Cuba is split into two: The Occident and The Orient. Most people will go to the Occident, such as Havana, Vinales, Varadero, or Trinidad and never step foot into the Orient. If you’ve never been to the Orient, you know NOTHING of Cuba. NOTHING. HUGE MISTAKE. I’ll tell you why…
How To Get To Cuba As An American
In order to legally travel to Cuba from America, you’ll need to meet one of the requirements for the 12 visas. You can read about them here.
Due to recent travel restrictions made by Donald Trump for Americans, there will be an increase in audits of return trips to Cuba to make sure you meet the requirements for the visas. However, what document is necessary for proof has not been updated by OFAC, yet. There are no clear rules on how any of this will be enforced regarding penalties. Because of this, you can continue with your Cuba trip until further notice. The rules are expected to be released September 2017.
To play it safe, go with a REGISTERED, LICENSED tour group. My favorite being Like A Cuban, who I met on my first trip to Havana. She usually only takes VIP clients and for that does not have a website, but has allowed me to attach her email her for followers of this blog. She has the cheapest and most unique itinerary I’ve ever seen. Contact Rita at email@example.com
To bypass all of this, you can also go to Cuba from a third party country such as Jamaica, Canada, Haiti, or Mexico and don’t get your passport stamped.
BEFORE COMING: Change all American dollars to Euros, there will be no ATMs that take American credit card. You will be charged a 10% conversion fee if you bring American dollars. U.S.- issued credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba so travelers should plan to bring enough cash with them to cover all the expenses they might incur during their trip.
For Americans, a visa is required to enter into Cuba.
Leaving from America: to obtain a visa, when you check in for your flight, the person at the counter will prompt you to buy a visa. Then at the boarding gate, you fill out the forms needed. They won’t let you board without the visa, so don’t worry, they will get you one. The cost varies from $50-100 depending on the airline.
Leaving from a 3rd party country: When you fly through Cancun, DF, or any flight to Cuba from another country, give yourself 3 hours to be able to check-in. Cubans take forever to check-in and they also have a ridiculous amount of cargo since a lot of them are bringing over electronics and necessities for their families that can’t afford it back home. As you stand in line to check into your flight, there is a person handing out visas for $12-20 USD depending on the exchange rate. Once landing in the Cancun airport, remember you will need to take a taxi to the terminal that offers Cuba flights. Allow 20 minutes for this and be prepared to pay in Mexican pesos or more in USD. In DF airport, you will have to stand in line for the visa counter and then the line to check in for your flight so again, give yourself some time.
The Language and What To Pack
Cubans talk very fast, slur all of their words together, and have a distinct accent that makes it extremely hard to understand even if you are a Spanish speaker. I call it Cubañol. So if you don’t understand them, you’re not alone.
You should pack sunscreen. I can’t emphasize it enough. Also, sunglasses. I don’t recommend jeans. Linens, skirts, shorts, dresses, anything cotton to let your private parts breathe unless you just enjoy feeling musty down there. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE HEAT. Cubans are not conservative in their dress at all, so feel free to do you, boo. But don’t bring heels cause there are holes in the streets everywhere.
How to Get Accommodations in Cuba
The best places to stay are in casa particulares, which are family homes that either have an extra bedroom or separate private apartment for guests. They range in price from 10CUC-35CUC. The money you pay to a casa particular goes directly to the people who own the house, rather than to the government (although, Cubans do have to pay a tax for owning a casa particular.)
Booking in advance isn’t necessary. You can walk the streets and just look for a white sign with this symbol on the outside, which marks this house is legally for rent.
You can literally just walk into one and see if they have availability. If someone tells you that you can stay in their house without the sign, it is illegal, and they can be fined. Also if you’d like to book in advance, some casas are listed on AirBnB, although not as many in The Orient. You can also check TripAdvisor for the best casa particulares in the city.
Where to Stay in Santiago de Cuba
Karel’s Casa is a 2-bedroom AirBnB for $15 with in-house wifi (you still have to bring your own wifi card that you can buy on the street), hot water, AC, and 4 blocks from the center. Karel was like a living vampire. She never leaves her house because she’s allergic to the sun. She will even open the door and step aside so the light doesn’t touch her. Because she never leaves her house, she is always on call, incredibly helpful, and very accommodating. For the price, it was more than we expected. You can find her here.
