Phil Smrek

Storyteller & Photographer

Santiago de Cuba: The “501” Classic

500 Words per Hour | May 2016 | Delta # 403

Castle and beach

Maybe it’s because I arrived in the wake of Pope Francis, President Obama and the Rolling Stones but this last trip to Cuba was different. It’s the first time, after four previous visits, I didn’t break down as my plane took off for the US…which is as complicated to explain as teaching someone with stiff hips to salsa. Suffice to say that an overwhelming empathy for a people caught “between the straights” ensues and I’m reduced to public tears. I think though, it has to do with where I went; Santiago de Cuba.

Nestled between the Sierra Maestras and the Caribbean Sea on its south-eastern coast is Cuba’s first capital, second largest city and 501 year-old-gem, Santiago. It’s decaying and restored resplendent colonial, art deco and austere “sovietica anomalous” structures make for an architectural jewel box. They’re a fitting backdrop for the birthplace of son, mambo, salsa and rum (Bacardi was founded here in 1862.) Add a half-million ethnic “mezclados,” most of whom are of partial African decent, and are at once warm and welcoming with an open approach to life and you’ve got the makings of a culturally eclectic and delectable visit. Make no mistake, “Santiagueros” are nobody’s fool. They have each-others back. One look at the well defined fighting arms of the men and it’s little wonder this is where the revolution started.

Cuba is part mysticism, fluidity, contradiction, passion and above all fortitude. The right thing always happens if you let it and never as you planned and perhaps no more so than in Santiago. As I write this on the plane home, I realize what I love most about Cuba is what I miss most about the United States –innocence!

Just before I left, The Buena Vista Social Club was preparing to take the stage in Havana for their final “Adios” performance, while Kanye and the Kim were across town taking selfies and posting to social media. They were in Havana along with the rest of the family-cast to attend the Chanel fashion show and film for their reality series “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” The sense of change is palpable if not imminent. From without and within it’s anyone’s guess as to what shape or form it will take. This is certain: The “vista” will never be the same.

Preparing for landing…

Travel log


As It Happened

Day 1: I’m in!

Arrive Casa (particular) Jardin: (private home with rooms to rent - akin to a bed and breakfast). Lovely. It’s in the heart of town and a few blocks from the harbor; plenty of plants and lots of peace. Unpack and make my way for an orientation walk before sunset. Within a few blocks I’m offered a stool and invited to join in with the conversation of neighbors in front of their homes. Here, I meet Marco who’s cut his finger, stitches and all. Not able to work and with time to spare, I ask if he’ll show me around over the next few days. He agrees. I’m in with the locals.

Day 2: Barrio Tivoli

Santiago’s version of the French Quarter, if you will. Fidel lived here for a short time as a child. A beautiful human pageantry of school kids in uniform and adults carrying out the duties of daily living amid narrow streets with a broad range of historical treasures.

  • Balcon Don Diego Velazquez (Spanish conquistador/governor): His perch to keep an eye on things. Perfect views of the city, port and surrounding mountains.
  • Escalinata Padre Pico: Grand stairway in the middle of town. Descending was an elderly woman who despite broom and bucket in hand assured me she was a dancer at the Tropicana.
  • Mueso de la Clandestinidad: A former police headquarters that was partially burned by anti-government fighters. It now chronicles the beginnings of the revolution led by local Frank Pias (shot and killed by Batista’s army no more than 50 feet from Casa Jardin) a street fighting man who to this day is revered.
  • Mercado Aguilera: Mango, guava, sapote, papaya, guayaba, and more. All triple-fresh sans waxes, preservatives, petro-fertilizers and GMO’s great eating and occasionally wearable as jewelry.
  • Finish up in Vista Alegre. Upscale residential neighborhood who’s former well-to-do inhabitants beat the revolutionary curfew and fled. Chock-full of neoclassical and art-deco mansions, it’s here that various cultural centers, schools and some of the best restaurants and paladars (privately run restaurant usually in a home) are located. On the street I meet Luis working on his nearly mint ‘57 Super 88 Olds. His grandmother, now in her 90’s, bought it new and only drove it a couple years before parking it in a garage when the revolution began, leaving it there for over 30 years! He inherited it and its now his pride and joy. He drives Marco and I home and on the way proudly tells me it was used in a music video.

