Jul 052016


Cuba CongaAmericans think of the Conga as a kitchy dance done in a line.  It is a very different thing in Cuba.  During the weeks leading up to Carnival the streets fill with the Conga on any given day at any given time.

The Conga is both a drum (traditionally called a tambore or tambadora) and a dance.

The dance originated in Santiago de Cuba, exactly when and how, is not really known, although documentation traces it back to at least 1902.  It is said that the Conga was appropriated by politicians during the early years of republic in an attempt to appeal to the masses before election. During the Machado dictatorship citizens were forbidden to dance the conga, because rival groups would work themselves to high excitement and explode into street fighting, some things never change. When Batista became president in the 1940s, he permitted people to dance congas during elections, but a police permit was required.  Today police still accompany the Conga dances.

Cuban Conga


The use of costumes or props is personal, and not necessarily representative of anything in particular

The use of costumes or props is personal, and not necessarily representative of anything in particular

The Santiago de Cuba Conga is slightly different than the Conga of Havana.

These differences are in the instruments.  The Santiago de Cuba Conga or Congas Santiagueras includes the Chinese cornet, an instrument in the oboe family introduced to Cuba by Chinese immigrants during the colonial period (specifically the late nineteenth century). .

The Chinese Coronet has a very distinct high pitched sound

The Chinese Coronet has a very distinct high pitched sound

The Congas of Havana or the Congas Habaneras do not have the Chinese coronet, but do have trumpets, trombones and saxophones with a few cowbells and frying pans thrown in for good measure.

The drums used can be complicated.  These are variations on African drums that have been altered over the years as to be unrecognizable from their original form.  This description is of the traditional Cuban tambores.

There are three tambores : one requinto and two galletas. The requinto is shaped somewhat like a snare drum- about 50% wider than it is tall. It is hung from the left shoulder with the top of the drum slightly skewed to the left and is played with a stick on the right-hand. The galletas are like bass drums, but flatter. They are both played with a stick in a manner similar to the requinto, except that they are hung from the shoulders in such a way that the skins are nearly horizontal to the ground. The higher pitched of the two is called a redoblante.  The lower-pitched galleta is called a pilón.

Cuban Drums


Quinto Drum

However, often the drums will be whatever form makes noise.

Cuba Conga

The Conga today is a mass of humanity and noise.  People pour into the streets and follow the music.  The Conga itself is just a few small steps, and a feeling of movement, so the street is not so much filled with dancing as with rhythm and energy.

If you are interested in getting a feel for the sounds of the Conga here is a short video.

Fights do break out on occasion

Fights do break out on occasion

Homemade alcohol can be the fuel for fights or for more relaxed dancing styles

Homemade alcohol can be the fuel for fights or for more relaxed dancing styles

The choice of clothing is as colorful as Cuba. This is a typical way for a Cuban to wear a shirt on a hot day.

The choice of clothing is as colorful as Cuba. This is a typical way for a Cuban to wear a shirt on a hot day.

Neighbors hang from balconies and sit on rooftops to watch the spectacle go by

Neighbors hang from balconies and sit on rooftops to watch the spectacle go by

Cuba Conga

*Cuba Conga

*Cuban Conga

*Cuba Conga

*Santiago de Cuba Conga


Nov 092015

October 2015

Jardin de los HelechosOne day, out for a hot and steamy drive from Santiago de Cuba, we tripped over the Jardin de los Helechos.  It was after closing time for the park, but as we poked our noses around, the delightful director stepped out, beckoned us in, and gave us a full private tour.


Director Manuel Caluff

The Jardin is a one acre tropical wonder, situated just outside Santiago de Cuba, it is a fern and orchid garden and a research and study center. The center was once a family home, and is still lived in by the original family

Jardin de los Helechos* Jardin de los HelechosBegun 30 years ago, the garden is purported to have the most complete collection of tropical ferns in the Americas, and has a growing collection of orchids.

