I quite like Santiago. It has a vibrant feel to it. People are moving here. Yes, that means lots of honking horns and belching fumes, but it beats Havana’s chronic vagrancy. I don’t feel as much the Walking Whitey Show that I did in the capital.
At first I went for a short orientation walk. I noticed a lack of restaurants, but did find the local branch of famous ice cream maker Coppelia. Eating there is a challenge, no doubt, as there are numerous counters to choose from and no one seems terribly keen to deal with you. In the end, I was thwarted by staff apathy and shuffled along, still without a taste of Cuba’s most famous helado.
A bit later it was time for live music, at both Artex and Casa de la Trova. The latter is a very famous venue and as such is now mainly the domain of tourists. And a couple of hookers, much to my dismay. In fact, touts and prossies are both more blatant here. Duncan, being a nice guy and Third World rookie, engages them all in conversation. Inevitably it ends with some guy following us down the street for ten minutes or trying to hawk some phony cigars on you. Or in one case, six guys following us, crowding around us, almost getting beaten with a stick by us. Damn I hate touts.
The music at Casa de la Trova was very good and ultimately we returned at the end of the evening to catch the tail end of the show. The main square, Parque Cespedes, is right down the street and incredibly beautiful. Peppered with lush trees, bordered by a swanky ‘50s James Bondy kind of hotel and a magnificent cathedral, Cespedes is clearly the place to see and be seen in Santiago.
The back streets are fairly quiet by night and the temperature is civilized. As many reasons as there are not to like Santiago (touts, heat), I think you’d be hard-pressed not to dig its charm.
The next day we were met with oppressive heat. I woke up once again feeling like I’d gone 12 rounds with the champ. The fact is, beds in this country are brutal. The One Pillow Program is killing my neck and I’ve had more terrible nights thus far on this trip than my whole expedition from Warsaw to Bangkok.
This blistering afternoon was time to explore the Morro, a fort perched on a cliff above the entrance to the harbour. A very impressive structure, with impeccable views of the verdant Sierra Maestra and glistening Caribbean. The walls were thick and solid, with but a few turrets to break up the intimidating right angles. Definitely a highlight.
After that, a return to Coppelia. I was determined this time, sitting down at a table. It took a while, but someone finally came by. Of course, the menu was entirely in moneda nacional, of which we had none. Dunc wanted to leave but I had to progress with the experiment. Whereas I’m cautious with people, he’s cautious with situations.
Anyway, the ice cream arrived. Three scoops each of chocolate, with cake. The flavour was good and I like the almost crystalline texture, though it’s pretty far from the ultra-creamy stuff we eat back home. Cost – 11 local pesos. That’s not much, less than fifty convertible cents, so I handed over 1 CUC, not knowing what would happen.
I’d already told them we didn’t have any moneda nacional so they couldn’t really be mad at us. But maybe they had set prices for those paying in CUC, higher ones than for pesos. Maybe I’d get moneda nacional change back. Maybe I’d get no change back. It took a while, but after consulting with a few other staffers the waitress returned with moneda nacional change. Finally! Now I can live the Oakes dream of street food and local dive bars!
But not just yet. Dunc had had enough of dodgy dinners and opted for a local paladar, which is a private restaurant, typically in someone’s house…sort of the food equivalent to a casa particular. This involved us walking down the unmarked pitch-black streets for fifteen minutes to get to a rooftop restaurant. Well, that was solid. Cream soup, salad, two giant skewers of perfectly seasoned and barbequed chicken, the best flan I’ve ever eaten, three beers and two coffees for $13. Awesome.
Now, the waitress tried to slip some extra coffee on the bill, which was annoying, but whichever. It was a quality feed.
All the coffee, however, made sleeping all but impossible. As usual, I was up bright and cracking feeling like a punching bag. It would soon be time to leave lovely Santiago.
Tags: Cuba, Travel