You can take Santiago de Cuba in one of two ways: a hot, aggravating city full of hustlers and hassle that'll have you gagging to get on the first bus back to Havana; or a glittering cultural capital that has played an instrumental part in the evolution of Cuban literature, music, architecture, politics and ethnology. Yes, Santiago divides opinions among Cubans and foreigners almost as much as one of its most famous former scholars, Fidel Castro. Some love it, others hate it; few are indifferent.
Enlivened by a cosmopolitan mix of Afro-Caribbean culture and situated closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than to Havana, Santiago's influences tend to come as much from the east as from the west, a factor that has been crucial in shaping the city's distinct identity. Nowhere else in Cuba will you find such an inexorably addictive colorful combination of people or such a resounding sense of historical destiny. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar made the city his second capital, Fidel Castro used it to launch his embryonic nationalist Revolution, Don Facundo Bacardí based his first-ever rum factory here, and just about every Cuban music genre from salsa to son first emanated from somewhere in these dusty, rhythmic and sensuous streets.
Setting-wise Santiago could rival any of the world's great urban centers. Caught dramatically between the indomitable Sierra Maestra and the azure Caribbean, the city's casco histórico (historical center) retains a time-worn and slightly neglected air that's vaguely reminiscent of Salvador in Brazil, or the seedier parts of New Orleans.
Santiago is also hot, in more ways than one. While the temperature rises into the 30s out on the street, jineteros (touts) go about their business in the shadows with a level of ferocity unmatched elsewhere in Cuba. Then there's the pollution, particularly bad in the central district, where cacophonous motorcycles swarm up and down narrow streets better designed for horses or pedestrians. Travelers should beware. While never particularly unsafe, everything in Santiago feels a little madder, more frenetic, a tad more desperate, and visitors should be prepared to adjust their pace accordingly.