For us Santiago de Cuba was a bonus location, somewhere we hadn’t originally planned to go. However, we were flying from Havana back to the East ready to depart to the UK from Holguin and we’d been warned to leave an extra day or so between the internal flight and our international flight in case of delay. So we decided to spend two nights in Santiago de Cuba, giving us a day to explore there… if we didn’t spend a day in Havana airport! As it happens we were incredibly fortunate as our Cubana flight departed right on time and even arrived 10 minutes early – the owner of our Casa was amazed, as were we!
I already had high hopes for the Casa here, it looked and sounded great on Tripadvisor and I’d had a friendly call with the host whilst at our house in Havana (it’s advised you call from your previous Casa to confirm your booking). It started well indeed as our host had sent a fine American car to pick us up from the airport, with a very friendly driver. We arrived at Roy’s Terrace Inn, and although Roy was not there, the ladies who work there greeted us with smiles and ensured we had what we needed. They confirmed our dinner choice and we then went to explore the terrace on which we would dine.
Our room was on the ground floor of the Casa, up the stairs you arrive to the first terrace from which there are a further two rooms for rent. The terrace has been beautifully decorated with paintings by a local artist. On the level above is another terrace cloaked in hanging plants and vines framing a splendid view of the Sierra Maestro mountain range in the distance, it’s here that we would enjoy our dinner whilst watching the sun setting over the mountains.
In the hour before dinner we gave ourselves a quick tour of the old town. We soon found the differences with the people here, there are certainly more beggars, more people trying tricks which we’d been warned of such as asking for milk for their children. Most will begin conversation with you about where you’re from, but unlike elsewhere in Cuba where they then want to sell you cigars, taxis or restaurants, they ask you for money with nothing in return. I understand life isn’t easy in Cuba, but the idea of the communist regime is that everyone is provided with the basics – so how are people lead to begging? I wonder if they have as little as they’re leading us to believe, or whether it’s a bit of a show.
As far as the town itself is concerned, it’s very pretty and much cleaner and brighter than Havana. It’s more modern and there are lots of motorbikes flying quickly over the crossroads in comparison to the sluggish stream of old cars through Havana’s streets. It’s incredibly hilly in Santiago de Cuba and you could well believe you were in San Fransisco in the 1950s.
The following morning, we enjoyed our first breakfast at the Casa and had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Roy. His English is fantastic and we listened in awe as he instantly then switched to Italian as another couple of guests appeared from their room. He has worked as a language teacher in Cuba as well as in a number of European countries, alongside any other job he could get to support himself and his family. He told us how much he appreciated everything England had done for him during his time there, he certainly took nothing for granted and had worked hard to get the success his Casa had now achieved. He’s miles ahead of other Cuban’s we’ve met with his knowledge of the tourism industry, learnt from the countries that he’s visited. He knows the importance of good customer service, something which many Cuban’s have yet to grasp. He understands the need to have a unique name which describes the business well and so he changed the name from one of 6 “Las Terrazas” on his street to “Roy’s Terrace Inn” (even copywriting the name). He pays insane amounts of money for the Internet in order to ensure he can reply to potential guests and to check Tripadvisor reviews, ensuring the Casa ranks highly. This is something I didn’t expect to find in Cuba but surely it’s a sign of what is to come. We sat with him later that evening and spoke about the concerns regarding the impending influx of American businesses and tourists, but I believe the two will go hand-in-hand and for the most part the Casas will retain their charm and remain a nice retreat for European tourists like ourselves who are looking for a genuine experience of Cuba.
Roy informed us of the big news that day, that Airbnb had just removed their restrictions and were now letting 191 countries book accommodation in Cuba rather than only allowing Americans and Canadians to book. When we were planning we’d found that many Casas were listed on Airbnb but booking from the UK was banned. It’s incredible to think of the changes that were happening even in the two weeks we’d been there – not only the above, which would have a huge impact given that most accommodation is in Casa particulars, but also Obama’s landmark visit to Habana and the free open-air Rolling Stones gig.
During our day in Santiago de Cuba we begun by walking out of town to visit Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, Cuba’s answer to High Gate or Père Lachaise (3 CUC entry or 5 CUC it you wish to take photos). Amongst its residents are the Barcardi family, and founding father of Cuba, Jose Marti. At Marti’s mausoleum you can see the changing of the guards which takes place every half an hour and was certainly the highlight of our visit.
From the cemetery, we took a cyclo down Avenida Juan Gualberto Gomez past the rum, beer and coffee factories to the Plaza de la Revolución where a giant horse forms part of the monument which appears to dwarf the mountains behind it. As with the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, there is a vast space in front, and on the building to the side is the outline of a revolutionary hero.
We returned to town, finding that the rum museum was closed (contrary to the guide book suggesting it was open daily), along with most restaurants as it was Sunday. Growing tired of the constant hassle from the locals, we retreated to the Casa and asked if it was too late to decide to eat there that evening. Fortunately, they had food available so we joined the other guests on the terrace for our last dinner in Cuba, accompanied by a shot of rum. Afterwards, the 6 of us headed to the Casa de la Trova to watch live music and salsa dancing whilst drinking our last rum-based cocktails of the trip – it felt like a rather fitting finale and a fantastic way to round off an incredible adventure.