Cuba is at the top of many destination lists as legal travel has opened back up in recent years. Traveling to Cuba really is like traveling back in time. People still use horses to get around, raise their own livestock or trade for it, and you'll see old architecture and cars.
Now, Santiago de Cuba is NOT your prime vacation spot. I have heard that Havana is more touristy and it's on my list of places to visit for this year! If you are planning to visit Cuba, I would recommend going to Havana first. However, if you have a strong interest in Cuban history, culture, and classic cars, you will find Santiago very intriguing. Santiago is very poor and run down, as is most of Cuba, but I think it's good for everyone to experience a different lifestyle and culture. It really opens your eyes to a different way of life and makes you appreciate the things you have. Even in the most run-down places, you can find beauty. The terrain of Santiago is absolutely beautiful. The mountains and beaches are gorgeous...not to mention incredible sunsets in the sky every evening. At the center of town, there are beautiful pastel colored buildings, street music & shops.
If you don't already know the reason I travel here, my boyfriend, Adeiny, is from here. He defected at 19 years old to pursue a career in baseball and could not return to see his family for 8 1/2 years. Now, there are less restrictions in Cuba than there were a few years ago, but it isn't the easiest place to travel back and forth from. However, we have managed fine and if you are a U.S. Citizen you will not have a problem.
We took a flight from Miami to Santiago through Havana Air. The flight is only a little over an hour long. You have to get to the airport AT LEAST three hours before your flight if you are traveling with this airline, and unfortunately, this is really the only airline that flies to Santiago. However there are many reputable airlines that fly to Havana such as some of my favorites, Southwest & American. Another option is to fly to Holguin and drive, but it's the same situation. The reason you have to get to the airport so early is because you have to wait in line to check your bags AND get your tickets. It will take over an hour to get through the line. This is because 1. Everyone brings everything they can to Cuba-(lampshades, toys, statues, TVs, you name it) and 2. Cuban customer service is VERY SLOW and makes zero sense but you just have to go with it. If you are checking any luggage, you do need to get your bags wrapped in plastic before checking them. There are kiosks all over before the line. I believe it costs $18-$25 a bag depending on the weight. If you don't, people will go through your bag and steal. You will see some very interesting things at the airport... everyone that is going back to Cuba that has been living in the States wants to show off all the "money" they have here. You will see lots of terribly made fake designer, gaudy fake gold chains, and the biggest fake gold watch they can find. Its absolutely comical... but Adeiny says that if you look like that in Cuba everyone thinks you are looking really good, cool, and rich.
DO NOT BOOK A ONE WAY FLIGHT TO CUBA.
It can be very difficult to get home even if you've had a round-trip flight booked for months. Last year, they tried to not let us on our flight there because they had overbooked it. They do not care here about customer service. They pretty much do whatever they want when they feel like it. So, this meant for our returning flight from Cuba, we had to be the first ones in line at the airport, because someone wasn't getting on that flight home, and it wasn't going to be us!
The airport in Santiago usually has less than one flight per day, so they open right before the flight takes place.
If you are traveling to Santiago, it's best to have your round-trip tickets already printed out if you can.
They are very ridiculous about a lot of things here.
This time, when we arrived to Santiago, we had someone load our bags into our rental car and they forgot Adeiny's bag. You cannot re-enter the airport once you have exited. So, the next day he had to go back in the morning and wait four hours outside to get his bag. The airport workers told him that they had his bag, but he had to wait until everyone had exited the airport from the incoming flight to get it (dumb). Then, because he didn't have his passport AND his flight information card he had to do THE SAME THING the next day. ALSO, they didn't stamp his passport when we arrived so he had to go back and wait AGAIN to get it stamped or they can deny you entry to leave the country.
So yeah... the airport situation is NOT IDEAL. However, don't let this scare you if you are really wanting to visit here. Just be prepared and get ready to be patient.
Things To Do
1. Downtown Santiago De Cuba
The buildings in downtown Santiago are filled with plazas, bright pastel colors, little shops, street vendors, and even Cuban street music! Downtown Santiago is MUCH prettier than the rest of the city. The architecture is beautiful, and it is full of colors and life (especially the classic cars!). The shops here are very interesting... many places will have a few items listed and (hanging off) the menu, with maybe one or two things on the shelves. Other places are fully stocked. You just have to look around and be a little patient... although sometimes workers might suggest they are closing when you ask for something. Its a very interesting culture, as it seems... people work hard to not work hard. There are a few neat art galleries and souvenir shops here that you may run into. My advice: if you are a female... do not wander around alone... especially if you are a "gringa" which means white girl. The men here never see your type and they will swarm and hover around you making kissing noises...uh...weird. Just don't do it... lol.
An interesting display for a cafe...
