Santiago de Cuba, the first capital of Cuba, is where salsa was born. With deep African roots, here they celebrate the most richly musical carnival of the Americas.
With its large natural harbour, Santiago developed as the port and commercial centre for the sugar and rum industry, with a large black population.
A culture of mixed Spanish, French and African origins brewed throughout the 19th century and blossomed in the 20th. Musical styles blended from African percussion and European melodic instruments were born and raised.
Three conga players beat interlocking rhythms, a blind man sings a soaring lead in an Afro-Spanish dialect, a chorus of young women chants responses, passers-by start playful courtship dances.
Rumba, it’s called, the direct descendant of the music the slaves consoled themselves with on their Sundays off. Again, make no mistake, this is not the corny ballroom dance.
Southeast Asia & Europe to Cuba: The gateway is Havana, Cuba’s capital. Air France flies there via Paris; Air China flies via Beijing; Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul.
Havana to Santiago: the distance is 880 km, with planes, trains and buses available.
Santiago’s city centre is quite compact so it’s easy to walk around. For trips out of town or to the suburbs, use taxis. Buses are very crowded and infrequent, so best avoided.
WHEN TO GO
Santiago Carnival takes place in late July; the 2017 dates are July 22-28. This is the hottest time of year in Cuba with highs in the mid-30s. From July 1st to 8th annually, Santiago holds the Festival of Caribbean Culture (a.k.a. Fiesta del Fuego or Fire Festival), also featuring many dance and music performances.
Cuba’s tourist high season is December to April, when it is dry and balmy (highs in the mid-20s); July is relatively uncrowded.
WHERE TO STAY
The stately Hotel Casagranda is the ideal address, located on the main square. The Melia Santiago de Cuba is the best-equipped hotel but is outside the centre. The modest Hotel Rex is located at Plaza de Marte in the heart of carnival festivities. Private rooms starting at CUC$20 provide the main budget accommodation, identified by a blue triangle sign outside the house.
Tourists must use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC$), which is fixed at US$1. Note that Cuba is a cash economy and you need plenty of bank notes. However, US dollar exchanges incur an extra 10% commission, so it’s better to carry euros or pounds sterling. Credit cards (not from US banks!) can only be used at top hotels, shops and restaurants.