A visit to Santiago de Cuba’s historical hub, Parque Céspedes, will put the tourist in touch with the pulse of the city and the remarkable history of Santiago de Cuba. With the majestic Sierra Maestra in the background and resting on the shores of the Bay of Santiago, Parque Céspedes offers an uncanny look back into history while you enjoy another perfect day with live music, excellent Cuban cuisine, a beverage of choice and healthy doses of sociability.
In the 16th century, Parque Céspedes was already Santiago de Cuba’s main city square. On the perimeter of the square were the most prominent buildings in the region including the Santa Ifigenia Basilica Metropolitana, town hall and Governor’s House. Today, Parque Céspedes features the same cathedral, the National Bank of Cuba, the Town Hall, museums, shops, the popular Hotel Casa Grande and other colonial styled buildings all around. The wide open cobble stone gathering areas offer comfortable shaded benches where tourists and natives rest and interact. Many different shops dot the tree lined streets that filter to the square.
In the center of the parque, a bust of Perucho Figueredo faces a statue of the square’s namesake, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. The presence of the two freedom fighters contributed to the parque’s former name Plaza de la Revolución. These two pioneers of Cuban independence and freedom exemplify the pride that permeates Cuba’s second largest city and former state capital, Santiago de Cuba.
With about 500,000 residents, life in Santiago de Cuba is very different than life in Havana as a sense of pride and community still prevails. A day of sun, curiosity, music and fun at Parque Céspedes is sure to get you in touch with the local culture, Santiago de Cuba and Cuba itself.
Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819-1874)
Céspedes was a wealthy landowner and lawyer who returned from Spain in 1844 and acquired La Demajagua, a sugar plantation. His famous Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara) declared Cuban independence and called for freeing the country’s slaves.
Céspedes is known as the Padre de la Patria (Father of the Country). He led the rebellion in the Ten Years War that pitted tobacco farmers and slaves in the East against sugarcane plantation owners allied with the Spanish Governor-General and Spanish merchants in the West.
In April 1869, Céspedes was chosen President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms. He was deposed in 1873, captured and assassinated by Spanish troops in 1873. The Ten Years War ended with the signing of the Pact of Zanjon. Slaves were not freed and Cuba did not have its independence but the roots were presented by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.
Perucho Figueredo (1818-1870)
Like the statue of Céspedes, the bust of Perucho Figueredo rightfully belongs in the parque. Figueredo was one of Cuba’s best known poets, a talented musician and a determined freedom fighter. He not only helped plan the Ten Years War but he created Cuba’s national anthem, El Himmo de Bayamo, the words to which are etched below his bust.
Like Céspedes, Figueredo met an untimely death. He was captured and executed on August 17, 1870. After his passing, his daughter Candelaria Figueredo, took up the cause, carrying the Cuban flag into the battle at Bayamo.
Santa Ifigenia Basilica Metropolitana
Construction of the impressive Santa Ifigenia Basilica Metropolitana was first completed in 1524. The original structure had a bare resemblance to the current cathedral. A series of earthquakes and pirate attacks necessitated reconstruction on four occasions. The existing structure is the result of refurbishment in 1818. Further improvements were made in 1922.
Santa Ifigenia Basilica Metropolitana resides on a hill on the parque’s south side. The cathedral’s tower casts a long and welcoming shadow over Santiago de Cuba and Parque Céspedes.
The painted ceiling is one of the renovations. Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad, is portrayed in a sculpted statue on the roof and in several places inside the cathedral.
The cathedral also has a two-room museum with distinguished art collections and other objects portraying a history of the Catholic Church’s presence in Cuba.
Museo de Ambiente Historico Cubano
Formerly known as the Casa de Diego Velazquez, the Museo de Ambiente Historico Cubano was once home to Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the renowned Spanish conqueror. Velázquez resided on the top floor. The ground floor was used as a contracting house and gold foundry. Construction began in 1516 and was completed in 1522 making Casa de Diego Velazquez the oldest residence in Cuba.
Located on the parque’s west side, the museum is next to the National Bank of Cuba. The museum’s distinctive architecture includes Moorish-style woodwork and shuttered patios to fend off invaders.
When the residence was restored in the 1960’s it was opened as Museo de Ambiente Histórico Cubano and quickly became of Santiago’s most important museums. Period furnishings from the 16th to 19th century and remarkable porcelain and glassware from the same era are proudly on display.
Casa del Gobierno
On the north side of the parque is Casa del Gobierno, another structure with strong Moorish architecture. This building houses government offices and is not open to the public.
From the balcony of Ayuntamiento, Fidel Castro announced his victory on January 2, 1959.
Hotel Casa Grande
On the east side of Parque Céspedes, sits historic Hotel Casa Grande, one of Santiago’s grandest hotels. With comfortable quarters and two outdoor patio bars, it is impossible not to enjoy the sights and sounds of Parque Céspedes and of Santiago de Cuba. Music and conversations will rise up to meet you just as they did British novelist Graham Green, who periodically resided at the hotel.
Also lining the east side of the parque is the Casa de la Cultura Miguel Matamoros, former site of the San Carlos Social Club where wealthy santiagueros frequented.