Jardin de los helechos*Jardin de los helechosThe Institute’s collection consists of 3000 tropical ferns requiring constant attention. There are five employees, in addition to Sr. Caluff, watering, pruning, tending the beds, and keeping plants free from disease.

Jardin de los Helechos

This chameleon changed his color several times as we watched.

Jardin de los helechosIt is a research center valued by students from universities around the world. The center hosts visiting botanists and other fern cultivators.

Jardin de los Helechos* Jardin de los Helechos

The garden is open 9-4 Monday thru Saturday and 9-12 on Sundays.  The cost is 1CUC for tourists and 1MN for Cubans.

The address is #129 Carretera Del Caney

Fern and Orchid Garden* Jardin de los Helechos* Fern Garden Santiago de Cuba* Fern Garden * Fern Garden Santiago de Cuba


Jul 312015

Carnaval SantiagoThe most famous of all Cuba festivals is the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba. The festival is held annually from July 18 to 27.

CarnavalWhile there is quite a lot of history, I asked the Cubans themselves what Carnaval is to them, and the most common answer, after the obvious, one week off a year, was tradition. This tradition is similar to what one would expect of long holidays around the world; family, togetherness, dancing, music and great food.

The Totem of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba

The Totem of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba

Like many other Cuban festivals, the Santiago carnival began as a religious event: the saint day of Santiago (St. James) is July 25. The festivities became a time for celebration by Santiago’s slaves, who introduced some of the dance, music, and costumes still typical of the Santiago carnival. Over the years, the carnival incorporated elements of African, Spanish, French, and communist Cuban traditions and culture.

carnavalWhat is today called the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba is not a manifestation of pre-Lenten carnival, which would be celebrated in February or March, but evolved out of the summer festivals formerly referred to as the Fiestas de Mamarrachos. Mamarrachos were held on June 24 (St. John’s Day), June 29 (St. Peter’s Day), July 24 (St. Christine’s Day), July 25 (St. James the Apostle’s Day) and July 26 (St. Anne’s Day).

A beer seller at Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

A beer seller at Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

This is where the beer comes from, it is home-made and you drink at your own risk

This is where the beer comes from, it is home-made and you drink at your own risk

The main activities were music, dancing and consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages, and nothing has changed.

CarnavalMamarrachos were held after the end of the sugar cane harvest, or zafra, which runs from January to May. This meant that unemployed sugar cane workers, most of whom were African and mulatto slaves and freedmen, were able to participate. Summer Carnival  originally was intended as a period of rest and fun for the laborers (the Blacks) and was eventually nicknamed ‘Carnaval de las classes bajas’ (or Carnival of the lower classes)…” It is said that the Spanish colonial authorities (in response to pressure from plantation owners) permitted the growth of the mamarrachos in order to distract the slaves (and freedmen, who were typically in sympathy with the slaves) from more subversive activities.

CarnavalThe festival underwent its biggest change in 1902 with the introduction of  floats sponsored by big-name companies like Cristal Beer and Tropicola.  At that time the celebration was transformed from a marginal black community event to a city wide popular extravaganza. This concept of sponsorship still exists, and while I asked many Santiagueros how that could occur during a communist regime, most said they had never even noticed, and had no idea.

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago, Raul was the guest speaker

2015 is the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago, Raul was the guest speaker

Today in Santiago de Cuba, Carnaval is celebrated on July 18–27, in honor of the Revolution, with the final complete Carnaval parade held on the 26th. This date commemorates Castro’s assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, which had been planned to coincide with traditional Carnaval in that city.


Perhaps the most distinctive element of modern-day carnaval in Santiago is the conga parade that takes place in each neighborhood on the first day of the celebrations. Led by the comparsas, almost everyone in the neighborhood leaves their houses as the performers lead them around the streets in a vigorous parade. Sadly, this occurred the week before I arrived, but here are some photos from outside the front of our house where it passed by.



