March 5, 2017
After returning from the Sierra Maestra our trusty bus met us at Bartolomeo Masó, and we headed towards Santiago de Cuba, where we would spend the next two nights. The trip took almost three hours and took us along some bumpy highways at first.
Our hotel in Santiago de Cuba was not in the city centre but on the outskirts, near the zoo. It was the Hotel San Juan, so called because it was on San Juan Hill. This hill is all that anybody remembers about the Spanish-Cuban-American War. We did some laundry and then it was time to go out for dinner.
José had made us a reservation at Salón Tropical, a paladar near the centre of the town with a very good reputation. When we arrived there we were shown to a rooftop patio where a table was set for us. First course was a delicious beef vegetable soup which was so full of veggies that it was like a stew. This was followed by a salad composed of cooked green beans, beetroot, cabbage, and tomatoes. For the main course we both chose sea bass, which was accompanied by sweet potatoes, a mashed potato and vegetable roll, and of course rice and beans. This was artistically presented on a black square plate.
And dessert was amazing! A strawberry mousse layered over a kiwi mousse over sponge cake, topped by raspberry puree. So tasty and, once again, so beautifully prepared. It was probably the best meal we’ll have on this trip.
March 6, 2016
José had warned us that we might hear the zoo’s lions roaring, and indeed we did hear them roaring at 6:15 am. However we didn’t have an early start today, so we slept in until after 7:30 am.
The breakfast buffet was similar to the one we had in Havana, so there was something for everyone. Our bus picked us up at 9 am, and we went over to the Plaza de la Revolución. This square is mostly dedicated to Antonio Maceo, with just a tip of the hat to Fidel Castro; the huge statue of Maceo on his horse is quite imposing but the paved area where people would stand and listen to speeches is smaller than Havana’s. (His horse had two hooves in the air, which by now we had learned meant that Maceo died in battle.)
We had a short time to wander around here before we headed off to the Moncada Barracks. It was here that Fidel Castro and 118 other revolutionaries unsuccessfully tried to attack the Batista government. There wasn’t much to see here except the bullet holes, since all the barracks in Cuba were turned into schools as ordered by Fidel. Across the street was a row of Art Deco houses which were in very good shape.
Back on the bus, our third stop was the Cementario Santa Ifigenia, where a vast number of Cuba’s heroes are buried. The central focus is José Martí’s tomb, but now Fidel Castro’s tomb has been incorporated. We had a local guide, José, to show us around. First we went to Fidel’s grave; he was cremated and his ashes were interred with a very large granite rock as his tombstone.
There is an honour guard posted 24 hours per day (three for Martí and one for Castro) and we watched the changing of the guard. With military music playing the soldiers goose-step out; the maximum height for the soldiers is 175 cm so that they will be able to get into the entrance of Martí’s tomb.
After this the local José led us on a tour of some of the other notable graves. He was very knowledgeable, not only about the cemetery but also about Cuban history. We noticed that this cemetery was more formal than other cemeteries we had visited in Latin America.
Finally—a busy morning!—our José led us along a shopping street from the Plaza de Marte to the city centre, showing us various small cottage-industry style shops, although the Cubans still don’t seem to be into shopping and there wasn’t anything for tourists to buy. We ended up at Parque Céspedes and were directed towards some places for lunch.
We decided on the Hotel Casa Granda, which was right next to the park, but it was very busy. So we ended up asking permission to join a lady at her table. It turned out that she was from Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and she was involved with the International Documentary Film Festival which was taking place this week. She wasn’t a film producer, though; she was giving one of the lectures. She must have had a lunch voucher from the festival because she was shocked at the amount of food being delivered to her!
We had a while before the bus came for us, so Ruth and the two of us went for a walk, following part of the walking tour from our Lonely Planet book. As in Trinidad it took us through a rather impoverished part of the city. We went down quite steeply through the Tivoli neighbourhood, ending up at the harbour, where there was a small park. Unfortunately there were children begging there. But we didn’t have much time, so we had to walk back up to Parque Céspedes fairly quickly.
Back at the hotel we wrote up our journals for a while, and then went for a walk over to San Juan Hill, which we could see from our front door. This hill was the last battle in the Spanish-Cuban-American War, and since Cuba was Spain’s last remaining colony in the Americas, Spain had to take its ships and go home. Up on the hill there were plaques of various ages, each commemorating a different group of people, but this war seems to be only history now to the Cubans, having been overshadowed by Castro’s revolution.
At 5 pm we took the bus out to the Castillo del Morro, a fortress outside the entrance to Santiago’s port, to watch the sunset ceremony. The fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site and sits atop a 60-meter-high promontory, and the views were lovely overlooking the Caribbean on one side and Santiago Bay on the other.
Not long after we arrived, the ceremony began. Six men came marching in, dressed in the white uniform of the Mambises, the Cuban peasant militia. Two of the men split off and came up to take down the flag, while the other four primed and loaded the cannon, all with military precision. This was quite a production, and when they finally lit the fuse it seemed to burn for a very long time. So when it suddenly went off with a bang, we all jumped!
Dinner was in a paladar named Ire a Santiago (whose name might come from a poem by Federico García Lorca). The view from the rooftop was really nice and, unlike last night, it was more protected from the wind. The dinner was okay, better than a lot of dinners we had had, but unfortunately it suffered in comparison with last night’s dinner. But the musicians, a guitar player and two singers, were good.