Santiago de Cuba: The Birthplace of Rum, Revolution, and Rhythm

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the Square in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

Our second port of call in the Republic of Cuba is Santiago de Cuba, the original capital, on the southeasterly side of the island.  Cuba is part of the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean. Columbus’ trip to the new world took him to Cuba and Hispaniola (where we will make our final stop of the cruise). The city celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2015.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Sierra Maestra, Cuba from the rooftop restaurant in the Santa Barbara neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba where we had lunch.

Santiago de Cuba sits surrounded by the Sierra Maestra; the mountains trap the heat in the city making it the hottest place on the island. Santiago was the original home of Bacardi Rum. The company moved to Puerto Rico with the nationalization of businesses by Fidel Castro in his effort to move to a communist state. The people claim it is the sweet sugar cane, the temperature, and the mixing in the drums due to vibrations of the trains that make their rum the best. The old Bacardi factory sits right next to the train tracks and is now home to Santiago de Cuba Rum.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The old Bacardi Rum Factory in Santiago de Cuba.

By the most recent census, half a million people live in Santiago. However, if you add in the students and the people that work in Santiago, it is closer to one million. Education is free through university (like American high school). At eighteen, Cuban boys serve a year of mandatory military service. If they test well enough, after that year they go on to college. If not, they serve another year of mandatory service and make another try to get into college. Women serve for six months on a voluntary basis. After college, graduates serve two years of assigned community service.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Uniformed students returning from school in Havana, Cuba.

Younger students in Cuba wear uniforms distinguishing their level. The same colors are worn across the country. There are no private or parochial schools in Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pilgrims to El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, El Cobre, Cuba.

We will be visiting Santiago de Cuba for two days. Originally the cruise had only one day scheduled here, but after we booked they eliminated the Cayman Islands as a port of call and added an extra overnight in Havana and an extra day in Santiago. We had originally booked the Revolutionary Tour; that will be tomorrow since the new day is on the front end.  Today we have chosen a tour that takes us out of the city to visit the community of El Cobre . This translates to copper in English, the name drawn from the copper mines nearby.  Although they had been closed, the mines have recently reopened.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, El Cobre, Cuba

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The altar at El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, El Cobre, Cuba. Note the virgin in gold near the top.

El Cobre is best know for it’s domed Church, arguably the most important in Cuba, and as a pilgrimage site to visit the Yellow Virgin, also known as the Virgin of Copper. She is identified not only in the Roman Catholic faith, but also by the AfroCuban religion. Pope John Paul II visited and crowned the virgin here in 1998. In fact, all three of the last popes have visited Cuba, the most recent visit being Pope Francis in 2015.   Castro’s falling out with the church had resulted in Christmas no longer being recognized as a holiday.  That changed as a result of Pope John Paul II’s visit; after Pope Francis’ visit, Good Friday (preceding Easter) is once again recognized. We will see the Cathedral in Santiago de Cuba where Francis addressed the people later today.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Horse and cart was the most common transportation mode we saw around Santiago de Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the Square in El Cobre, Cuba.

After passing the monument dedicated to the revolution, we headed out of the city. I saw many more forms of transportation.   There are far more carts pulled by horses than cars in this part of Cuba. The field workers I saw out were using hand tools, no machinery in sight. Cattle pulled the plow in the fields. These were the only cattle I saw on the whole trip. Beef is very scarce in Cuba. It is almost unheard of in the people’s diet.  Our guide told us a man caught stealing a cow was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Facade of El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, El Cobre, Cuba

We also passed a crematorium. This is a new tradition in Cuba. All the graves I have seen so far have been above ground; the mausoleums have been new construction. The burial system lasts two years. The deceased is first buried in a coffin for two years; after two years, the coffin is dug up, then the body is cremated and buried in the wall of a mausoleum.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Roadside vendors sell religious items and flowers, mostly sunflowers, to the pilgrims to the black Madonna, the Virgen de la Caridad in El Cobre, Cuba.

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Photo @ Jean Janssen. The yellow virgin in the church at El Cobre, Cuba.

As we approached the city of El Cobre, we saw roadside booths selling religious items and flowers, mostly sunflower arrangements. The color yellow is associated with the black Madonna, the Virgen de la Caridad or Virgin of Charity.  “Her parallel figure in Afro-Cuban worship is Ochún, goddess of love and femininity, who is also dark-skinned and dressed in bright yellow garments. In 1998 the Pope visited and blessed the shrine, calling the Virgin ‘La Reina de los Cubanos’ (Queen of Cubans), and donated a rosary and crown.”  Many of the pilgrims we saw today wore yellow.   Most of the people who live in this area make money off of pilgrimage support.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, El Cobre, Cuba

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Natasha at El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre. As a sacred place, visitors must have their shoulders and knees covered. There are monitors at the gates to make sure visitors were reverently dressed.

