Santiago de Cuba

On the far southeastern edge of Cuba's main island, the country's second-largest city of Santiago de Cuba is a dazzling and culturally rich destination that enjoys a privileged seaside location. The eponymous province in which Santiago de Cuba is found borders the Guantanamo Province to the east, and the Holguin Province to the north. A rich Afro-Cuban feel defines this vibrant city, which has produced some of the country's most notable musicians. No other city in Cuba can rival Santiago de Cuba when it comes to importance, save Havana, and if you are coming to Cuba during the Cuban Carnival celebrations, you might choose to head here without question.

The year 1514 would see the Spanish founding of Santiago de Cuba, and for a significant part of the 1500s, it would serve as the Spanish colonial capital in Cuba. Famed Spanish Conquistador, Diego Velázquez, built a mansion in the city's historic district that still stands today. In the late 1700's, the island of Hispaniola was experiencing a revolution on the Haitian side, and when plantation owners fled for Cuba, they brought their slaves with them. The plantations found in and around Santiago de Cuba accepted these new workers and were also responsible for ensuing slave arrivals.

In 1898, the Spanish would lose their hold of Cuba, their main defeat coming just east of Santiago de Cuba at San Juan Hill. National hero and prized poet, José Martí, who headed the movement for independence from Spain, is buried at the city's Cementerio Santa Efigenia. He was killed in 1895 by Spanish troops while in battle. Born in Santiago de Cuba was a revolutionary hero by the name of Frank País. One of the most significant dates in Cuban history also saw the city as the setting. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro announced that the Cuban Revolution had proved victorious. He did this from the balcony of town hall.

Those planning a Santiago de Cuba vacation will have some pretty great attractions awaiting their arrival. One of the more notable, is the impressive Castillo del Morro citadel, which overlooks the bay some 5 miles to the south of the city. Designed in 1637, it was intended to keep pirates at bay. In 1997, UNESCO designated the Castillo del Morro a World Heritage Site, and thanks to restoration efforts in the 1960s, it survives as one of the best-preserved Spanish-American military structures. If you take one Santiago de Cuba tour, it might have to be here.

For those who like to drop in on museums while on vacation, the Museo Emilio Bacardí Moreau is a worthy attraction, and yes, it was founded by the same man who is responsible for the Bacardí rum empire. About 10 miles outside of Santiago de Cuba, the Basilica del Cobre is a wonderful choice for a Santiago de Cuba tour. It's the country's most famous church, and you can easily get there by bus, taxi or rental car. Nature-lovers will want to make the Gran Piedra the focus of a Santiago de Cuba tour. It is also found just outside of town, and is great for hiking.

To help you plan the ideal Santiago de Cuba tour, you can find a good amount of tour agencies who have representatives both at the airport and at some of the city's hotels. International flights bring in most foreign visitors, a good amount of which are charter flights. So if you if you are flying in, you might take a second to chat with a tour representative, especially if you are short on time and want to get your plans in order. It's about a 15-hour bus trip from Havana, and you can always book a pretty affordable flight between the two cities if you want to limit ground travel. For those with time to spare and a penchant for adventure, a train might be your transportation choice if you are heading from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

Should you choose to drive, most of the route will be along the wide A1 Autopista Nacional. While Santiago de Cuba doesn't boast a ton of hotels, it does have choices to fit different budgets. The Hotel Casa Granda, which is found in the historic district, is a top choice for Santiago de Cuba hotels. The large rooms and ample amenities help to make it a preferred lodging choice, and its terrace bar and rooftop garden are enough alone to make most guests happy.

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