Our last four nights of the trip (discounting the official last night in Havana) were spent between the first two cities founded in Cuba: Baracoa and Santiago. Baracoa is a cute, laid back “beach” town that you can walk around in about half an hour. The people are friendly, the food is cheap, and the souvenirs are unique. An included trip to the Toa River, where we learned about cacao processing, coconut oil processing and how cucuruchus are made, is what made the visit to Baracoa truly worthwhile, providing a glimpse into the lives of campesinos outside the tourist path. To celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary we enjoyed an incredible dinner of swordfish, shark, shrimp, octopus and other tasty delicacies in the one restaurant open in Baracoa. Live music and cheap cigars closed out the night.
Santiago, however, had an incredibly different vibe than Baracoa, and our visit there bookended our time in Baracoa. The city is big and – for me – difficult to navigate, with parks spread across the city but seemingly nothing to join them together to create a nice walk for someone. Then again, I only had 2 days there so I could be very very wrong.
On our way into the city we first stopped at a cathedral to visit the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre, also known as “Cachita”, the Patron Saint of Cuba. There were rooms filled with clothing, photos, war medals and notes that people have left over the decades, both asking the virgin for something and leaving a token of their promise, or those who have had their request fulfilled and leave a thank you gift. The upstairs altar around the actual statue of the virgin (supposedly found in the 1700s floating in the water by some local fisherman, with a note on her saying “I am the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre”) was filled with white and yellow flowers, but otherwise relatively unadorned and simple. I stayed for a few minutes and let my group take their time, before we all headed back to the bus and continued on our journey.
After a quick hotel lunch (ham and cheese or cheese and ham? Hmmm) the majority of us got back on the bus for a brief city tour, where we drove past the Moncada Barracks (I went back later – keep reading), out to El Morro fort, to the city center where we took a walk from the main plaza to a smaller, shadier park a few blocks down, before going home. The trip gave a nice overview of Santiago and was a nice way to pass the afternoon – especially since it was so hot outside!
Upon returning to Santiago, we had a free afternoon to explore more than we did our first time there, and most of us headed – individually – to the Moncada Barracks. Now a school, the bright yellow building was a prison about a hundred years ago. After a fire destroyed the building in the early 1900s, it was fully rebuilt and used as a jail (still) and military barracks. The first real revolutionary activity seen in Cuba and related to Fidel Castro was on July 26, 1953, when he led a group of men on a very secret mission to attack Batista’s army at the Moncada Barracks. Because of the amount of secrecy around the plan, people were unprepared, many of them not even knowing their way around the city. The attack was considered to be a failure, with casualties on both sides, but in the course of history (as it always works) and since the Revolution did indeed triumph, this attack is touted as an important event, marking the course of the path yet to come. It’s also after this attack that Castro made his (in)famous “History will absolve me” speech and forever entering him into the history books as a fearless revolutionary.