Cuba’s second-largest city is one of immense cultural and historical significance. After it was founded by Diego Velazquez de Cuellar in 1515, it was immediately destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Upon rebuilding, including the establishment of the city’s first cathedral, Santiago was the first capital of Spanish colonial Cuba.
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During the Haitian Revolution, many British and French immigrants fled to Santiago. This undoubtedly played a part in building the city’s unique culture, as did the city’s role in the 1953 Cuban Revolution. Revolutionary hero Frank Pais lived in Santiago and formed a remarkably effective urban resistance that proved to be instrumental to the success of the revolution. Pais’ organization merged with Fidel Castro’s movement in 1955, and Pais went on to become the leader of the new organization in Oriente province. In 1959, Fidel Castro took to the balcony on Santiago de Cuba’s city hall to proclaim victory of the Cuban Revolution.
Past and present are celebrated equally, but not separately, in this region of Cuba. Architecture is an eclectic blend of historical landmarks, vibrant new buildings, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the San Pedro de la Roca fortress, which UNESCO calls “the most complete, best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture, based on Italian and Renaissance design principles.” The Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia is the resting place of some of Cuba’s most notable celebrities and military figures, such as Emilio Bacardi and Frank Pais. The Cuartel Moncada is a significant site to the Revolution, as it was here on July 26, 1953 that rebel forces led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro launched an attack to seize weapons during Carnival. Bullet holes are still present in the building, now a museum. Don Facundo Bacardi established his first rum factory in Santiago, where he perfected the techniques that would become trademark to Bacardi Rum. The factory was a tin-roof distillery where bats would congregate in the rafters, thus leading to the popular spirit’s logo, still used today. At the center of the city is Parque Cespedes, a plaza featuring historical landmarks such as Catedral de Nuestra de Senora de la Asuncion and Casa de Diego Velazquez. While Hurricane Sandy damaged parts of these buildings, restorations are underway, and the square is still a lively place to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch local musicians.
The music and art of Santiago de Cuba is unique, as its Afro-Carribean culture is a colorful mix between east and west, with influences from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Havana. Many popular Cuban musicians were born in the city, as were poets and composers. Modern dance styles have been derived from traditional Santiago de Cuba dances: guaganco, a style accompanied by percussion only, and son, from which salsa was born.
The rhythmic streets of Santiago de Cuba come alive each July for the Carnival festival and Festival Del Caribe, where vibrant costumes, traditional congas, street parades, art exhibitions, and more fill the streets to celebrate history, religion, and culture of the region.
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