My first hours in Santiago de Cuba were simply unforgettable. I have never met such friendly people before! When I arrived at my host family’s home, they had a rose for me! Immediately I felt so welcome. They made me comfortable, and after dinner, as we ‘at home’!
Santiago was the first capital of Cuba and these days it is called the “heroic city”. It was also the cradle of arts and music of Cuba and it is easy to understand why. When you walk along its streets you find plenty of places were singers and musicians perform everyday. The most popular clubs are Casa de la Música, Casa de la Trova and Patio los dos Abuelos. These clubs are unique; I do not think that places like these exist in any other place in the world… with really good live music bands, Salsa and a simply unique ‘Cuban atmosphere’.
Another thing that I liked very much about Santiago was the opportunity to meet “real” people, the ordinary Cubans and their lives. Locals seem to really enjoy sitting on their door steps and saying hello to everyone and having a chat. This is really easy, because nearly everyone lives in a small house, often with a little garden in front of it – and everyone knows everyone! They are always in and out of each others houses… talking, chatting, gossiping, exchanging news and telling amusing stories – They’re all so friendly..and you quickly get drawn into the conversation and into the laughs… even if you’re always 100% sure of what they’re talking about!!… and there are also many parks and squares where everyone gets together, chats, relaxes in the shade and generally have a good time as they watch the world go by.
Santiago is also really the place to be at night; the warm weather allows you to be out in a park until late or at a club sharing a beer or rum. For dinner, If you decide to eat out instead of with your host family (It’s difficult to pull yourself away, because they’re so nice!)…but if you do sometimes, then I’d strongly recommend a Paladar- a typical small restaurant, often in a private house, with just 3 or 4 tables; it is an excellent way to try the local food for good prices and a nice environment – and a great way to meet people!
At the weekend, there is a wide variety of excursion options, many organized by the school. The city is surrounded by coast and the Sierra Maestra Mountains and there are several attractions spread around the region. La Gran Piedra and Basílica del Cobre are just some examples.
Personally, I really liked the excursion up to the incredible ’Pirates of the Caribbean’ style castle, located on a promontory, overlooking the bay in which Santiago lies. This is a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial fortress, complete with drawbridge, moat and turrets on the walls… and as very few tourists make it to Santiago, you pretty much have beautiful historic monuments like this all to yourself… with just a few Cubans strolling through and very happy to chat to you if you want to try out your Spanish.
There are also great beaches nearby, with palm trees gently swaying in the warm Caribbean breeze… They’re easy to get to, if you fancy getting a taxi with a few friends from the Spanish course.
Everyone at the school was really helpful, and everyone in Santiago so friendly that I found the whole experience just great… and the best way to learn Spanish, with just 2 or 3 people in each class…So, though I’ve also been to Havana, Santiago was my favourite place in Cuba – It’s the real Cuba, with no tourists, where you can really meet the locals and get to know this fascinating and quite unique country.
I simply loved Santiago and would recommend it to anyone!