Authentic Travel on the Cheap in Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba. Ironically, however, it is much less visited than many much smaller cities on the island. This is likely due to Cuba’s poor infrastructure and Santiago’s geographic location. Santiago de Cuba is located at the far eastern side of the island, and most travelers stay within the Western half. Cuba is incredible in that each region’s people are often very removed from the rest of their country, giving each city it’s own diverse culture. More often than not, each city that I visited felt like it could have been located in a completely separate country from the last one. Never was this more true than in Santiago. The major difference in culture in Santiago is due to its strong African roots. This is evident in the music, the dance, the clothing and the food. When you hear the term “Afro-Cuban,” there’s a good chance that whatever it describes is coming from Santiago. The most welcome of the many changes that these African influences brought about for me was probably the food. In many places that I visited, Cuban food was a mediocre piece of chicken or pork on top of a pile of rice. But in Santiago, the rice was cooked in garlic sauces, tomato sauces and many different delicious combinations of herbs and spices. The chicken and pork were cooked with more care, and also accompanied with delicious sauce. And french fries are pretty common too. The ‘murican in me can’t help but find a lot of enjoyment in a good plate of french fries every few weeks out of the country. The African influences found everywhere else brought about some exciting and fascinating changes too!
Cuba is blessed with the charm of not being over-trodden by tourism. Of course, I should not say blessed, as the Cuban economy relies on tourism and needs more of it. The Eastern half of the country is barely trodden by travelers at all. Indeed in Santiago, even with Carnaval (the peak tourism weeks) just a few days away, I always stuck out like a sore (pale) thumb. Not looking like a Spanish speaker while speaking fluent Spanish is a golden ticket to experiencing a Spanish-speaking country authentically. There’s no getting around the fact that you’ll have a more authentic experience in a country if you speak the language. The ability to have conversations with locals is immeasurable. Still, if you do not speak Spanish, authenticity will often fall into your lap in Santiago. My best advice here, as with just about anywhere else where authenticity is the goal, is to have no plan! I know it’s scary, and maybe you’ll miss out on seeing where Fidel Castro’s ashes are buried (as I did). However, you’ll likely come out with a much cooler experience. It might not make as nice of a photo, but having a real experience (and a good story) is much more fulfilling than that!
So with my couple of days in Santiago, I ditched the guidebook and left my casa (homestay) with a map, a camera and some money. I first visited the picturesque malécon (oceanfront) where I got advice for where to visit from the locals. I stumbled upon El jardín de las enramadas, a lush garden serving great ice cream for mere pennies. I walked right into the carnaval parade grounds, where I got lucky enough to see the carnaval kickoff parade by wrestling through a vicious crowd of Cuba’s version of dance moms. I ate like a king for super cheap by visiting every “fonda” that I could find. I discovered a new genre of Cuban music and street food. I quickly found that the cheapest way to get around the city was to wave down motorcycle drivers and hop on the back. I played soccer in the street with some young Santiagueros. I watched dance practice for the week’s main carnaval festivities. The pinnacle of my time came when I was invited to practice in an abandoned school with a group of Afro-Cuban musicians after mentioning to them that I used to play the drums (Many stories including this one about amazing Cuban people to come under the ‘portraits’ tab!).
Getting from Santiago to Havana, here’s some advice: don’t take the camión! As the last stop on my 23-day Cuba tour, I thought Santiago would be my last adventure, but it turned out that the most trying adventure was yet to come. I entrusted a young Santiaguero named Argelio to organize a colectivo ride for me back to Havana. Unfortunately for me, I met the wrong guy. These rides are really common. You sacrifice a little bit of comfort for a cheaper and much faster ride. Knowing that it could take me up to 14 hours to get from Santiago to Havana, a faster ride sounded amazing. Anyways, good old Argelio claimed that his driver stayed out drinking too late the night before and couldn’t drive to Havana that day. Instead, Argelio offered me a ride on the camión, a semi-truck with the trailer converted into a moving sauna. Well, I wanted authenticity on the rest of the trip, so why should it stop now? Argelio promised me a comfortable ride, told me to look him up on Facebook and then ripped me off. I responded with my most colorful Cuban terminology, but had to get to the airport so was left without much choice other than to pay him and give him a one-finger salute. I boarded the camión as of course the only non-Latino/a and was met with a sea of stares that all said “oh that poor bastard.” After 14 miserable hours of reggaeton music videos on repeat, one small meal, no water and a loss of a very significant amount of weight in sweat, I was in Havana. Admittedly, it was one of those experiences where everyone suffers together and thus, gets a little closer. I did have some nice conversations with Cubans, and it was an appropriate send-off for a very authentic trip. Still, I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone (except of course, Argelio) and I certainly would not do it again. Now it was time for a taxi to the Havana airport where I would sleep on the floor before my flight to Mexico City.
One final bit of advice
So when visiting Santiago, or anywhere else for that matter, the choice is yours. Will you hit the “must-see” spots in your guidebook for some nice photos? Or will you dare to step into the unknown and let the authenticity come your way? Either way, you’ll have an amazing time, just make sure to write down your stories so as not to forget all those words that your photos couldn’t capture!