If you’re looking for something nicer, there are many options along every street.
What to Do in Santiago de Cuba
All of Cuba’s history seemingly starts in Santiago de Cuba. When Christopher Colombus “discovered” Cuba, the Spaniards conquered and ruled Cuba for centuries, bringing slaves to work the sugar, coffee, and chocolate plantations. Their presence is apparent with Spanish style cathedrals in the center of every city. During the Spanish-Cuban war, with the help of the United States, Cuba defeated the Spanish. There are statues and memorials dedicated to this cause. Especially notable is Jose Marti, famous poet, and basically father of Cuba, who had the idea of a free, multiracial Cuba. He died in the first battle of war, on a white horse, with his face toward the sun. You can see a statue of this reenactment in the Plaza de la Revolucion.
Following the story of the revolution, in my opinion, is the best museum on the revolution in all of Cuba inside the Moncada Barracks. The Moncada Barracks is about a 25-minute uphill walk from the center of town, but well worth the effort. The stunning all yellow building used to be used as a military compound and arsenal, but has now been turned into a school with 2,000 students. There is a small museum that opens at 9AM, costs 2CUC for foreigners and 10 pesos Cubano for Cuban citizens. If you’d like a guide, whom I highly recommend, the cost is 5CUC. The tour I had was completely in Spanish and I forgot to ask if they had one in English so the following is what you will be shown:
The museum is on the side where you see the façade littered with bullet holes. Be aware these bullet holes are actually fake and were carved out after the Communist Revolution in memorium. The only real bullet holes are on the pole in front of the building.
The museum starts with what life was like before the revolution. Santiago de Cuba used to be a slave port during the Spanish rule. It was also the place where rich Haitians settled after fleeing the Haitian revolution. Because of this, Santiago de Cuba has the highest population of Afro-Cubans. Two fighters are highlighted as men who fought against racism because of this history, one being Guillermon Moncada, whom the building is named after. The Negro Rebellion is briefly covered, where an army of colored soldiers rebelled against the sugar cane industry and enslavement of blacks.
The museum shows the first president of a free Cuba after the Spanish-Cuban war. However, that president was portrayed as leaving Cuba in a bad state with many starving, without education, and without medical care. When he died, Batista took control of the presidency, not elected. There are differing accounts of what happened, but both the museum and other accounts confirm that during the reign of Batista, he exploited Cuba’s natural resources to foreign investment, carried out wide-scale violence, torture, and public execution, and prostitution, drugs, and gambling were prevalent during his reign.
The museum pans over to young Fidel who was the illegitimate child of a wealthy land owner who took his maid as a mistress (and eventually married). He went to school in Havana and became a lawyer. During university he participated in protests and riots, and started forming his opinions on the corruption in government. He started drawing political cartoons and publishing them in the magazine under the name “Alejandro.”
Then you see a 3-D demonstration of what started the revolution. On the street in front of the museum is where the first battle of the Revolution started…and ended within 15 minutes. It took place on the 26th of July, which is clearly marked on the building.
Fidel chose the 26th of July because the 25th of July marked the largest party for Santiago de Cuba’s Carnival. Thinking that most of the soldiers would be drunk, he arranged a group of poor farmers and students who had very little combat experience to attack the barracks in order to take the machine guns stored inside. The plan was to surround the barracks with his revolucionarios disguised in soldier’s uniforms, and then attack from all sides. However, the revolucionarios, were quickly found out because their shoes were dress shoes, not boots, and gave them away.
When Fidel and his group tried to storm the building from the other side, the soldiers jumped out of the car prematurely and were all shot down from soldiers stationed on the roof. In 15 minutes, the battle was over, resulting in many deaths. Fidel escaped to the mountains and hid in the forest.
In order to make an example of this failed revolution, Batista took poor boys off the street and for every one of his soldiers that died, he killed 20 poor boys and arranged them in the halls of the Moncada Barracks even though the building was never penetrated. A photographer then took pictures and Fidel was portrayed as a murderer. If it wasn’t for a lieutenant of Batista who publicly turned Fidel in when he was captured, he would have been murdered. There is a bust of what Fidel calls his savior in the museum.
