Santiago de Cuba is Cuba’s second largest city and the birthplace of the Cuban revolution. It is on the Southern coast, with the Caribbean sea on one side of the city and the majestic Sierra Maestra mountains on the other side. The mountains make for gorgeous views and giant heat waves so pack your hats and keep cool as your explore these top things to do in Santiago de Cuba:
Visit El Morro
Also known as San Pedro de la Roca castle, El Morro is a magnificent fortress built into a rocky peninsula that protects the Bay of Santiago de Cuba. UNESCO calls El Morro one of the best-preserved examples of Spanish-American military architecture. If you visit at sunset you will be treated to some beautiful views.
Take a day trip to Cayo Granma
Hop on a short boat ride across the Bay of Santiago de Cuba and you will reach Cayo Granma. It’s a pedestrian-only island that still has quite an idyllic charm despite widespread damage to many of the homes from Hurricane Sandy. Grab some fresh shrimp and the catch of the day at Restaurante El Cayo, then visit with locals, like Pedro who operates a community arts program called Songo e Fantasia. Together with about 75 of Cayo Granma’s kids, he collects trash from the island’s shores and transforms it into art.
Be serenaded by Son
Son music, made internationally famous by groups like Buena Vista Social Club, actually originated in Santiago de Cuba so it’s a great place to get acquainted with this classic Cuban sound. Son Para Ti is a group of talented teenage musicians who are keeping the son tradition alive. (The first half of my Santiago guide video is their music so check it out!)
Become fascinated by ferns at Jardin de Los Helechos
This was my favorite stop on the Santiago itinerary, which is saying a lot because I even got eaten alive by mosquitos while here–but still it was a standout. Why? Because of Manuel Garcia Caluff. I could hang out with him all day. His enthusiasm for flora and ferns is so infectious that you find yourself totally in awe of plants. Manuel is one of the preeminent experts on ferns in Cuba and his private collection includes rare species and ferns that you can only find in Cuba. A walk through Manuel’s backyard garden will leave you smiling.
Watch one of the only Tumba Francesa groups in Cuba
Tumba Francesa is a form of dance and music that has been passed down through the generations and for many members of the Sociedad de Tumba Francesa this dance runs deep into their family history — some can be traced back eight generations to afro-french slaves. The series of dance sequences are guided by a whistle, which indicates when to change partners and when to change choreography.
Lunch at ZunZun Restaurant
More and more restaurants in Cuba have the opportunity to operate as coops, giving workers a chance to earn more money, and giving management more control over the ingredients and products they use. Restaurante ZunZun is an elegant private home-turned eatery. You can dine inside in a beautiful private dining room our outside on the front porch which overlooks a quiet street. You have to try the creole soup and look out for the twin singers with angelic voices who perform table-side.
Pay homage at Cementerio Santa Ifigenia
Every visit to Santiago should include a stop at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. It is the final resting place of Cuban hero, Jose Marti as well as many other Cuban patriots. Every thirty minutes you can watch the changing of the guards at Jose Marti’s memorial.
Tip – there is very little shade at the cemetery and temperatures can top 100 during mid-day so try to visit the cemetery early in the morning before the sun gets too strong.
Dinner at La Fondita de Company Ramon
If home-cooked Cuban is what you’re after, this is the place for it. Ramon has transformed a portion of his home into a small restaurant where his wife’s home-cooked dishes are served family style on red-checkered table cloths. Rice, beans, meat and salads are dished out in abundance, as well as buckets of mangos, if it’s the season. Ramon is as much a performer as he is a restaurateur so make sure you stick around after dinner to watch him prepare traditional Cuban coffee with flare.
I traveled to Santiago on a people-to-people trip so you will notice that most of my ‘top’ recommendations include interactions with local Cubans! To learn more about my people-to-people adventure with Cuba Travel Services check out my YouTube channel.
Have you been to Cuba yet? What was your favorite part about it?