SANTIAGO

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In the morning, we make our way out of Bayamo and drive eastwards on the Careterra Centrale. Our route takes us through the Sierra Maestra mountains and some spectacular scenery.  We pass through the large regional town of Palma Soriano and then descend into Santiago de Cuba, the country's second largest city. We spend some time getting lost before finding Calle Barnada.  Our casa particular is supposed to be at #14 but the neighbourhood is very hilly, all the streets are one-way and we keep running out of numbers before we get to #14.  On our third pass down Barnada, we notice a lady in a bright pink blouse waving furiously and shouting:  "Aqui!  Aqui!  Seemingly, Rueben got the address wrong and it is really #101.  Fortunately, Nancy is watching for us and can't help but notice two gringos in a foreign car passing in front of her house -- several times.

Nancy is charming and as eager to please as a St. Bernard puppy!  She asks if we would like her to cook dinner for us.  "Si!  Si!  Por favor.  She asks if we like beer and wine.  Si! Si! Mucho gusto!  So, she sends one of the neighbourhood kids scampering off to buy some.  Dinner is pork and rice with platanas y salada and a chilled bottle of Soroa white. 

After dinner, we invite the other houseguest to join us for a glass of wine.  Christine is from France.  She has travelled to Cuba several times to learn Spanish, to dance salsa ... and to visit Joel, her Cuban boyfriend.  After dinner, she invites us to accompany the two of them to a bar to hear some Cuban music.  We walk a dozen blocks to the Casa de Dos Abuelos (The House of the Two Grandfathers).  We enjoy the music and the cold beer and we learn about "sexual tourism".  Santiago de Cuba is unique because, Cubans are permitted to stay with foreigners in their hotel rooms, unlike the rest of the country where it is forbidden.  The result is planeloads of older (mostly Italian) men coming to Santiago to 'romance' young Cuban girls.  On the other hand, we are surprised at the number of older, European women, like Christine (40-ish), who come to Santiago to spend time with young Cuban men, like Joel (25-ish, and VERY handsome).  In the small bar, we see many such couples.

Leaving the bar, we make our way home through pitch dark streets.  At an intersection, we peer intently up at a faded street sign, trying to determine if we are on the right street.  Suddenly, from an even darker doorway, right by my elbow, comes a deep voice:  "Calle Barnada!"  The elderly gent, sitting in the shadows of his doorway is so black that all we can see are his eyes and his teeth.  Once our hearts settle back into our chests, we thank him politely and make our way home.

In the morning, we retrieve our car from the dusty, locked yard it shares with several chickens, a couple of pigs, several dead vehicles and a collection of spare parts.  We head out of town to see some countryside and follow a steep, twisting road to a National Park at the top of a nearby mountain.   The climate and the vegetation change dramatically as we climb.  From the tropical heat and humidity near sea level, as we climb more than 1200 meters, the air becomes cool and the tropical vegetation gives way to pine trees and ferns.  On the way up the mountain, we pick up a hitch-hiker, Alex, who turns out to be an agricultural specialist visiting coffee farmers in the mountains.  He works for the government, of course, but evidently his job isn't important enough to rate a car.  In order to visit his farmer-clients he has to hitch-hike, walk, bicycle or sometimes ride a horse.  He tells us that once a tourist stopped him and said:  "You can drive my car for a ways, if I can ride your horse."  He thinks that was pretty funny!  Alex speaks excellent English and tells us a lot about the economic situation of the farmers and how they grow coffee.  We let him off partway up the mountain and promise to watch for him on the way back down.

We park the car at the top and then climb 450 steps to the top of the Gran Piedra or Big Stone.  It is a gran piedra indeed -- a huge boulder balanced on the very top of the mountain.  Crude steps and even cruder handrails help us make our way to the top of it.  The view is spectacular!  We are looking down on vultures soaring above the tops of tall pine trees.  Our presence seems to be of some annoyance to local falcons, who streak past us at astonishing speeds, so close we can hear the wind whistling past their wings.  They fly so beautifully we spend some time just watching them (and trying with little success to take their picture).  We look down on small cleared patches where people grow coffee and produce. The blue Caribbean sparkles in the distance.

Another point of interest in the Gran Piedra National Park is the Isabelica coffee plantation, built in 1792 by a French immigrant who fled Haiti during the slave rebellion.  The finca is now a museum and it is very interesting to see how the coffee beans were dried, roasted and ground using the technology of those days. A good collection of furniture, tools and implements is on display, as well as the stone coffee grinding wheel.

  Drying pans coffee grinding wheel Kitchen

 We ask the attendant if she knows where we can buy locally-grown coffee.  She explains that private sale of coffee is strictly forbidden. The farmers must sell all their produce to the state and we may only buy coffee from a proper shop.  A few minutes later, after checking to see that no one else is watching, she suggests that we go into the nearby village and ask for Nova.  We find a little farmhouse down a side street and meet a tiny woman with a huge, shy smile.  She makes us each a cup of her "homegrown", which could very well be the best coffee we have ever tasted.  While we drink it, we are treated to a seminar on growing and processing coffee.  We buy a couple of packages of coffee and Bob gets to take a few practice swings with the family machete.

