Sailing from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for Cuba, our first port of call was Santiago de Cuba (map), the provincial capital for a province by the same name. The city is second to Havana in size and stature. It is protected by a deep bay on the easternmost coast of Cuba. The Sierra Maestra range rising in the distance reminds us that this is a wild and untamed region. The province has sheltered rebels and revolutionaries throughout Cuban history. It is also the heart and soul of Cuban-African culture, originating many important traditions and rhythms.
The sun was only thinking about getting up for the day as we approached the shoreline. One loud warning blast from the captain, then another, was enough to shake my sleepies out as I peered over the edge of the bow directly below the bridge. Small fishing boats working close to shore seemed unconcerned by the behemoth bearing down.
We sailed slowly inland past the point, Castillo del Morro imposing even in the dim light of dawn. Several more fishermen were anchored along the increasingly narrow channel, tiny wooden boats dwarfed by our vessel. Conversations in Spanish carried clearly across still water; roosters crowed and a dog or two joined the chorus. A few locals emerged from humble homes clinging precariously to the hillside as we passed. A small, skinny boy in a bright red shirt played alone on an abandoned pier, hopping from one pillar to the next as I held my breath.
We disembarked to a modest port: a long walk across the blacktop to enter a simple, small metal customs building. There was no welcome wagon, i.e. no locals in song or dance as we often experience in port. Nonetheless, it was exciting to be on the ground in Cuba!
Three or four Cuban agents were waiting to examine our documents. They were friendly enough as we surrendered U.S. passport and Cuban visa. I don’t know if any spoke English but we managed okay. The agent stamped my visa in bright pink ink and retained half of it. Upon request, he also stamped my passport. This is a new day for U.S. citizens! Before restored diplomatic relationships under President Obama, most U.S. travelers would avoid a passport stamp. I was proud to do otherwise if also slightly nervous about the questions it might raise clearing U.S. customs and immigration on the return. (Irrational, I hope. I clear customs a lot.) There was one small walk-through scan and one small conveyer scan and not much fuss about either. Huh.
Most of the 200 or so U.S. travelers sailing on Celestyal Cruises were in organized groups traveling together. The Hubs and I were placed on the ‘independents’ bus with about 30 others like us. Normally we avoid bus tours when traveling but we understood the conditions of this program and determined not to complain. The tours were generally good; just a bit much crammed into the day and more quality time with our new best friends than we preferred. By the end of the trip we were ready to be done with the group and the bus — and the infamous national heroes!
In Santiago de Cuba, our itinerary included a city tour with multiple points of interest: Castillo El Morro (17th century fort, era of pirates and imperialism); Moncado Barracks (site of Fidel’s failed July 26 Movement and origin of the Revolution), Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Center (traditional dance, religion and art), the Patio of the Artisans and Conga Gallery (contemporary Cuban art).
We drove past Revolution Square and I wondered if every Cuban city has one of these? By the time we got to San Juan Hill (site of the only land battle of the Spanish-American war and where Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders to victory), I was fried from the sun and information overload. It may not surprise you to learn that Cubans have another name for this conflict but I was puzzled by consistent qualifiers of Roosevelt’s supposed victory. Our final stop was for a taste of famed Santiago de Cuba rum while a band played and a cigar maker demonstrated his art. It was quite chaotic; I was glad to call it a day!
Throughout the day, as the bus made its way around the city, we caught glimpses of Cuban life. I don’t know what I expected but it seemed so very normal for a Saturday. We saw a few old cars and a few horses with carts — both, as we would learn, part of every day transportation across the country. We saw many humble homes and a few grand estates, the latter nationalized to become property of the people. When the Bacardi family fled they abandoned property but took their trademark so Bacardi rum can no longer be produced in Cuba. Their grand home is now an educational enrichment center, replete with small military craft for children to play on.
We saw families out and about everywhere we went. We drove past the Hatuey beer manufacturing plant, a busy bus and train station, and an old amusement park in poor repair. This was the first of several worn and tired outdoor recreational facilities we were to see in our travels. In each case, the local guide extolled the state for providing such wonders for the people.
We also noted a consistent police presence in uniformed officers at regular intervals. None were overtly militaristic or even slightly threatening. If they were carrying weapons, they were discrete. I must admit the nonchalant effect was a surprise!
How to sum up a day in Santiago de Cuba? The museum at Moncado Barracks was fascinating. The cultural center and traditional dance performance truly enlightening. The rum was tasty and very smooth! Glimpses of Cuban life were helpful to level set my assumptions about life in a communist country. But the very best moment of the day occurred early, at el Morro.
Sister sun was wide awake and beaming steadily as we walked the incline, crossed the moat, and entered the cool interior. In the midst of the tour of historical artifacts, an angelic sound rose from below, seeping through the cracks between the wide floor boards to fill the chambers above. We descended the stairs to discover a female quartet, a capella in the chapel. We listened awhile, mesmerized. Just as I began to examine their CD for sale, the Vocal Vidas broke into one of our favorite songs, a multilingual rendition of “Michelle, My Belle.” Sold!
A few hours after we departed Santiago de Cuba, we sailed past Guantanemo Bay. It was cloudy, the view obscured. Both the U.S. presence on Cuban soil in Guantanemo and hardships imposed by the U.S. Embargo are significant sore spots for Cubans. Who can blame them?
~ René Morley
Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba