn more about it.
Contrasts – an amusement park sits behind the site of the last land battle of the Cuban revolution.
After exploring the battleground,
our bus took us to my favorite stop in all that we saw of Cuba – a medieval
style fort overlooking the ocean called Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del
Morro. It had been built in the early
1600s to protect against pirates (real pirates, à la Peter Pan and Pirates of
the Caribbean) but was not finished until the 1700s, when pirates were no longer
really a problem. So it never really served its intended purpose, but was used
as a prison in the 1800s. We got to spend over an hour exploring the nooks and
crannies of this fortress, all while taking in spectacular views of the
surrounding jagged, turquoise coastline. From big empty rooms, to hidden
staircases, to the overall maze of a structure built in and around and on top
of itself – we had a blast on this historical and scenic playground.
The fascinating fortress.
After frolicking about in the
hot, hot heat we were bussed to a delicious family-style lunch looking over the
bay. We could even see the fortress from where we were sitting!
View from lunch.
We ended the tour back at the
main square in the city center. We took the opportunity to spend a few hours
away from the larger group to explore a bit on our own with our friends. We
went to a rooftop bar at Hotel Casa Granda, enjoyed a drink and the view, and
then headed over to the nearby 1500s Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.
We were having a hard time finding the entrance, and a local man came up to us
and asked what we were looking for. We told him, and he said he would show us.
All the while he chatted with us about where we were from and what we thought
about Cuba. To my surprise (and to be fair, I should give people more credit),
he didn’t ask us for a tip or any money after showing us the way. It was a
stark difference from our time in Morocco when people would try to trick you
into tipping them for leading you off your path, and made me really appreciate
the genuineness of the Cuban people we had met during our trip.
The cathedral itself was much
like other Catholic churches, but this one had a notably gigantic door, which
made the visit worth it in and of itself.
Come on in!
Afterwards we walked through the
town back down to the port where our ship was waiting for us. Before getting on
bored and stepping off Cuban soil for possibly the rest of our lives, we putzed
around some souvenir stands and spent the last of our CUCs on a wooden box and
some kitty cat earrings (because, what else are we going to do with our
And with that, we
were back aboard our ship and bound for the port of Miami. But Cuba wasn’t done
with us just yet. As we pulled out of the port, we had beautiful views of the
city and of the fortress we had explored earlier, sitting atop its rocky hill, grottos
carved into its base. An hour or so later, the sunset painted the sky in
ever-changing reds, yellows, oranges and pinks. It was a perfect way to close
the trip – with reminders of both Cuba’s past as well as its colorful, vibrant
and dynamic present. What comes in its future with more American tourism and
money flowing in is yet to be written.
The fort as we pulled away from Cuba.
Sunset that evening