Bucanero is one of the beer brands they have here. That and Crystal. Occasionally you can get a Dominican beer or a Heineken.
2. Parque Cespedes
Parque Cespedes is at the heart of downtown Santiago. There is often a group of people playing Cuban music in the square, and the edges lined with tents of food/drink vendors. I love going to pretty fruit markets, and after a lot of searching we found a few here. They aren't your typical colorful fruit markets with mango & watermelons, though. This was the prettiest fruit display I could find.
Most of the tents are either nothing, a little bit of food or dessert, or bars like this one!
This is a good place to sit down and have a drink or a meal at IBEROSTAR Casa Granda. This is a beautiful dreamsicle colored hotel overlooking the plaza.
3. Castillo de San Pedro del Morro
Built in 1638, the castle has served as a fortress to Santiago throughout history. Not only did so much history take place here, it is a beautiful view of the coast!
4. Museo Historico 26 de Julio
The site of the July 26 attack led by Fidel Castro at the Moncada Barracks.
5. Plaza de la Revolucion
6. La Gran Piedra
One of the best views in Cuba!
7. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Balcon de Velazquez, Diego Velazquez Museum
Galeria Rene Valdes
Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum
Museo de la Lucha Clandestina
Museo del Carnaval
Memorial Vilma Espin Guilloia
Museo del Ron (Rum Museum)
Foods to Try
Cuban coffee: "Cafe"
Arroz con Pollo
While it's not a soft white sand beach with turquoise waters, the view is beautiful. You can drink out of a coconut, order a Crystal or Bucanero, and a meal. It is not luxurious by any means, but if you're looking to go to a beach this is the closest one!
Playa Cazonal (40 min drive)
Enjoy kayaking, a larger beach, and a beautiful view!
Melia Santiago Cafe (top floor)
Patio de los Dos Abuelos
Most clubs only have the choice of ordering beer (Crystal or Bucanero) or Chivas Regal Scotch. Music ranges from popular latin, pop, and hip-hop. Most clubs play music videos, sometimes they have dancers perform as well. People really get dressed up to go out here! Girls will wear their most sparkly dress, and guys will wear anything from a suit to an all-white outfit. The clubs here are generally safe for tourists, but I wouldn't recommend going alone. And be sure you don't flirt with anyone else's girl. Also, watch your chain.
Melia Santiago De Cuba
IBEROSTAR Casa Granda
Most Interesting Thing I Saw
Two men on a motorcycle... the one on the back was carrying two goats on his lap
Things to Know
People here do not speak English.
Download the Spanish to English part of Google Translate to be able to use a translator without WiFi.
You will have to pay for WiFi, only available in select spaces. Both Hotels I listed above have WiFi that you can purchase. I believe its only around $2 for 5 hours. Standard international cell phone rates do not apply in Cuba. Its extremely expensive so I would just plan on not using your phone.
There are no street signs.
There are no street signs but there are directional signs that show you where everything is. The Cuban people will know where you are wanting to go if you need help.
Bring hand sanitizer
Santiago IS very unsanitary in most places. Most bathrooms do not have soap to wash your hands. Just bring hand sanitizer.
Don't pet the dogs.
Yes, there are hundreds of stray dogs here. They are everywhere. And yes, they want love! However, stray dog or house dog, they WILL bite. They can be sweet for one minute and bite you the next, so be careful! Unfortunately, dogs are not treated very well here. They also carry fleas and diseases.
If you are a female... do not walk alone.
The men here will SWARM around you and make kissing sounds in your face... um.... weird. Just don't do it.
Life in Santiago
Life in Santiago is VERY different from much of the world. Not only is visiting here like traveling back in time, but the way they live is very laid back too. From the communist regime and as part of their culture, most people in Cuba do not work. At first I thought this was crazy, but after visiting here a few times you realize how much they value relationships with family and friends. In the U.S., we are so caught up in our busy lives that we barely have time for our own family! In Cuba, they spend everyday with family and visiting with friends and I think that is something that should be celebrated! They aren't attached to the internet or social media or video games 24/7 either.
Due to the economic and political state of Cuba, it is a very poor area to live in. Many homes are no bigger than a single bedroom. Most homes do not have air conditioning, and none of them have glass windows. Windows and doors are left open during the day for ventilation. As you can imagine, this invites a lot of flies. Like I said, Santiago is not the most sanitary place in the world. If you have money here, you are able to raise your own livestock for meals. Many people also sell parts of their meat on the street. Other items can be bought from the store such as water bottles, juice, milk. cookies, condiments, etc. However, most things that people buy are out of other people's homes, including fake designer. Even though in Cuba virtually everybody is poor, they value looking "rich" more than any culture I have seen. Adeiny even knew somebody who lived out of their car just to make it look like they had money by driving around in their car all the time. As I said earlier, the bigger the watch, the bigger the chain, the cooler you are (even though none of it is actually real). In Santiago, everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows from whom they can get what. For example, we stayed at Adeiny's home in Cuba, and I noticed they did not have fruit. We couldn't find any juicy fresh fruit on the street, but Adeiny's friend knew someone who grew grapes at their home. So we went across town to their house and bought some grapes!