Fidel then went to jail and his mugshots are on the wall. When it was time for re-elections for Batista, in order to get the poor vote, he freed Fidel. Fidel then fled to Mexico and Batista thought that was the end of that. On the wall are newspapers produced at the time saying “Fidel is dead” that Batista had printed, even though Fidel was alive and had just left to gather more support.
Tracing Fidel’s footsteps from the Gulf of Mexico to New York and back, he gathered 82 men in Mexico, including Che Guevara to return to Cuba and fight for the revolution. However, instead of immediately storming anyone, he created a camp where he trained many Cuban soldiers in the art of warfare and how to use weapons, which were bought in the United States. At this camp, he also established his idea of a perfect society. School was available to everyone for free, as was medicine and medical care. Many women were involved in the revolution, hiding guns and medicine in their skirts in order to support the cause. Those women are highlighted in the museum as well.
Eventually, Fidel struck and conquered the Orient first and his military tactics are documented. Also on display are Batista’s torture chamber and torture tools, such as eye gaugers, tongue cutters, fingernail rippers, and whips made of cow bones.
Fidel made good on his promise and turned the military barracks into a free school where uniforms are handed out for free. And medical care is also free to Cuban citizens.
Following the revolution is visiting the place where Fidel trained the soldiers and the Gran Piedra where he hid out after the failed revolution attempt. (I did not visit either.)
However, I did go see where Fidel was buried. Santa Ifigenia Cementary is where Fidel is buried, but all you have to say is Cemetario de Fidel and everyone knows what you’re talking about. Aside from Pearl Harbor, it is probably one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever been to. Fidel’s resting place is marked with a large stone with buckets of flowers in front. It is heavily guarded and there is a ceremony that takes place every day. Also are the graves of the fighters of the revolution. Where there is a July 26th flag next to a grave, it signifies the burial place of one of the original fighters of the revolution. You can see many other people who were buried here, including Emilio Bacardi, the founder of Bacardi rum. It was super interesting to see so many foreigners buried here from when Cuba used to be 70% foreign investment. The grounds are absolutely stunning and worth the trip in and of itself. It costs 1CUC to get there by bicitaxi.
Fabrica de Ron and Fabrica de Cerveza y Marta are where the first rum and beer factory in Cuba were started. Although they are still operating, the museums and tours were closed due to the hurricane that hit in 2016. But don’t be sad, right in front of the Malecon is a brewery named Cervezaria Puerto de Rey where they have two types of locally brewed beers for 1CUC.
The Malecon or seaside boulevard is also really nice at dusk; decorated with lights and a large CUBA sign for taking photos.
Along the Malecon is also a boat which leaves at 10AM and 3PM everyday and costs 40 Cuban Pesos or ~2CUC to board. This boat takes you on a 2-hour tour of the bay and even includes a small meal of fried fish and sausage (it looked nasty, I didn’t eat it). You’ll need to reserve 1 hour ahead of time, but Santiago is so hot, the breeze is worth the 2CUC. Even more, they sell beers on board, play salsa music the entire time, and you get to see the Spanish forts, Cuba’s oil refinery, little fishing villages, and what life is like outside of the city.
Within the center of Parque Cesped, or main center of town, is Museo de Emilio Bacardi. The museum holds the art pieces of Emilio Bacardi and a mummy in the basement. On the top floor is a library and the middle is a perfectly preserved dance hall and porcelain. It is free to enter and definitely worth 20 minutes of your time. There is also a free-guided tour if you ask for one. Unfortunately only the second floor was open during my trip due to the hurricane, but it was still worth it.
The building itself used to be a club for French and then a matrimonial hall, and then after the Revolution it was used as a museum. The porcelain comes from all over the world, and are marked with initials of the rich people who used the hall for wedding celebrations. After leaving the museum, I started to notice that on various gates and engraved on the sidewalks around the city were the same initials in the same style. It was then I realized these people, at one point, owned a lot of property in the area. So don’t forget to always look down!
