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Visit Santiago de Cuba

History and Culture Santiago de Cuba

The City's Origins

Santiago de Cuba is located on the South-east of the island of Cuba, nearly 900 kilometres from the capital, Havana. It was founded in 1514 by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish Conquistador from Segovia who conquered and governed Cuba for Spain. The settlement grew up quickly, constructing houses and buildings with wood from the plentiful forests nearby. In 1516 a fire destroyed the whole settlement, however this did not deter the settlers, who set to work rebuilding the whole thing from scratch. The location of the settlement made it the ideal starting point for organizing expeditions into Mexico and North America. In fact, in 1518 Juan de Grijalba and Hernán Cortés used it for this very purpose before they colonised Mexico. As did Hernando de Soto en route to Florida in 1538.


In 1528 the first Cathedral in Cuba was built in Santiago, on the same site where nowadays you will find the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Between the years 1553 and 1662, Santiago de Cuba was the colony's capital, before Havana was confirmed as the capital. When you visit Santiago de Cuba today you can visit the magnificent Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a fortress protecting the city which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, defences to the city were not always this good and in 1553 and 1662 the city suffered invasions by the British and French respectively. There continues to be a large French heritage in the area, especially following the Haitian Revolution of 1791 loss and consequent abolition of slavery (slavery was still legal in Cuba). This influx served to further diversify the already quite eclectic mix of cultures present in Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is also home to one of the most famous sites of the Spanish-American War, San Juan Hill, where in 1898 the Spanish suffered their main defeat. The American General, William Rufus Shafter, orchestrated a siege of the city,which, combined with the destruction of the Spanish fleet in Santiago de Cuba harbour, led to the eventual surrender of the Spaniards and the taking back of the city by Cuba. The Cuban War of Independence lasted from 1895 until 1898, when the United States of America intervened against the Spanish. The Independence advocator and hero José Martí is buried in Santiago de Cuba in the Cementerio Santa Efigenia. He died in battle in 1895, but his legacy lives on as a symbol of Cuban independence, justice and democracy.

Santiago de Cuba and the Cuban Revolution

Cuban Revolution

Santiago de Cuba played a substantial role in one of the other major events of Cuba's history: The Cuban Revolution of 1959. The Revolutionary hero Frank País was from Santiago and is credited with much of the success of the revolution in the area. Following a failed attack on the city's Moncada Barracks by Fidel Castro and fellow rebels, País took action and gathered groups of workers and students, producing leaflets and collecting supplies, growing all the while into a large scale revolutionary movement, all rallying against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1955 this organisation joined Castro's and it was in the city of Santiago de Cuba, on the balcony of the City Hall, that Fidel Castro proclaimed victory in the Cuban Revolution

Despite a severe lack of development during the leadership of Castro, who only stepped down officially in 2011, to be replaced by his brother Raul Castro, and consistent allegations of human rights abuses and a general lack of freedom of expression and association, Santiago de Cuba has emerged with an energetic and abundant cultural scene. Many famous musicians, artists and writers hail from the city, such as the Buena Vista Social Club's Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa and the poet José María Heredía. The famous Bacardi Rum started out life here in Santiago de Cuba and the Bacardi family have left behind a huge art collection. Besides this, the city's eclectic mix of cultures have produced a great number of traditional dances, a traditional country style of music and different types of architecture throughout the city. One of the most dominant religions in the Afro-Cuban santería, due to the settlers who came to the city from Haiti in the 18th Century.

Modern-day Santiago de Cuba is a wonder of steep winding streets, bustling plazas and colonial buildings with balconies that give astounding views of the city and the bay. What better place to kick back, relax and open your Spanish books at one of the Spanish schools in Santiago de Cuba. You will come away not only with a working knowledge of the Spanish language but also an appreciation of the culture and history of this wonderful city and the island of Cuba.