On the way down the mountain, we collect Alex and he rides with us to the beach at Siboney.  He leads us to a paladar or private restaurant and we have a wonderful seafood meal.  He wants to visit a friend with a broken leg and we go to the very nice local beach.  After a lovely swim in the salty water, we meet Alex again and head back towards Santiago, dropping him at his home along the way.

The next morning on retrieving our car from the chicken yard, we discover it has un llanta pochada (a flat tire).  We already know these words because we experienced un llanta pochada on our first trip to Cuba. We are familiar with the routine:  Change the tire and find a tire shop.  This time we learn a new word.  This tire has already been repaired so many times, the shop tells me it is basuro (garbage).  We make sure to remember the word for when we turn the car back into Havanautos

Today, our first destination is the fabulous Morro Castle -- the huge 17th century fortification which guards the narrow entrance to Santiago harbour.  Santiago has the finest natural harbour in the entire Caribbean and was the reason for the city becoming the first colonial capital of Cuba in 1514.  The capital was moved to Havana a few years later, but the the city and the harbour are still important to the economy of the eastern end of the island.  The Morro Castle has been occupied by Spaniards and pirates alike and was demolished by Henry Morgan in 1662.  In 1898, the Spanish fleet tried to break out of the harbour and was destroyed in a major naval battle. Several rusting wrecks still lie awash along the coast where they were sunk in the battle.

Fortifications of the Morro Castle guard the entrance to Santiago Harbour

View of the harbour

From the Morro Castle, we visit Parque Frank Pais, a memorial to one of the leaders of Castor's revolution.  The view is beautiful and the park is very quiet; in fact there are rather more cows in the park than there are people. 

Tourist cows

Bougainvillea

 

Remnant of the Spanish fleet

Possible terrorist

As there is still quite a bit of our day left, we decide to visit the shrine of the Black Virgin of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba.  We set out for the town of El Cobre about thirty Km away, take a wrong turn and promptly become totally lost.  The road we are following climbs up a very steep mountainside, becoming narrower and steeper and eventually dead-ends in a small village that is definitely not El Cobre!  We ask a man how to find our destination and he promptly jumps in the back seat, shouts to his family that he is off to El Cobre with his new friends and away we go back down the mountain.  In the fullness of time, Umberto guides us to El Cobre and gives us a tour of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre.  The Basilica is decorated in white marble and dark wood and is very beautiful. Umberto is immensely proud of it.  He shows us around the church and reverently explains its features to us.  In 1952, Ernest Hemmingway dedicated his Nobel prize for literature to the Virgin and placed the medal in her shrine.  Umberto explains that thousands of people make pilgrimages to the site each year to pray for divine assistance -- sort of the Lourdes of Cuba.

Next morning, after our tortilla and coffee, we set out to explore the coast to the west of Santiago.  The road winds along between the sea and the Sierra Maestra mountains and the scenery is magnificent!.  We drive about 80 Km to the village of Chivirico, a dusty fishing village in the lee of a steep peninsula.  We find a place for lunch which serves us pork stew and rice for about 30 cents each, along with juice of some unnamed fruit.  Then we go to the nearby Coppelia for ice cream.  We try the raspberry and then the mango.  All around us people are laughing and joking and we enjoy the friendly atmosphere.  There seems to be something about ice cream that brings out the best in Cuban people.

Views along the coast between Santiago and Chivirico

On the way back, we stop for lunch and a swim at a little beach that seems to be much favoured by local people.  Children ride ponies up and down the beach, families swim and play and peddlers sell fruit and drinks.  We are lying on the sand, enjoying the sun, when we are suddenly face-to-face with an inquisitive goat. Later, a large, black pig saunters down the beach, nosing about for edibles.  Again, we see quite a number of foreign men with young Cuban girls.  While all of the participants seem pleased with this arrangement, it still seems basically wrong to us.

On our last day in Santiago, we visit San Juan Hill where the final battle of the Cuban War of Independence took place on July 1, 1898.  History records that Teddy Roosevelt and his Roughriders led the charge (although his role has probably been exaggerated) but the battle did result in the final defeat of the Spanish Empire in Latin America and the liberation of Cuba.  In an ominous foreshadowing of the future, the armistice was signed only by representatives of Spain and the U.S.A.  The Cuban Mamb (freedom fighters), who  fought the Spanish since 1868 and who helped to storm the hill in the final battle, were not even invited to the surrender ceremony a few days later. 

  Monument to the Unknown Mamb The Guide's visiting family  

The park is quite fascinating.  Lots of old cannons and mortars with reconstructed fortifications and trenches.  San Juan Hill doesn't seem very high, but technically, it does overlook the rest of the city and it was the spot the Spanish troops chose to make their last stand.

Next morning, we bid goodbye to Nancy and set out to find our way out of the city.  The lack of road signs and a confusing street layout makes this a much more difficult task than one would expect.  We stop for directions several times and at last find ourselves on the road towards Guantanamo and Baracoa.  To be sure, we pick up a couple of hitch-hikers who ride with us to the far side of Guantanamo and point out the right road to Baracoa.

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