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Santiago de Cuba: nature, history & culture galore!

By Giselle Rodríguez
  Santiago de Cuba, between the Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Maestra mountain range, is the capital of the Santiago de Cuba Province, the eastern region of the island, famous for landscapes of breathtaking beauty and variety. Here reside Cuba's three highest peaks: Pico Real del Turquino at 1,974 m, Pico Cuba: 1,872 m and Pico Suecia: 1,734 m above sea level. You literally touch the clouds in the sky, an opportunity to observe rivers, forests, mountains and valleys below that surround the region with great diversity of flora and fauna. I recommend a camera to take pictures of flowers and animals. Bird-watching is also a popular activity.
     The Sierra Maestra is where decisive moments during the Cuban Revolution took place. Explorers will find the Comandancia de la Plata, the First Front of the Rebel Army, a place with historical value.
     If traveling with family, Baconao Park is an excellent choice in your itinerary. Located in the Sierra Maestra, the Baconao Park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere Reserve List in 1987, including three well defined bio-geographic zones: the "Meseta de Santiago," the "Sierra de la Gran Piedra" and the "Meseta Santa Maria de Loreto." It incorporates beaches, mountains, lakes, forests and ruins of French coffee plantations. Visitors appreciate a great biodiversity in flora and fauna, a wonderful experience for nature lovers.
     There is an International Diving Center and the Land Transport Museum, which exhibits over 2,000 miniature vehicles along with an exposition of vintage cars. Also, one can enjoy a visit to the Aquarium where dolphins and seals please both children and adults, exhibiting their remarkable aquatic abilities.
     One of the main attractions, La Gran Piedra (The Great Stone), is a majestic, magnificent rock formation. This enormous rock of volcanic origin is on the top of a mountain 1,125 meters high. On clear nights, the lights of Jamaica can be seen from here. It's also considered one of the largest rocks in the world.
     Children? Take them to the Prehistory Valley, an amazing collection of reproductions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals made of stone in almost their natural size. These fantastic creatures are strewn about on a wide valley surrounded by mountains, in the same places where the legendary animals once lived. This valley is a great venue for photography. Kids will love it!
     Santiago de Cuba is an artistic and cultural centre of great prominence. Visitors have the chance to enjoy historical tours in the midst of marvelous natural landscapes. Characterized by a solid historical background and cultural traditions, this city offers a wonderful display of historic sites such as the Cathedral, Cuba's first (1522) and the Casagranda Hotel, found in the city centre by the Céspedes Park.
     Santiago de Cuba is the home of Cuba's oldest palaces and museums, including the Casa de Diego Velázquez also located in the Céspedes Park area. This zone continues to be a large part of the city's social life and it is known as Céspedes Park in honor of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a national hero, the Founding Father of the Homeland.
     Another significant building in the heart of the city is the Nuestra Señora de Asunción Cathedral. The Tour of the Revolution Square is recommended, best explored by foot, on your own or with one of the many guided tours available. Santiago de Cuba has numerous museums and art galleries. One of the most popular museums is the Cuartel Moncada, the yellow barracks whose exterior is marked with carefully re-opened bullet holes, reminders of the July day in 1953 when Fidel Castro and a group of rebels launched an assault. It exhibits the rebels' weapons, bloodstained uniforms, photographs, letters, and other documents. There's also the Granjita Siboney Museum, which was the place of gathering for the attack of the Moncada garrison, showing memorabilia of the assault.
     One can visit the Native House of José María Heredia, one of Cuba's greatest poets, the Native House of Antonio Maceo, a leader of the war of independence and the Native House of Frank País, a hero who fought against the dictatorship of the 1950's.
     There are other historical sights to see in Santiago de Cuba such as the Museum of Carnival, which aims to give an overview of the great tradition of carnival in Santiago. The Emilio Bacardi Museum, one of Cuba's first museums, contains a valuable collection covering the period between the Spanish conquest and the Wars of Independence (from Spain). Other remarkable sights are the Museum of Rum with exhibits of the beverage including prominent brand Bacardi Cuba, and the Museum "La Isabelica," which shows some history of the French settlements in the area and displays farming implements and archeological objects.
     The Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is a small city of the dead, populated by elaborate marble tombs including several spectacular mausoleums. One of these belongs to José Marti, National Hero and one of Cuba's most visionary men. This cemetery hosts tombs for historic notables such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the "Father of the Homeland," and Emilio Bacardi, including graves for those who fought for revolution.
     Another world heritage site, The San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle, can be found on the outskirts of this historical city. This fortress is one of the most formidable defensive works constructed by the Spaniards on the island, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "the most complete, best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture based on Italian and Renaissance design principles." From the fortification, the visitor can see the whole bay of Santiago de Cuba where the famous naval battle in 1898 between US and Spanish troops took place. The fortress now houses the Museum of Piracy.
     Santiago de Cuba is also a centre of great religious importance. Located about 20 km from the city the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad (Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre Sanctuary) is the most important shrine in the island. The walls of the church are laden with gifts from people who were healed or asked for the Virgin's blessing. Many visitors who come to Santiago climb the hill of this sanctuary dedicated to the Patron Saint of Cuba. Some come to keep a promise, others take offerings which are added to the hundreds dedicated to the Virgin including Hemingway's Nobel Prize medal. Some people collect copper stones from the mine close to the church.
     Finally, a journey to Santiago de Cuba would not be complete without sampling its cultural activities. Santiago de Cuba is famous for its celebrations, including the Festival of Caribbean Culture sometimes known as the Feast of Fire, and the popular Santiago Carnival which takes place every July. With the many festivals it holds, the city is called the cultural capital of the Caribbean.
     Even though July tends to be extremely hot, it's probably the best time to enjoy the famous festivities. When the carnival begins in Santiago, the whole city turns into one big party. Congas can be heard in areas such as Trocha or on any street. Contagious drum rhythms draw local people and visitors alike into one long flowing dance. Popular orchestras make their way to Santiago for the festivities.
     Many music and dance venues exist such as the Casa del Caribe where tourists go for authentic Afro-Cuban shows and lessons; Tropicana Santiago deserves a visit. It is called the Cabaret of the Caribbean and considered one of the largest nightclubs in Cuba. The fame of Tropicana Santiago's shows extends beyond Cuban borders. However, there are other trendy places such as the Trova House, a bar club where visitors can enjoy Cuban and Santiago's traditional music.

Photo Credits
Cuba Tourist Board

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Cuba Tourist Board Canada: http://www.gocuba.ca/en/index.asp
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_de_Cuba,_Cuba
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Santiago_de_Cuba

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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