The eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, the second major metropolis in the largest Antillean Island, boasts the privilege of being considered the capital of the Caribbean, due to its geographical location and its centuries-old history.
Founded in 1514 by Conquistador Diego Velázquez, the city was the Island's capital until 1607, and was hit by numerous disasters, including an earthquake in 1675 and attacks by corsair and pirates.
For that reason, in the late 16th century, the Spanish Crown decided to build the fortress of San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, which, according to experts, is one of the most formidable defensive works constructed by the Spaniards in the then so-called New World.
However, it was the most useless fortification at the same time, since its construction on a big rock in Santiago de Cuba Bay lasted nearly 200 years. In 1997, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the fortress, which currently houses the Museum on Piracy, Humankind's Heritage.
Downtown Santiago, amid an extraordinary variety of museums, lies the former Arms Square, situated in the heart of the city and known as Céspedes Park, in honor of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, also called the Homeland's Father.
Surrounding the park, visitors can enjoy countless examples of Spanish colonial architecture, including the Nuestra Señora de Asunción Cathedral, built in the 16th century. The church treasures a painting which many experts consider the oldest work of art of its kind in Cuba.
Near Santiago's heart is the oldest house in the Cuban archipelago. It belonged to Diego Velázquez and it housed the Casa de Contratación y Fundición of the Spanish Crown. It was made of blocks of stones and still preserves some of its original elements, such as Moorish decorations.
Reminiscences of Spanish colonial architecture flank Heredia Street, where many cultural activities lead visitors to better learn about the best exponents of "son", bolero and a unique movement of troubadours.
Among the institutions and museums on Heredia Street are the 100-year-old Barcardí Museum, which treasures the country's most valuable antiques, including a collection of weapons used during Cuba's wars of independence, artifacts that belonged to Cuban aborigines, and even Inca and Egyptian mommies.
In the outskirts of the city, the Gran Piedra, listed in the Guinness book of records as the largest rock, stands out majestic and magnificent. The rock weighs nearly 70,000 tons and is situated some 1,220 meters above see level.
Travelers can also visit the Baconao Park, a biosphere reserve that became famous because of its stone zoo in the so-called Valley of Prehistory, the Museum of Transport, the Aquarium and the Promenade of Sculptures.
Beyond the city limits is the Sanctuary of the Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, in El Cobre, to where thousands of people travel every year in search of hope to make their dreams come true.
However, the true complement for visitors is the local people, a blend of Spaniards, Africans, Indians and French, with a cultural contribution from Caribbean communities, characterized by their friendly, affable and hospitable attitude towards newcomers.