Further shots of the Parade of Carnaval



While I can’t say enough about how noisy, colorful, crowded and fun, fun, fun, this entire experience is, one must also remember that the temperatures during the day were in the 90s Fahrenheit, and didn’t change but a tad during the evenings.


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When your eyes think you just can not take anymore in, fireworks go off

When your eyes think you just can not take anymore in, fireworks go off


A very typical sight around Cuba are peanut sellers, but in Cuba they are called Mani

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While not the greatest, as it was very, very crowded, here is a little more with sound.

Jul 312015

DSC_5250The second night of Carnaval I headed out to the kids area to see the rides. This is worth every moment, it is a true step back in time.

Of course there is entertainment along the way.

DSC_5073Carnaval has moved this year, it is in a variety of places around town as usual but the parade moved to the Port area.  It is my belief that Santiago de Cuba is getting ready for Cruise ships to dock during Carnaval when things finally open up. We shall see.

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I caught Grandma's eye, but the little one was too enamored with the lights

I caught Grandma’s eye, but the little one was too enamored with the lights

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Apr 202015

It is April 2015 and I have returned to Cuba.  This time I am traveling with a Cuban national, one of the approved ways of entering the country.

Our lady of the Assencion

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de las Asuncion

Santiago de Cuba, or Santiago, is the second largest and second most important city of Cuba.  However, the hospitality of the “Santiagueros” is second to none!

I began my tour with a walk around town at dusk, the temperatures in April hover in the 80s fahrenheit.

Parque cespedes

The Old San Carlos Social Club

This is the area around Parque Céspedes, Santiago’s most important plaza.  It, like the town, was once filled with large shade trees, sadly, the 2012 hurricane, Sandy, took over 30% of those trees down.

The church is the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de las Asuncion (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption). The majority of this neo-classical building dates back to 1922, although some parts are more than 400 years old, earthquakes have not been kind to this grand lady.  It is said that the remains of colonial governor and Spanish painter Diego Velázquéz are interred here, but no one is positive.

On the east side of the parque is the Casa de la Cultura Miguel Matamoros.  This was the former site of the San Carlos Social Club where wealthy Santiagueros enjoyed themselves. The building was the spot of the first radio transmission in Santiago.

Hotel of Santiago de Cuba

The Hotel Casa Grande

The Hotel Casa Grande is one of Santiago’s grandest hotels. Novelist Graham Green was a periodic resident of the hotel. Opened in 1914, the hotel has an admirer with a lovely website about the architecture and history of the structure.

Casa del Gobierno

Casa del Gobierno

This white, Moorish influenced, building houses government offices and is not open to the public.

The Diego Velazquez House

The Diego Velazquez Home

The Velázquéz home was built in the early 1500s and thought to be the oldest residence in all of Cuba.  Governor/conquistador/painter, Diego Velázquéz, lived upstairs and the lower level was a gold foundry where the furnace can still be seen today. The house underwent restoration work in 1965 and now houses the Museo de Ambiente Historic Cuban, with a collection of furniture, porcelain, glass and other household items.

Diego Velazquez Home

Some of the magnificent ornamentation on the Velazquez Home

The home incorporates some of the traditional building techniques used in Santiago de Cuba.  Santiago sits in an active seismic zone.  Woven sticks of different sizes are packed with hay, rocks, clay, and other materials, these are then plastered over.  This creates strong walls flexible enough to give during seismic activity.

Pico Padre

Pico Padre

Further in our wanderings we came upon Santiago’s most famous stairway, Pico Padre. Mayor Emilio Bacardi ordered the construction of these stairs in 1899, to honor Santiago’s Catholic priest Bernardo del Pico Redin, well known for his charity work at Beléns Convent.  The street has 52 steps.

