I really had no idea what to expect of Santiago de Cuba, afterall the next biggest city in Cuba is always overshadowed by Havana. So Santiago was going to surprise us - it could only leave a good or a bad impression right? We showed up in Santiago with no plan except a booked casa particular and hearing how super hot it is year round.
What did we learn? On one hand Santiago is a HOT melting pot with a completely different vibe to Havana that immediately draws you in like quicksand and on the other it's a cultural capital proud of the part it has played in Cuba's evolution.
With 40C (104F) midday temps there was time for siestas and many late nights out on the town. And if you're there in July, you're lucky to experience Revolution Day and their Carnival which lasts for over a week in Santiago.
Five days of relaxing and slowly exploring in and around Santiago we couldn't help but fall in love with this former colonial city. It may be more "modern" than Havana but has a charm of its own, from the beautiful colonial buildings, cathedrals and charming people to the music houses with some of Cuba's finest improv musicians.
We let Santiago surprise us and here's what we loved the most!
Early morning walks through the streets, Santiago isn't flat so uphill streets made for a good workout with a reward of fantastic views of the harbour, port and surrounding Sierra Maestra mountains in the distance.
There may be no grand celebrations on Revolution Day, July 26th, but everyone is glued to their television watching the televised speech by Castro and the government. Santiagueros (as the locals are called) are proud of their city's rebellious history.
Cuba may be popular for vintage cars but the trucks are equally impressive, especially these "uso particular" ones that are a popular form of people transport.
Jose Marti fountain monument with the early morning sun shining on it, is the perfect spot to people watch as Santiago woke up. It is directly across from the Moncada Barracks, the site of an armed attack by Fidel Castro and the beginning of the Cuban revolution.
Casa de Diego Velazquez, the oldest house in Cuba and one of the oldest in the Americas, is a remarkable colonial building and historical museum and well worth the visit. It was built in 1516 as the residence of the founder of Cuba’s original seven towns and overflow with period furniture, carved woodwork and two lovely courtyards.
The famous music hall Casa de la Trova, has hosted nearly all legendary Cuban musicians and a stop in (to also hide from the heat if you go in the daytime) gives you a good appreciation of different styles of Cuban music as groups play different styles all day long - from salsa to guarachas to boleros.
About 18 kilometres northwest from Santiago de Cuba in the old mining town of Cobre, is one of Cuba's most famous churches - the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. It's an easy day trip and getaway to this beautiful lush area outside of the city. The magnificent church with its red domed towers, is a pilgrimage site and attracts people from all over Cuba who come seeking the purported healing powers of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobra (Our Lady of Charity).
About 25 kilometres southeast from the city, another day trip we enjoyed was La Gran Piedra (Grand Stone) which is a large volcanic rock perched atop a mountain with some spectacular views of surrounding peaks and coastal plains. Some say on clear days you can see as far as Jamaica. It is worth the climb up the seemingly never ending set of stairs that leads up to the 1,234-meter-high peak of Gran Piedra for these breathtaking views before visiting the nearby old coffee estate and botanical gardens.
And without a doubt Carnival in Santiago de Cuba is grandly celebrated over a week of activities. We enjoyed being out each night enjoying the parades, creative floats, costumes, music and joining in with the locals too!