Lovely Santiago. Far from the capital in Cuba's mountainous 'Oriente' region, this perennial hotbed of rebellion and sedition is Cuba's most 'Caribbean' enclave. The difference is invigorating and sometimes overwhelming. Cultural influences here have often come from the east, imported via Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados and Africa. There's a raucous West Indian–style carnival and a cache of folklórico dance groups that owe as much to French-Haitian culture as they do to Spanish.
As the focus of Spain's new colony in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Santiago de Cuba enjoyed a brief spell as Cuba's capital until it was usurped by Havana in 1607. The subsequent slower pace of development has some distinct advantages. Drive 20km or so along the coast in either direction from the provincial capital and you're on a different planet, one of rugged coves, crashing surf, historical coffee plantations and emerald hills riotous with endemism.