I had high hopes for Santiago. It is Cuba’s second largest city, is the birthplace of Bacardi rum, and it is famous for its cultural contributions to music and dance (Buena Vista Social Club, anyone?). While I was able to visit a nearby UNESCO site (San Pedro de la Roca) which was gorgeous to see, I would like to suggest that if you do visit Santiago, that you avoid doing so around Christmas, because there isn’t a whole lot else going on.
I made my first mistake by scheduling my visit to this city during Christmas week. I think Santiago is more traditional than Havana because many places were closed and other than tourists on the streets, it was a little dead. I should have stayed in Havana or another more tourist friendly place for Christmas.
My second mistake was getting there. I was in Vinales (clear on the other side of the country!) and I was unable to book a flight from nearby Havana even though I was searching three weeks in advance. I even looked for flights again once I arrived in Havana with no luck. So I had to take a bus ALL the way across the country with an unwanted overnight in Trinidad.
While the buses are fine in Cuba, for a trip of that distance I recommend flying if at all possible. Just be sure to book a couple of months in advance if you are traveling in December.
Like I said, many places were closed so the highlight of my stay was going to San Pedro de la Roca. Many people book private taxis or tours to get them there which is at least 20CUC. I paid 3CUC (round trip) by taking the public ferry and walking up from the ferry to the beach and then paying another 3CUC (I shared with a Canadian guy who paid 3CUC too) to take a taxi to the entrance of La Roca. I was able to easily walk down a shaded path and back to the ferry terminal. Nobody (not even my casa owner) seemed to be aware of this option so be sure to insist because it was super easy and saved me a lot of money!
Be sure to hit up Restaurante Sabor Cubano on your walk back to the center from the ferry terminal. I had a wonderful lobster dinner there for 15CUC including salad, rice, and plantain chips. There was also a woman singing classic Cuban music accompanied by a man on guitar while I was there. Not dance music, but perfect after a long day of hiking all over the city and exploring La Roca.
On Christmas Day I was able to go to the Emilio Bacardi Museum. No, it is not a rum museum, but instead, it has art, artifacts, and even a couple of mummies! Most of the displays are in Spanish, but I think you can get the general idea without a Spanish background. It is a mediocre museum, but it is interesting to read more about the history of the island and one of Santiago’s most famous patrons.
I had high hopes of dancing a ton while I was in Santiago and this simply did not happen. I asked around for private lessons and even had my casa owner call some people and go knock on some doors of people who taught, but everyone was closed for the Christmas holidays (24, 25, 26th of Dec). I found a guy on the street who was offering lessons but I only took an hour of class with him because I could tell that he was just a social dancer and only knew the basics.
At least I got to walk all over the city.
I went to the Casa de la Trova in the evening one night. The live band played mostly Son music with a couple of salsa songs thrown in. The cover charge was 5CUC for the evening show. There were mostly white tourists sitting at the large tables blocking what could be a good dance floor. There was hardly anybody dancing and I felt kind of cramped dancing in the small space between the tables. They had a dance performance for a couple of songs, but it was only one couple performing and it was a pretty average performance. I’ve heard that Casa de Las Tradiciones and La Claqueta Bar are better for dancing with non-tourists, but when I walked by them they didn’t have many people there (probably due to the holidays).
One thing that I definitely did right was book a room on AirBnB (get $20 towards your first night with my link). (Casa Mirador Catedral is the one I stayed at) right next to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption right on the edge of Parque Cespedes. It was wonderful having breakfast with a view of the cathedral and watching the sun set behind the cathedral in the evening. Also, the host, Julian, was wonderful. He sent a taxi to pick me up from the bus terminal and then one to bring me to the bus terminal in the early morning. While breakfast was an additional 5CUC every day, it was enormous and I could never come close to finishing it all.