The church, which was built in 1927 and whose full name is El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, is relatively new in terms of Catholic churches worldwide. There is a long series of stairs leading us to the front of the church, but a flat rear parking lot was built in connection with the Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. There were a lot of visitors of all ages. Many pilgrims had left gifts, including prosthetics and health aids; sunflowers were the most common gift. Hemingway’s Noble Prize for literature is kept in El Cobre and Boris requested a picture with it.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Visitors and pilgrims to church at El Cobre lit candles and gave offerings, note the physical aids on the back wall.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the Square in El Cobre, Cuba

After leaving the church, we traveled into the village of El Cobre, a modest city although larger than many other communities in the area. We stopped near the square waiting in our air-conditioned bus for the start of a musical performance. One of the guests noticed a transaction so our guide explained the rationing system. Families receive beans, rice, chicken, pasta or rice, 1 piece of bread a day, coffee, milk, and juice (for children) based on the number of people in the household. The government gives the rations in a system the people referred to as the “notebook”. You can buy other things like fruit or vegetables on the street from vendors.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. El Cobre, Havana

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Directing the Steel Band del Cobre, El Cobre, Cuba.

A Steel Drum Band that has been based in El Cobre for the past 30 years gave the musical performance. A group from Trinidad Tobago left the equipment. Their director has been with the band for 29 years. He has musical training and can read music; he has developed a system to teach for those who do not have the benefit of a formal education. There is no school for the members to learn the art of the steel drum. As the director said, “in Cuba we are the teachers”. It takes approximately one year to learn and the members learn to play multiple types of drums. This is the second generation of the group.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Steel Band del Cobre performing in El Cobre, Cuba. The Cuban flag and province flag hangs behind them.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Community Center in El Cobre, Cuba.

The group was amazing. They took time to greet us through a translator and also to answer our questions. They played Cuban favorites and recognizable songs. I think Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean surprised me the most. I bought my second CD of the cruise. Outside a large group of locals had gathered to enjoy the music. Most of the members had to have other jobs, but as their popularity and fame has grown they are now able to devote time to the band full time. They have performed for Popes and at Carnivale. The community center at El Cobre where they play proudly displays their name on the outside.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen View from the Square in El Cobre, Cuba

On the way back into town, the guide told us the origin of the famous song Guantanamera.  The songwriter fell in love with a female farmer hero from the Guantanamo province, the adapted term in its feminine version and the province from which she came giving the song its name.  “Guantanamera – meaning ‘girl from Guantánamo’ – is a Cuban song, which has been successfully performed by numerous singers over the years.  The music is attributed to José Fernández Díaz.  And, the official lyrics are based on the first poem of Versos Sencillos – “Simple Verses” – written by Cuban poet José Martí and adapted by Julián Orbón.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. We had lunch at a restaurant in the Santiago de Cuba residential neighborhood of Santa Barbara. The restaurant was on the rooftop terrance of the family’s home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our main course was served in this cool container at the 5 Cero 2 Restaurant in Santiago de Cuba.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Lunchtime entertainment in Santiago de Cuba.

Back in town we made a stop at San Juan Hill for pictures and then went to lunch. I will share more about San Juan Hill when we visit with our revolutionary tour tomorrow. Lunch was in the Santa Barbara District and I thought of my aunt and godmother, Aunt Barbara. We were in a residential neighborhood and the family had converted their rooftop terrace to a restaurant. There were wonderful views and breezes as we enjoyed a rustic family style lunch. A violinist and guitarist played for us as we ate far more than a typical Cuban family would enjoy. First there was a lovely salad; the second course was rice and beans with pork, chicken, shrimp, and fish. The main course came in a unique container. I had a Cuban cola while Boris had a Cuban beer. The dessert was flan.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris’ beer can in Santiago de Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Santiago de Cuba Cathedral, formally known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption.

The final stop on the tour was the city’s main square dominated by the lovely raised Cathedral, its balcony where Pope Francis addressed the people in 2015.  On the façade was a statute of, as our guide put it, “Cuba’s first tourist” Christopher Columbus. Unfortunately, the doors were closed and the church was not open to visitors during the afternoon hours.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Statute of Christopher Columbus (according to our guide, “Cuba’s first tourist”) on the facade of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba.

