2016 Santiago - One World Travel Tour

We knew we wanted to pin down a a date to go to Cuba and soon.  We started researching--where we would go, how we would get there, the prices of plane tickets.  It seemed harder than average to plan... We would need to take all our cash with us, for example.  Paying ahead of time for accommodations wasn't simple to figure out either, etc...

We learned of a festival called Manana, that would take place in Santiago in early May. This would be a first of its kind, electronic-meets-folkloric fusion concept, where several world-renowned DJs and producers would descend on the island for the first time.  Many would collaborate with local Cuban musicians and integrate western electronic concepts with local traditional styles.  I was immediately drawn to the idea; I was eager to see some producers I respected embark on such a unique cultural exchange.  We checked the calendar, locked down the dates, and started planning our trip around the idea of participating in the festival.

Traveling to Santiago, we felt like we were departing the tourist triangle of Trinidad, Vinales and Havana.  We were now embarking on a 12 hour ride bus ride.  We would traverse the entire length of the island, coming closer to Haiti geographically and culturally than to Havana.  We would meet like-minded travelers participating in the festival as well.  The city itself felt devoid of most tourist infrastructure.  We stayed at the central Casa Granda Hotel, an icon in the city; a jewel of a hotel that feels stuck in a time-warp.  Off the hotel steps, we were welcomed each morning by hustlers and taxi drivers eager to take us around the city or sell us some internet cards.  "Pssst, hey, you want some internet?"

The festival proved to be an amazing experience and none of it went as planned.  The first night, during Nicolas Jaar's closing set, it started raining.  It was a magical moment, as if the music had beckoned the arrival of the rainy season.  But, it kept raining the next two days, and the outdoor stage would largely remain closed.  DJ set times were constantly changing, and without internet or other means of communication, you simply had to show up at the venue and check the current reader-board for a lineup.  One festival patron commented that the festival seemed to be like the stock market: "Constantly day trading DJs and losing."  But, the entire weekend, we felt as if we were a part of the festival.  We were all down here, far from home, embarking on something new--with like-minded adventurers, music fans and musicians.

Surely, tourism-at-large is not a long way off for Cuba's second largest city.  During our stay, perched from our hotel terrace, we would see the arrival of its first cruise ship.  The cruisers would stay for five hours, be treated to a staged musical performance and a lunch, and then be shuttled back to the ship for an early evening departure.  They would be at sea again in time for their dinners.  We were here for four days, hitting the streets and back alleys, in search of a brief glimpse of a true Cuban experience.  See below for pictures...