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Spanish in Santiago de Cuba

How to Spend Your Downtime in Santiago de Cuba

CespedesSantiago de Cuba may be Cuba's second biggest city, but the choice when it comes to things to do and see is second to none. It is a city that is renowned for its cultural life and to many it is the birthplace of the traditional Cuban forms of dance, such as Son (Salsa), Rumba and Conga. The city's inhabitants are incredibly proud of their heritage and you will be able to see displays of these dances throughout the city as well as hear the traditional and unique style of music that forms the soundtrack to the hustle bustle of the city as it goes about its day to day activities. The city's annual carnival, in the last two weeks of July is not to be missed if at all possible as it demonstrates exactly how important this music and dance is to the Santiago inhabitants as the city comes to life in a burst of colour, rhythm and dancing to a contagious beat. It is the largest festival in Cuba and you should not miss the opportunity to get carried away by the congo lines, the masked balls, theatre performances, bonfires, traditional food and drink. It is appreciated that this may not be the best time to attend a Spanish language school in Santiago de Cuba, but fitted in at the start or end of a trip it is a must!

Main Attractions

The city of Santiago de Cuba centres life around the Parque Céspedes, where tourists and locals alike gather to shelter under the tall trees of this central plaza and grab a few minutes respite from the warm sun on one of the many benches. It is a great spot to simply people watch and get a feel for the ambience of the city. The square is bordered by a number of interesting buildings, both a mixture of Baroque, Neo-Classical and Modern architecture. The city's founder, Diego Velázquez had his mansion here, which now contains the Museo de Ambiente Colonial Cubano. It has a distinctly Moorish feel to it and you can enter and explore some of the exquisite furniture from France, Britain, Spain and Cuba. Also bordering the Plaza is the city's Cathedral, a yellow and white building with two towers. Being a relatively recent construction, it sits on the site where numerous other Cathedrals sat before it, all of whom have fallen victim to equally unpleasant fates such as earthquakes and destruction by pirates. Adjacent you will see the City Hall, quite an unimposing building but of great relevance to the history of Cuba as the balcony of the city hall is where Fidel Castro stood in 1959 to announce the success of the Cuban Revolution and the end of Batista's dictatorship.

Another nearby site with great relevance to the Revolution (you will find a lot of sites in Santiago de Cuba are) is the Cuartel Moncada or Barracks. Here Castro and his fellow revolutionaries attempted a disastrous seizure in 1953 which resulted in the arrest of many of the intruders. However, the event did highlight the cause of the revolutionaries and gave publicity to the movement, which in the following years was to become much more organised and powerful. The man who would contribute greatly to gaining support for the revolutionary movement in the city of Santiago and its surrounding areas was Frank País, a Cuban revolutionary and a key leader in the underground movement against Batista. There is a museum in the quirky Barrio El Tivoli neighbourhood dedicated to the underground struggle and Mr País himself. This used to be Santiago de Cuba's most luxurious neighbourhood but is now a relaxing place for a wander with steep streets, tumbledown houses and chess players.

A hero from a different part of Cuba's past also has a connection with the city. José Martí was a hero in the struggle for independence from Spain and died in battle in 1895. He was an intelligent man whose writings, works and political activity played a huge role in the fight against the Spanish. His legacy is a symbol of Cuban independence and he is buried in Santa Efigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba in an impressive tomb. Also laid to rest in this cemetery is Emilio Bacardi, of Bacardi rum fame, whose Art collection is open to the public in the city centre.

dancing

If you have had enough sites for one day and are looking for a bit of activity then Santiago de Cuba will provide. Needless to say there are plenty of opportunities to get on your dancing shoes at one of the many centres around the city, or why not take a Spanish language course that includes typical dance lessons at one of the Spanish schools in Santiago de Cuba? However, as proud as the Cubans are of their dancing skills, there is one perhaps unexpected Americanised sport that they all go a bit crazy for: Baseball. The professional team here is one of the best in the league and well worth a watch if you can get your hands on a ticket. Anther option for an activity in your time off from Spanish school is a boat trip along the bay of Santiago de Cuba which is both pretty and interesting. There is also a ferry that goes across to the quaint fishing village of Cayo Granma Island which provides spectacular views.

Out and About

The area a round Santiago de Cuba holds some great opportunities for nature lovers and the Bacanao National Park is just 25 kilometres south-east of the city and protected by UNESCO. There are a number of different attractions spread throughout the park such as an aquarium, coffee plantations, a recreated indigenous tribal village, a stone dinosaur park with life-size models of the enormous creatures, the Piedra Grande (a huge rock with fantastic views if you climb to the top) and Granjita Siboney where Castro and his team of revolutionaries slept the night before the failed siege of Cuartel Moncada.

Other trips easily taken from the city include the 'Sanctuary of Copper', just 18km west of the city which is a religious shrine and church housing a black Madonna reportedly found floating in the sea by three fishermen. Fifteen kilometres south of Santiago is the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a huge fortification built in 1638 to protect the city. It contains five levels of cells, cannons and drawbridges.

One thing Santiago de Cuba does not lack is activities and amusement and hopefully you will find it in abundance if you decide to visit the city to take a Spanish language course. Sometimes overlooked in favour of Havana, Santiago has just as much, if not more to offer and will be a thoroughly pleasant surprise for all those who visit.