Padre Pico


View from Pico Padre

View from Pico Padre

Children looking down on Padre Pico

Children looking down on Pico Padre


Museo de la Lucha Clandes­tina

At the top of the steps and  little to the right you will find the Museo de la Lucha Clandes­tina (the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle).  The house, which sits in the Tivoli neighborhood, focuses on the activities of the resistance movement under local martyr Frank País. The residents of Santiago, along with the peasants in the Sierra Maestra, were instrumental in supporting the Revolution.


A house across the street from the museum

As the sun started to set we wandered homeward, here are some glimpses into that walk.

Santiago de Cuba


Santiago de Cuba



The view from Balcon de Valázquéz


El Balcon

Balcon de Valázquéz  – Felix Pena 612

Santiago de Cuba

Architecture of Santiago de Cuba

Santiago’s architecture is as varied as one can see in any city.


*Santiago de Cuba


Art Deco in Santiago

Art Deco in Santiago


The lack of cars in Cuba make for an easy pickup game of football




Apr 202015

Plaza Marti

This is a Phrygian cap.  It is a soft conical cap with the top pulled forward and in the past was associated with the people of the Phrygia region of Anatolia. In early modern Europe it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty through a confusion with the pileus, the felt cap of manumitted (emancipated) slaves of ancient Rome. Therefore, the Phrygian cap is sometimes called a liberty cap.

The cap sits atop the Cuban coat-of-arms and here it sits atop a column in Plaza Marte.

Plaza Marti

Plaza Marte was constructed in 1799 and is one of Santiago’s central plazas in the “old” part of town. Named Liberty Square on June 12, 1899, to honor the independence of Cuba, everyone still calls it Plaza Marte. Marte is Spanish for Mars, the plaza is named after the Greek God of War.

Miquel Matamoros Matamoros

This is Miquel Matamoros Matamoros.  The most prolific composer of the Matamoros Three, he sits on the edges of the more touristy part of town and the entry to Avenida José A. Saco (more commonly known as Enramada) Santiago’s main shopping thoroughfare.

The Trío Matamoros was one of the most popular Cuban trova groups. It was formed in 1925 by Miguel Matamoros (8 May 1894 in Santiago de Cuba – 15 April 1971; guitar), Rafael Cueto (14 March 1900 in Santiago de Cuba – 7 August 1991; guitar) and Siro Rodriguez (9 December 1899 in Santiago de Cuba – Regla, 29 March 1981; maracas and claves).

The Enramada

The Enramada

The Enramada is part of the area that surrounds Plaza Dolores, a small tree lined park that is surrounded by colonial homes, most of which have been turned into tourist restaurants.

Plaza Dolores

Plaza Dolores

Musicians play to the tourists in Plaza Dolores

Musicians play to the tourists in Plaza Dolores

Across the street you will find another small area with a sculpture of Juan B. Gomez, Rafael H. De Labra and Miquel Figueroa fighting for the liberation of slaves, this statue sits in Serrano Park, a gathering spot for chess, checkers and domino players.


dominoes and checkers


Abel Santamaria

Across town on Trinidad street is the Abel Santamaría Historic Monument. The fountain, standing in front of a complex of buildings, honors the armed action of  revolutionaries led by Abel Sanataría Cuadrado on July 26, 1953.

Abel Santamaría along with his sister Haydée participated in the Moncada barracks assault in July 1953 that was supposed to start the revolution to overthrow Batista. After its failure they were both thrown in prison. Abel died in prison after being tortured by police trying to get him to reveal the location of where the other revolutionaries were hiding. It is said that the police removed Abel’s eyes and showed them to his sister Haydée but she never revealed where the revolutionaries were.

This is also the spot where Castro stood trial for his actions in the Moncada barracks attack, this is the famous trial where he represented himself and gave the closing argument that “History will absolve me”.


The Moncada Barracks

While now a school, the Moncada Barracks also holds a museum covering the period leading up to the July 26th attack.

On July 26th, 1953 during Carnival, rebel forces led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara attacked these concrete barracks to seize weapons. The attempt failed, but the revolutionaries gained recognition from their efforts, and many people consider this incident to mark the beginning of the Revolution.



