July 11, 2019

ROB O'NEAL/Paradise
The National Sanctuary of the Virgen of El Cobre Basilica near Santiago de Cuba was opened in 1927 and draws Cubans from all faiths.

ROB O'NEAL/Paradise The National Sanctuary of the Virgen of El Cobre Basilica near Santiago de Cuba was opened in 1927 and draws Cubans from all faiths.

Since I admittedly get most of my facts for these columns from the internet, I figured I would let you know that Google’s estimation of the drive time to get from Cuba’s current capital, Havana, to Cuba’s second capital, Santiago de Cuba, is 10 1/2 hours with “light traffic.” That literally cracked me up. Ask anyone that has made the nightmarish trek, there’s “light traffic,” then there’s “Cuban traffic.” The latter consists of bikes, buggies, tractors, cows, horses, goats, oxen, dogs, cats, chickens and, oh yeah, pedestrians, cars and trucks, all of which, for about half the distance across the 750-mile long island, is on a two-lane road. Do yourself a favor and just book the domestic flight … it costs about $150 each way, takes about two hours, and there are fewer barnyard animals.

Regardless how you get there, southeastern Cuba has a lot to offer. Besides the incredibly unique and interesting seaside village of Baracoa, Cuba’s first capital, a trip to Santiago de Cuba is filled with a treasure trove of historic places and natural beauty.

But beyond all the historical stuff like San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” rose to fame in the late 1800s, or the Moncada Barracks where the Cuban Revolution began in the 1950s, the surrounding Sierra Maestra mountain range offers recreation and lots of unique, natural beauty. On the manmade side, there are old forts, a really cool, historical cemetery and one church, in particular, that continues to draw Cubans from all over the world. It’s basically their Catholic center of the universe.

The Santuario Nacional de la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Lady Caridad del Cobre’s National Sanctuary) opened in 1927 to house the famous artifact that, as legend has it, was found by three fishermen during a violent storm in the Bay of Nipe in 1612. For the lack of a better description, it looks like a fancy, 16-inch doll with a baby Jesus in her arms. Suffice it to say, it’s the most sacred object in Cuba, not only to Catholics, but also those who practice Santeria. (More on her at a later date.) The huge basilica is located high on a hill about 15 miles outside Santiago de Cuba, in the small mining hamlet of El Cobre and is well worth the effort to see.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II had the Virgen brought to the Plaza of the Revolution in Santiago de Cuba to be crowned. But it was Pope Francis who, in 2015, conducted the first Papal mass inside the actual Basilica at El Cobre, proclaiming the Virgen the “Mother of all Cubans.” To the faithful, a trip to the sanctuary at El Cobre, is a chance to ask the Virgen for a miracle of either prosperity or health.

If you go, you’ll know you’re getting close to the church when your car is swarmed by a bonafide gauntlet of street vendors selling trinkets, shiny stones (of questionable value), and models of the Virgin, lovingly nicknamed “Cachita.” Available in several sizes, the models have a small doll enshrined with a plastic shield on a wooden base, with three, teeny-tiny fishermen and a few crosses. The problem is, by the time your luggage has been “lovingly handled” at the airport, the real miracle is an intact souvenir.