Santiago de Cuba is considered to be the second most important city in Cuba after the capital Havana. But this city on the southeast coast of the island is in many ways the pulsating heart and soul of Cuba. Santiago de Cuba is the birthplace of Che Guevara's revolution, which brought Fidel Castro to power. The El Cobre Church in the Sierra Maestra foothills is the most famous shrine in all of Cuba. The Baconao biosphere preserve offers beaches, wildlife refuges, coffee plantations, and other natural and manmade attractions. The coast has 73 dive sites with clear water, deep ridges and 70 sunken shipwrecks to explore. If you happen to wind up here during the Carnaval de Santiago, then it is a whole new story, because the entire city is just one big party. You will have to rent a car in Santiago de Cuba if you want to see all this and get to know Santiago de Cuba properly.
The Baconao biosphere preserve is almost 10 miles from the city. Get a car for hire in Santiago de Cuba and explore the small beaches along the Baconao coast and the attractions inland. Visit the Prehistoric Valley to see sculptures and models of life-size dinosaurs and other long extinct creatures. Climb up to the Great Rock and enjoy the sweeping view. There are many other attractions, including a botanical garden on a former coffee plantation, a lagoon, and an aquarium where you can play with dolphins.
The city hall is a good place to start, where you can visit the historic balcony from whichFidel Castro gave his first speech to all of Cuba. The Moncada Barracks has historical significance as the site of the first attack by Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro. Another historic first is the Bacardi Museum, which dates back to 1899 and is the first such public museum in Cuba. The Castillo El Morro, which stands guards over the Bay of Santiago, is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. If you cannot be here during Carnaval, the least you can do is visit the Museo del Carnaval.
You can reach El Cobre after a half hour drive on Carretera Central. Legend has it that the statue of the black Madonna was found by a couple of boys in the early 17th century. The wooden statue of the "Virgin of Mercy" had baby Jesus in her left arm and a golden cross in the other hand. It was not long before the Virgin of Mercy up in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra was attributed with miraculous powers to help those who sought her out. Some say that many of escapees from Cuba successfully made it to Florida on boats and rafts only because they visited El Cobre first. She was declared Patroness of Cuba by the Pope in 1916. The impressive triple-dome Church you will see was built in 1927. The Church is called El Cobre because of the copper mines nearby.
There is nothing but Guantanamo beyond the Baconao biosphere, so your option for a south coast drive in Cuba essentially boils down to heading west on Route 20. Book your car rental in Santiago de Cuba and head for Pilon , in the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra. At this point, you will have to turn and head back up towards Manzanillo. From here, you can go inland to Bayamo and then Camaguey or follow the coast to Santa Cruz del Sur. Turn back here if you are on a day trip and want to head back to Santiago de Cuba. If you go any further, be prepared for an overnight stay.
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