You can also visit the Casa of Diego Velasquez. (I did not. It was always closed when I went.) It’s the oldest house in all of Cuba. Within Parque Cesped is also an art gallery called Galeria de Arte Oriente with original paintings for sale, some starting at only 6CUC! There are also many other historical buildings lining the park that are worth a visit if you have the time.
The nightlife was not active when we were there, however it was not a weekend. But the main club is Casa la Trova, which costs 5CUC to enter.
But the real treat of Santiago is this restaurant next to the church. You are 100% basic if you don’t visit Thomas Yadira Restaurant. It is the best creole seafood I’ve ever had in all of Cuba. I pretty much ate there everyday, they knew my name by the end of it. An entire plate of creole seafood paella including crab, shrimp, and lobster was only 6.50CUC for two people.
How to Get to Santiago de Cuba
There are six modes of transportation to Santiago:
- The easiest way is purchasing a direct flight.
- The second easiest is taking a direct flight from any major airport within Cuba. From Havana, the flights are around $99-150 each way. Terminal 1 is for domestic flights and it is recommended to show up two hours before any flight. Even though your flight may be 45 minutes to 2 hours, you should allow around 8 hours for delays and cancellations. (Yes, for real, although mine was exactly on time. Still, I gave myself an entire day for travel and didn’t book my domestic flights on the same day as I arrived.) The planes are major throwbacks.
- The third easiest is taking a Viazul bus for 51CUC each way. The travel time is more or less 17 hours.
- The third way to travel to Santiago de Cuba is to rent a car. Better to reserve ahead of time online. No guarantees on the condition of the car, nor the condition of the road you’re traveling. Ain’t no Triple A in Cuba.
- The final two modes are the true Cuban ways to travel: by train or by camion.
- The train is about 35CUC for foreigners and 35CUP for Cubans. I was strongly advised away from the train due to an infestation of roaches even though it was overnight. (I cannot confirm this, but I wasn’t about to try. Anyway the train station is closed until Summer 2018.)
- The camion is a truck that picks up at every city (you’ll probably need to speak a bit of Spanish to find out where the stops are) and will cost you 12CUC from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. The trip is about the same time as the bus except a lot more uncomfortable since you’ll be stuffed between cargo and other people.
Disclaimer: While I’m all about a local experience, I ain’t about that camion life. I could probably do it for 3 hours, not 17 hours, so I took a flight. I can’t speak on any of the other modes of transport, this is just what I found doing research on how to get there.
Arriving in Santiago de Cuba
Upon landing in Santiago de Cuba, while the taxi men will try to say $10, you should pay maximum $5 for a taxi. You can change your money at the bank in the center of Parque Cesped. I changed mine in Havana airport before leaving to Santiago de Cuba.
Life and Culture of Santiago de Cuba
Santiago used to be the capitol of Cuba before it was replaced by Havana. Let me just say this, SANTIAGO DE CUBA BEATS HAVANA BY A LONG SHOT. From history to hygiene, Santiago has it made.
Before coming, Santiago was described to me as run down, poor, and untrustworthy. Habaneros kept warning me, saying Santiago was so far from the capitol, they didn’t have any money so theft was prevalent. To my surprise, being greeted with clean streets, vibrant buildings, stunning French and Spanish architecture, all with an Afro-Cuban feel, was the best “let-down” ever.
Firstly, it is undeniable the similarity to Cap Haitian. Being so close to Haiti, (actually closer to Haiti than Havana), and being populated by Haitians after the Haitian revolution, I expected there to be some resemblance, but not an exact replica. The French Rococo style and balconied buildings painted in the signature greens, blues, yellows, and pinks, of the Caribbean, resembled those lining the streets in Haiti.
Secondly, while Santiago does have a long way to go in that there were decrepit houses made of wood with people living by lantern, and many homes had bars on their windows, I wouldn’t say it is any worse than what I’ve seen in Havana. At least here, the streets are paved with little to no trash comparatively to the falling buildings and wild animals running around Havana. The stores are bustling and full of produce and clothing, which is not common in other cities such as Vinales or even Havana where food shortages are often a problem.
