Santiago de Cuba is the country's second-largest city, and it swings to the sound of son. Vibrant, tropical, and often sweltering, Santiago is the country's liveliest cultural showpiece, outside of Havana. With a population just under a half-million people, Santiago is a world apart, with a unique history and rhythms all its own. The city has produced some of Cuba's greatest contemporary musicians as well as several of its most stalwart revolutionaries, and it has served as the stage for some of the most storied events in Cuba's modern history. As the capital of the old Oriente province, it has the largest Afro-Cuban population in Cuba and a resolutely Afro-Caribbean feel that distinguishes it from the rest of Cuba.
Founded in 1515, Santiago was one of the first of seven towns in Cuba and the Spanish colony's capital until 1553. Diego Velázquez, the founder of the original seven villas, built his mansion here, and the house still stands in the heart of the historic quarter. The Spanish character of the city would soon be supplemented by other influences. After the 1791 revolution in Haiti, a large number of French coffee plantation owners fled with their African slaves and made their way to Santiago. Black Haitian workers followed, as did large contingencies of West African slaves, sold to work on the plantations.
While downtown Santiago has the requisite noise, traffic, and urban chaos of a large city, it retains the intimate, friendly feel of a provincial capital, with peaceful neighborhoods where men play dominoes outdoors on hilly streets.
Santiago continues to earn its reputation as one of the liveliest and most individualistic cities in Cuba. The city's annual Carnival celebrations in July are famous throughout Cuba, predated by the boisterous and entertaining Festival del Caribe and Fiesta del Fuego at the beginning of the month. Afro-Cuban religious traditions, including Santería and other forms of worship, have their strongest hold here. And Santiagueros are also recognized for their take on Cuban Spanish, with a unique vocabulary and singsong rhythm.
Santiago fans out from a large, deep natural bay -- guarded by the 16th-century El Morro fortress -- and sits at the base of low mountains. Interesting excursions await visitors with time to explore outside the city: El Cobre is a sacred shrine set in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Maestra, while Gran Piedra is a rocky area just outside the city that invites hiking in its cool environs.
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