The Moncado barracks

The museum proudly shows the bullet marks made during the July 26th attack.

July 26 Flag

Another hat tip to the revolution is this 1990s sculpture by Albert Lezcay sitting on the edge of Plaza de la Revolution. The Plaza is typical of those around Cuba in that Fidel delivered speeches from here but more importantly this is where the Pope celebrated mass during his visit to Cuba in 1998.

MachettesThis monument is dedicated to the 19th century war hero, General Antonio Maceo. Saw-toothed “machetes” rise from the grass and surround a large sculpture of the General on horseback.  If you are interested in learning more about this sculpture check out ArtandArchitecture-SF.


Heredia Theater

On Revolution Plaza is the Heredia Theater. It was opened on August 13, 1991 and cost 41 million Cuban Pesos to build.

Born in 1803, romantic poet, Jose Maria Heredia  is Cuba’s most famous poet, although he died in Mexico while in exile. Heredia, because of his pro-independence writings, is considered Cuba’s first national poet.

In the older part of town, at Calle Heredia 260, Casa Natal de Jose Maria Heredia is now a museum paying tribute to his life. The building also functions as a cultural center and occasionally features poetry readings.

Casa Heredia


Apr 202015


Strategically located on a cliff top, the structure, Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, took 62 years to build and was completed at the end of the 17th century.

It was designed in 1637 by Italian engineer, Giovanni Battista Antonelli, as a defense against raiding pirates, although an earlier, smaller, fortification had been built on the spot between 1590 and 1610.

The fort, built on the steep sides of the promontory (morro) has four main levels and three large bulwarks for housing artillery. Supplies would be delivered by sea and then stored in a large warehouse, which was cut directly into the rock.


Cannon Mounts

During the 20th century the El Morro fell into decay, but it was restored during the 1960s by Francisco Prat Puig. The fortress was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, and was cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture.


The fort’s true name is Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca


Although originally intended to protect against pirate attacks, El Morro  served as a prison in the late 1700s, with a gruesome history of torture.


A view of the bay.


A tour bus leaving El Morro and heading to La Estrella, the beach just around the bend


Farms located across the channel


Our group enjoying the view.

*DSC_1749 *DSC_1748Roberto making sure Otis has pictures to take back home with him to remind him of how hot and tired we all were that day.
DSC_1745 *DSC_1744Even though they show this as a chapel, I do not believe the Spaniards would have given up such a strategic window for that purpose.

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El Morro is about 6 miles out of town and very near the airport, so planes approach directly overhead.


When visiting, keep in mind, there is a cannon firing ceremony at sundown, which sadly we did not get to witness.

Lighthouse at El Morro

The lighthouse was added in 1840.


Apr 202015



Created in 1868 to accommodate the victims of the War of Independence and a simultaneous yellow-fever outbreak, the Santa Ifigenia includes many great historical figures among its 8000-plus tombs, notably the mausoleum of José Martí.

Santiago de Cuba cemetery

When the cemetery was inaugurated in February 1868, it was in the form of a Roman cross, divided into courtyards. The main ones were used to bury those high up on the social ladder, and they move outward until arriving at the areas where those perishing from yellow fever and cholera epidemics were laid to rest.

Bacardi Tomb

Emilio Bacardí y Moreau (1844–1922) of the famous rum dynasty



Memorial to Marine Stevedores and Workers


The Altarpiece of the Heroes, the resting place of Generals Jose Maceo, Guillermon Moncada and Flor Crombet, who headed a legion of officers and soldiers in the two 19th-century independence wars in Cuba.


The highlight of the cemetery, for many, is the tomb of Cuba’s national hero, José Martí (1853–95). Erected in 1951 during the Batista era, the hexagonal structure is positioned so that Martí’s wooden casket receives daily shafts of sunlight. This is in response to a comment Martí made in one of his poems that he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun.