Thirdly, what I did not expect was the yachts and resorts lining the bay from Jamaica. Nor the oil refinery, the constant application of new paint on the facades, and recent construction of homes by the government to replace those that were destroyed by the hurricane. I also did not expect the quiet whispering of men on the street, “hola, mami” as opposed to the invasive cat-calling of Havana.
So whoever said Santiago de Cuba was a horrible place had obviously never been to Santiago. It rivals Havana any day.
While I came to Santiago searching for a deeper experience in the Afro-Cuban culture, I did not get that experience. I am going to blame it on being accompanied by a White Cuban male. This was the first time I had seen how apparent colorism existed in Cuba. Consistently I heard Cubans refer to Santiago as “black and dark.” I was thoroughly confused because I didn’t actually even notice a color difference. Cubans everywhere are SO mixed and come in every color from their hair to their eyes to their skin, that Cubans just look Cuban to me, and I didn’t even stop to look around. But as I was hearing conversations on different parts of the island, the people of Santiago were associated with negative connotations like “criminals” “bad” “dangerous.” I didn’t experience that AT ALL. Quiet the opposite.
As I started to look around, I would describe the people as indio or mulatto more than I would Black, even though those are all shades of Black. But it is apparent that Afro-Cubans live a different life compared to those of their whiter counterparts. I found a deeper look at Cuban’s class system in this blog post. But basically, the only way to come out of poverty as a Cuban is if you have family abroad to send you money (rich Cubans who escaped the revolution were mostly White), or if you’re part an elite group of government officials, neither of which the Afro-Cuban population can really benefit from. This leaves Afro-Cubans largely marginalized and unrepresented in society by default. But I’m honestly no expert on the matter and it’s best to do your own research and hear the perspective from the mouth of an Afro-Cuban LIVING IN CUBA.
I think the best part of Santiago was that I saw about four foreigners as opposed to the invasion of basic bitches in Havana. Seriously, get me the fuck away from those people. In Santiago, the only tourists I saw were other Cubans who married foreigners and were just coming to visit with their families from Italy, Spain, etc.
Santiago is so packed with history and meaning, it has given me a newfound admiration for Fidel and the struggle for Cuba to be an independent and peaceful nation. Previously, I did not understand a lot of the laws put into place and thought them to be a bit oppressive. For example: Cuban women can be fined for walking next to a foreigner. I learned this was due to prostitution being so rampant during the time of Batista, that the Communism regime sought to protect women from selling their bodies. Another example: Only Cubans are allowed to own property and cannot participate in foreign investment. I learned this was due to Cuba being 70% owned by foreign investors who exploited not only the land but also the Cuban people. These things made me realize that these rules weren’t in place to oppress, but actually to protect them from what had happened before. I think it is really easy to forget the atrocities committed when you’re so far removed, hence the propaganda at every corner. These reminders allow people to never forget that these are all safe guards against Cuba fading back to the enslaved society it used to be.
Since the revolution, Cuba has been closed off to most of the world, leaving most of the information on the matter to be written from the perspective of rich White Cubans who escaped the revolution, or from foreigners who visited and were no longer welcome. We’ve only heard the perspective of those who have not benefited from the revolution, Santiago de Cuba is a chance to learn from those who did.
Before critiquing the revolution, think about which side you were on before invalidating the experiences of those who are flourishing in Cuba right now. Think about the propaganda being fed to us and the rest of the world since the JFK era to feed political agendas. Fidel did what no one else could: give Cuba back to its people. Before, it had just been repeatedly conquered by foreigners since the 1500s, and now Cuba is as free as it has ever been under Communism. While I believe that the current regime has to progress, Communism has allowed the largest island in the Caribbean to prosper independently in a way that no other island has been able to do, and it’s just a fact that we can’t deny. I’m not saying Communism works for everyone, but in this case, for these people, in this situation, and with this leader, it did.
And if you think Fidel is a monster, reflect on your current president and think about which politician who isn’t.
To really know Cuba, you must go to it’s birthplace. Santiago de Cuba is a must-see.
To read about more cities in The Orient such as Holguin, Gaurdalavaca, Gibara, and Baracoa click here.