We are in love with Cuba’s ‘other’ capital, which sits between the Sierra Maestra mountains and the Caribbean, about 866 kilometres east of Havana. Shimmering with heat, humidity, and potencia, Santiago is stridently Afro-Cuban, a place never so deeply in thrall to the Spanish ruling class as Havana.
Santiagueros have a mix of Spanish, West African, Haitian and Jamaican heritage, and this is reflected in the music that mixes Spanish guitar and African percussion and choral traditions. Most Cuban musical genres, from son to rumba, were born in Cuba’s east, and many sub-genres are infused with influences from neighbouring countries and West Africa. It is the best place in Cuba to lose yourself to music and dance. On the rooftop of the Casa Grande Hotel, join the salsa and old-style Cuban son party and enjoy the panorama of the whole city as you dance to the serenading salseros of Grammy-winning singer Septeto Santiaguero.
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Take a detour to Casa de Los tradiciones, the tiniest of cultural venues, an intimate old colonial home in the neighborhood of Tivoli, which lights up during carnival. Make the obligatory visit to the vibrant Casa de la Trova, a colonial-era music hall packed with tables of tourists and hustlers. Stumble onto a street-corner rumba, a stunning set of moves that come unadulterated from the fields of 19th-century West Africa.
There’s nothing put on for tourists about Santiago’s traditions. Music and dance are still alive. As ever, we know the best places to stay, right now – whether that’s the new, restored state gems or the hidden guesthouses in Santiago’s sugar baron neighborhood. Carnival is a great time to visit, but festivals and parties unfold through the year. There are bolero; trova; salsa; tambor; choral and classical music festivals, and any night in Santiago the streets are flowing with son, salsa and rumba.