I want to preface some of my comments for my international readers.   The relationship between Cuba and the United States during my lifetime has not been an easy one to put it mildly. The difference in ideology between democracy, which I support, and communism will undoubtedly affect my view on things I hear and see and consequently my comments.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the church at El Cobre, Cuba

I noted the attitude toward religion of our guide and of other people in Cuba who had grown up under communism. She referred to the El Cobre Cathedral as a peaceful place but not a spiritual one. She downplayed the Roman Catholic faith and played up the “virgin goddess” history. On the square, she referred to the Cathedral in harsh terms not as a church or place of worship, but as an example of oppression. In her mind, it was “a symbol of how the Spanish tried to impose their religion on the people.”  A student of history knows that all conquering people throughout history have done this; it still happens today.  Her attitude is typical of those that grow up in a communist state where religion and devotion to anything other than the state is squashed.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Just off the square in Santiago de Cuba.

I wandered around taking pictures. Boris was off shopping. I asked him to get me some Santiago de Cuba rum so I could do a taste test with Bacardi. There were beggars on the square and there was little shade, but for the most part it was a pleasant place to sit and watch life happen.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the square in Santiago de Cuba is the city’s oldest building, the residence of Diego Velazquez de Cuellar.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The French Fencing Club on the Square in Santiago de Cuba.

In addition to the Cathedral, Diego Velazquez de Cueller’s home, the city’s oldest building (and some say the oldest in Latin America), is also on the square. Velazquez’s secretary was Hernan Cortes who later overthrew the Aztec Empire.  It was from this home that the invasion of Mexico was planned. Also on the square was the French fencing club, used mostly for social events. French coffee plantation owners had fled Haiti with their African slaves.  The influence of both these groups is found in Santiago.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The city hall of Santiago de Cuba. Fidel Castro addressed the people from the balcony of this building upon the success of his revolution.

Across the square facing the Cathedral was the town hall. The balcony of this Spanish-style building is where Castro first addressed the people after the success of his revolution. Santiago de Cuba has the distinction of being named the “Hero City of the Republic” by Fidel Castro. In fact Castro’s burial place is in the cemetery here.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hotel Casa Granda on the Square in Santiago de Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. By the Hotel Casa Granda on the Square in Santiago de Cuba.

The Bank of Cuba is also on the square; it used to be the bank of the United States. In contrast to and directly across from the unattractive bank was a lovely building, the Hotel Casa Granda, named for Granda family who once lived there. The large white building with shutters on its windows featured a long veranda on the main level where people were enjoying the bar and escape from the sun. There is also a rooftop terrace bar in the hotel. There was great people-watching from the square, although I suspect many had searched for a shadier spot.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A capella performers at our Azamazing Evening in Santiago de Cuba

After a bus ride back to the pier, we did a little shopping with the local crafts vendors and re-boarded the ship. Tonight is our Azamazing Evening. On most cruises with a late night or overnight in port, Azamara Club Cruises hosts a cultural evening off the ship. The logistics of moving all these people can be a problem. The staff captain told us it was also a challenge to find an air-conditioned venue in Cuba for 650 people.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dance company performers at our Azamazing Evening in Santiago de Cuba

We are fortunate that our cabin is on the top level so we are among the first off the ship. We did a “guarantee cabin” that meant we paid the price of the cheapest balcony cabin, but could be assigned a cabin with a balcony anywhere on the ship. We were lucky.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The seasoned performers at our Azamazing Evening in Santiago de Cuba

Once we reached the venue that we had passed by earlier in the day, we enjoyed a mojito in the covered carport while listening to the vocals of an a capella quartet. Once inside we were able to snag seats in the center on the 4th row.  Wonderful. The show featured a local a capella singing group, a dance group dedicated to the preservation of the African traditions in Cuba, and two bands. It was a great evening. My favorite was a large group of older local couples that performed a traditional dance in an unorganized fashion. So glad they were included.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Musical performers at our Azamazing Evening in Santiago de Cuba.

Some people who had visited the Tropicana thought it would be much the same and a letdown after that very polished show. This was a completely different experience and I am so glad we didn’t miss it. You could never call it polished; some of the individuals just came out and danced for us without any specific choreography, but I enjoyed the show. It really gave us a flavor of the local culture and the importance of dance and music to the people of Santiago de Cuba.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sunset in Santiago de Cuba

We will overnight here and head out again on another tour in the morning. We will be celebrating Palm Sunday in Santiago de Cuba.

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Natasha and Boris at lunch in Santiago de Cuba.

About travelbynatasha

I am a retired attorney who loves to travel. Several years ago I began working on a Century Club membership achieved by traveling to 100 "foreign" countries. Today, at 49 years of age the count is at 82. Many were visited on land based trips. Some were cruise ports. Some were dive sites. Most have been fascinating.
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