Pigeon racing is SO COOL. I had no idea that this was a thing until Adeiny showed me his pigeons here. His brother trains them every morning and evening for racing. They are amazing, smart animals! They flew a distance of almost 250 miles and back within just a couple hours! They fly all over Cuba and back, the furthest they go is to Havana, which is 477 miles away! When they get back to the house, the land on they roof (where people keep their pigeon enclosures) and walk right back into their cage. It's incredible! Below I attached a photo of how they keep track... each pigeon has a tag with a number on it. They track their times everyday to pick the best ones to race. They are allowed to select 8 of their best birds to qualify. 30 of them will fly, but the selected 8 have to be the ones that finish first!
This is a tour of Adeiny's home in Santiago de Cuba that I took in 2017. I love looking back on this and seeing how much his English has improved! Keep in mind that this is a REALLY nice home compared to others in Santiago.
1. Are there really a ton of vintage cars?
Yes! It is really cool looking to see people driving old classic cars around. They are so fun and bright! I have seen just about every color car you could imagine... even pink!
2. Would you recommend someone visit Cuba?
Cuba is a beautiful country and has so much history. I definitely recommend visiting Cuba to see what it is like there, and to experience a different culture and way of life.
3. Is Cuba a really good vacation idea?
On the other hand... I wouldn't say Cuba is really a "vacation." Well, not Santiago at least. I have heard amazing things about Havana and I would like to visit there soon! Cuba will never change, at least not for a very long time, to become Americanized/touristy. A trip to Cuba is more about experiencing the culture and learning the history of the nation. Don't get me wrong, it is absolutely beautiful with the mountains and the beaches... it's just not very accommodating to tourists for relaxing per se.
4. Is Cuba safe?
I wouldn't wander into other areas too far from your hotel without being with a local. However Cuba is generally considered safe for tourists, but be careful of theft!
5. What is your favorite Cuban dish?
Malanga Fritters. It's fried malanga root and it tastes so good! Crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside... YUM!
6.What are the cultural similarities and differences?
There are SO many differences. The one that stands out to me the most is that everyone in Cuba just hangs out. We have a "go-go-go," "work-work-work" culture, and in Cuba people just chill out at home or on the porch all day, everyday. People are constantly coming in and out of the house, and sometimes there will be around 20 people in the house at once. In the U.S., you would never even knock on somebody's door without calling/texting them first. And certainly you wouldn't just walk in the house. Social status is similar to the U.S. in a way in which the more money it LOOKS like you have, the higher you are in the social hierarchy, However, in the U.S. status is based more on your level of success and your money, rather than just money. For example, if you're the CEO of a company is the U.S. you hold a very high social status. In Cuba, most people do not work and your social status is definitely not measured by what you do for a living, rather, what you have.
7. Is Cuba a third world country?
Cuba is not considered a third world country, it is a second world country.
8. Is there really a lot of prostitution in Cuba?
Unfortunately, yes. It's a very common, and many people travel to Cuba just for cheap prostitutes (sad).
9. What is it like there with the communist regime?
It is evident that Cuba's communist regime has had to withstand more than 50 years of U.S. sanctions, which is why it is like traveling back in time. There are still Fidel statues in front of many buildings, with revolution propaganda everywhere. Its not uncommon to see things "Yo Soy Fidel" painted across buildings, fences, and walls. Most Cubans dream of coming to the United States, but some would rather not because of the culture shock. Cubans see Americans as very wealthy, which in all reality we are compared to other countries no matter if you're lower, middle, or upper class. For example, when the people in Cuba see Adeiny and I together, their assumption is that I bought him all of his chains, because I'm American. Virtually the only kind of job you can get that will make you enough money to survive is a job that accepts tips from tourists. This is why most of the people in Cuba just steal. Life in Cuba is very limited and poor.
10. Is there a risk of not coming back when visiting Cuba?
Like I said earlier, don't book a one-way flight. If you are a U.S. citizen with the proper Visa, you will be fine. I always copy my Visa and passport just in case. Really the only reason you may have a problem is if you have a Cuban passport, even if you have a green card. Adeiny had problems this past visit to Santiago getting his passport stamped to return, but we made it back at our scheduled time. His dad has had some issues in the past getting back, but I wouldn't worry too much.
I hope you enjoyed this post!
I will be answering any other questions about Cuba in the comments.
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