Day 3: A day at Siboney Beach

Locals body surf and body grind to Caribbean and musical waves while reveling in sun, rum and relaxed fun. Only a 30 minute drive from the center of town this slightly rocky beach and surrounding area sustained substantial damage during hurricane Sandy.

Along the way we pass the farm house-hideout Granjta Siboney. It was here on the morning of July 26, 1953 that Fidel and fellow comrades left to attack a military barracks in Santiago. So began Cuba’s revolution.

Day 4: US Ship to Shore

I’m awakened by the sound of loud foghorns. Alas, the Americans have arrived! It’s the first US cruise ship in over 55 years to dock here. So enormous, I can see it from my room. I go down to bear whiteness and along the way visit the original Bacardi factory where ‘Ron de Santiago’ is made today. In the evening I take in a performance of the Afro-Cuban Folklorico Ballet Cutumba at Teatro Marti. Marco is charged 50 cents I’m charged $5 dollars. A great value at either price.

Day 5: Playing Ball

Pay homage at Estadio Guillermo Moncada. Alone in the inner sanctum of Santiago’s home baseball team, “Las Avispas”, in the absence of “stadium naming rights”, beer ads and Shake Shack concessions, I’m in awe of the purity. Here it’s about one thing - “Beisbol”. Outside I encounter a 9-year-old boy hitting pitches thrown by his grandfather, as his father looks on. He and I catch each others’ eye and are both sure of the same thing; he will one day be playing inside that stadium. With their blessing I snap some pictures. Saying goodbye they offer me a signed ball by the Avispas; the holy grail of travel mementoes. As we walk away from the stadium, a man walks toward us. Marco nudges me and says, “ hey that guy’s a famous baseball player, I mean really famous!” I walk over and introduce myself to “El Canon de Dos Rios,” a two time Olympic champion and the home run record holder (479) of Cuba, Orestes Kindelan!

Dinner at Madrileno restaurant then on to check out the nightlife. Since Mariel Castro, daughter of Raul, has championed the rights of the LGBT community there’s no more labor camps and gender reassignment surgery is courtesy of the state. The community now has wide acceptance. The drag show at Don Chago is on par with the best of RuPaul’s Drag Race with some straight acts mixed in. Leaving the bar post show, I look over my shoulder and see Luis’s car in a “twerking” video. Voluptuous scantily clad Cuban woman are giving it a “hand” wash. That machine is one moneymaker I conclude, and I hope that his grandmother doesn’t catch a glimpse.

Next, a quick peek into Casa La Trova, a tourist haunt peppered with locals for live traditional Cuban music. On to the mixed crowd at Club Nocturno, an outdoor disco with “dancing attractions”. A bottle of rum is ordered and before I know it, it’s almost The Sunrise Club.

Day 6: Top of the Rock

Pilgrimage to la Gran Piedre. A big rock on top of a nearby mountain that offers spectacular views …on a clear day.

Day 7: Patron Saint

Drove out to Santuario Basilica Nacional de Nuestra Senora de la Caridad. Above the alter of this church is a Madonna with matizo features - Cuba’s patron saint, which is why Pope Francis recently visited. A showcase of offerings from award winning Cuban athletics is a curious and fun side attraction.

Last but not least Castillo del Morro. A UNESCO site that is one of only three colonial fortresses (San Juan and Havana being the others) in the Caribbean. I step on a chair placed in the corner of a nearby outdoor restaurant so as to get the best possible photographic angle. I’m quickly told to get off by a waitress. It turns out it’s the very chair Paul McCartney sat in when he visited in 2000 and so has become a mini-monument with dedicated plaque.

Dinner at (paladar) El Palenquito. Great food and the best mojitos in town. Salud!

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