Founded in 1514, and one of the seven original towns established by Diego Velázquez during the Spanish conquest of Cuba, Sancti Spiritus boasts a history as long as its much more famous neighbour, Trinidad, but comes with only a fraction of the number of tourists. Although it’s the provincial capital, it’s a tranquil place that has few activities to lure tourists to spend more than a day or two.
We decided to stay for a couple of nights and arrived full of expectation. We’d booked the only hotel stay of our trip – in a renovated colonial-era building overlooking the beautiful Parque Serafín Sánchez – where we’d be celebrating New Year’s Eve. The day we arrived music was blasting from the Casa de Musica on the corner of the park. The party had started early and it seemed unlikely we’d be getting much sleep.
Walking the town’s narrow colonial streets and pretty squares, everyone seemed to be stocking up on rum. A huge shipment of which arrived at our hotel the day before New Year’s Eve. A good sign we assured ourselves, as a steady stream of people came to buy ridiculously cheap bottles of Ron Mulata. Bottles of sparkling Asturian cider were also flying off the shelves.
While we waited for the celebrations to begin, we explored the town and found our way to the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo. Founded in 1522 and rebuilt in 1680, this is supposedly Cuba’s oldest church still standing on its original site. The interior is very simple, but also very pretty. It featured a nativity scene and a decorated Xmas tree, unwittingly connecting Christian and Pagan traditions in one tableaux.
Across the road from the church is the Plaza Honorato and the Hotel del Rijo, one of several good ’boutique’ hotels in Sancti Spiritus. We decided there was little to do in town – the best museum is devoted to a type of Cuban shirt, the second best has a stuffed alligator as its star exhibit – and took up a table on the hotel’s lovely terrace. Piña colada in hand, we watched the world go very slowly by.
Compared to Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus offers a glimpse into the workings of a typical Cuban city, and we spent most of our time walking and discovering scenes of everyday life. Back in the square people seemed to be slowly gathering for what we assumed would be a big party. We’d been given a bottle of cider by the hotel and felt fully prepared for the festivities to come…
It turned out that this optimism was misplaced and New Year’s Eve was more whimper than bang. 2015 ended and 2016 began with little fanfare, this could have been any night of the year. The park was filled with people, chatting, drinking and using the wifi to talk to family and friends. We weren’t expecting fireworks, but there wasn’t any music either. We strolled through the assembled throng before heading back to the hotel for a nightcap.
Waking the next day, there seemed little evidence that a new year had started. The park was being swept clean, the only sign that anything had happened the night before was one man asleep on a park bench, empty bottle of rum next to him. Sancti Spiritus had sunk back into a deep sleep. As it dozed we took a taxi to another typical Cuban town, Camaguey…