Jose Marti


Jose Marti's Tomb

Jose Marti’s Tomb

Marti's coffin

Marti’s coffin which holds his ashes

José Julián Martí Pérez (1853 – 1895) is a Cuban national hero and an important figure in Latin American literature. He was a poet, an essayist, a journalist, a revolutionary philosopher, a translator, a professor, a publisher, and a political theorist.

Born in Havana, Martí  would travel extensively in Spain, Latin America, and the United States, raising awareness and support for the cause of Cuban independence. His unification of the Cuban émigré community, particularly in Florida, was crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. He was a key figure in the planning and execution of this war, as well as the designer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and its ideology. He died during the Battle of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895.

Jose Marti

Martí is considered one of the great turn-of-the-century Latin American intellectuals. His written works consist of a series of poems, essays, letters, lectures, a novel, and even a children’s magazine. He wrote for numerous Latin American and American newspapers; he also founded a number of newspapers himself. His newspaper Patria was a key instrument in his campaign for Cuban independence. After his death, one of his poems from the book, “Versos Sencillos” (Simple Verses) was adapted to the song “Guantanamera”, which has become the definitive patriotic song of Cuba.



An eternal flame at Jose Marti's grave

An eternal flame at Jose Marti’s grave

A round-the-clock guard of the mausoleum is changed, amid much pomp and ceremony, every 30 minutes.

A round-the-clock guard of the tomb is changed, with much pomp and circumstance, every 30 minutes.


This is a very short video I shot, make sure your volume is on, the music is half the entertainment.

Cuban cemetery

*Cuban Cemetery


Apr 202015

El Cobre

This is El Cobre, a church with a colorful history and a stunning interior. Built in 1926, El Cobre lies about 12 miles outside of Santiago de Cuba.

A focus of intese popular devotion—not just for Catholics but also for followers of Santería and even those who aren’t otherwise religious—the beloved Virgin of Charity was declared the patron saint of Cuba by the pope in 1916.


On the road to the town of El Cobre, before visiting the shrine, you are given the opportunity to purchase flowers, candles and personal shrines.  We purchased both flowers and candles.

Virgin of Charity

el cobre

As you can see, the church is well adorned with flowers from visitors.

El Cobre

The side aisles serve as a place to offer candles and there are framed prayers above the tables if you need prompting.

El Cobre

The history of the shrine is linked to a legend that has changed with the passage of time.

One day in 1608, two Indians and a slave boy (often told as a white, a mulatto and a black) were gathering salt on the coast near El Cobre when they saw something floating in the water. It was a small statue of the Virgin Mary, carrying the Christ child and a gold cross. She floated on a board bearing the inscription, Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad, “I am the Virgin of Charity.”

El Cobre Offerings

Offerings are kept in the Chapel of Miracles, including Ernest Hemingway’s medal for his 1954 literature Nobel Prize, which he donated to the Virgin. Common objects left in more recent times include replicas of rafts, representing safe journeys to America.

El Cobre

There are beautiful stained glass windows everywhere.

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This stunning wood mechanism is used to transport the Virgin through town on important holidays.


There is a dispenser for you to fill your container with Holy water to take home.

The Copper Mines of the area

The Copper Mines of the area

Jennifer and I at El Cobre

Jennifer and I at El Cobre

The town of El Cobre was founded in 1550 as a Spanish copper mine, worked by slaves and Indians. It was at its peak in the first half of the 19th century, when it produced 67,000 tons of copper. In 2001, scant production and low prices for copper on the world market led to the mine’s closure.



We stopped for coconut water and cucurucho on our return trip. Cucurucho is a delicacy of the city of Baracoa east of Santiago. Wrapped in a cone-shaped palm leaf (cucurucho is Spanish for cone), it is a mix of coconut, sugar and often other ingredients such as orange, guava and pineapple.



Cucurucho - it is DELICIOUS

Cucurucho – it is DELICIOUS