[dropcap type=”1″]R[/dropcap]ight in the geographic center of Cuba sits picturesque Santa Clara, a university town rich in culture and history, and the fifth largest with a population of 240,000. Often overlooked by tourists and travelers on their way to any of the main destinations to the East of the island, visiting Santa Clara can be a pleasant surprise for those looking for a more authentic Cuban experience. It has a compact layout that makes it easy to walk everywhere, and a relaxed, laid back atmosphere; local life revolves around the central square ‘Parque Vidal’ and the nearby shopping street ‘El Boulevard’.
Santa Clara was founded in 1689 by a small group of families from the northern village of Remedios, trying to find a safer place away from the constant danger of pirates’ raids. The location of the new settlement soon proved to be successful, as the population and construction grew rapidly following the Spanish colonial standards. By the 1800’s Santa Clara was the main town in the region, a convenient stopover for travelers on their way to Havana or to the East of the country.
Santa Clara is also known for Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary who became one of the top commanders in Castro’s revolution and led the guerrilla force that took Santa Clara in 1958; the fall of Santa Clara was a key victory for the rebel forces and precipitated the end of the Batista regime. Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967 leading another guerrilla insurgency, and became a worldwide revolutionary icon; his remains were brought to Santa Clara in 1997 and were laid to rest in an impressive monument complex, with a memorial mausoleum and square in the outskirts of the town.
Che Guevara Memorial
Visited so far by over 3 million people, the resting place for ‘Che’ and 16 of his men killed in 1967 in Bolivia is a memorial complex featuring a large square for parades and rallies, a monument now emblematic of Santa Clara, and a museum with an exhibit displaying artifacts, photos and memorabilia of Che, an extensive view of his life and work.
The monumental complex was built in 1987 to mark the 10th. anniversary of his death, complete with the huge bronze statue dominating the parade grounds and the landscape surrounding it. In 1997 Guevara’s remains and his comrades’ were brought to Santa Clara, and laid to rest in niches carved in stone in a small mausoleum crypt below the main monument, which visitors can access in small numbers at a time, air-conditioned and dimly lit by an eternal flame.
From the center of town (Parque Vidal) is a 30-minute walk down Rafael Trista Street, it will lead you directly to the Che Guevara square; you can take a taxi for 3.00 CUC, or for a more fun experience catch a horse-drawn carriage and ride with the locals for a small fee in local currency (pesos).
Main square Parque Vidal
Make sure you spend some time strolling around Parque Vidal: closed to motor traffic and circled by some of the most interesting buildings in town, it is the place always busy with locals going about their lives; there is a movie theater, shops, cafeterias, a movie theater, a high school, offices…or just a breezy spot with trees and park benches to relax, meet friends for a lively chat, young people on a date, and children playing around or enjoying a leisurely ride on little carriages pulled by goats.
Notice the large circular paved area around the neo-classical bandstand in the middle: this used to be the place for locals to see and be seen, it was customary in the evenings that single males would stroll the circuit in one direction and females in the opposite direction, to provide plenty of opportunities to flirt, meet, and strike a conversation, while the municipal band played in the ornate gazebo.
Towering over the square is Hotel Santa Clara Libre, with the facade pockmarked with bullet holes: this was the last stand of some of Batista’s government military and police members in 1958 when the guerrillas led by Che Guevara entered the city. The bullet holes were later kept as a symbol of the struggle. On the opposite side of the square is a large cream-colored building with a colonnade front: the former provincial governors’ building in the 1950’s when Santa Clara was the capital of Las Villas province, now is the public library ‘Jose Marti’, always busy with students of all ages.
On the North side of the square is one of the few and best preserved theaters from colonial times in Cuba:
La Caridad Theater
Built in 1885, Teatro La Caridad is one of a few theaters in Cuba that survive in its original shape and form: don’t be deceived by the simple facade of austere neo-classical lines, make sure you visit the interior, it is worth paying a small fee to take a look inside: the ironwork of the grilled balconies, the seats, the marble sculptures and floors in the lobby, and the magnificent frescoes of the main ceiling, it all takes you back to an era when world famous artists like Enrico Caruso performed here for wealthy local audiences. The theater is in use, so if you check the schedule you may enjoy a show in this great vintage setting, just keep in mind the ventilation is provided by the large doors and windows on the side and it can get hot in the summer.
On the same side of the square, but in the opposite corner is the
Decorative Arts Museum
In the oldest building still standing around the square, a typical colonial house from the 18th. century hosts the Museum of Decorative Arts; around a picture perfect courtyard complete with brick paving and stained glass windows, the rooms’ display recreate the ambiance of the homes of the wealthy families in the colonial Cuba era: Baccarat crystals, lamps, furniture, pottery, Art-Noveau mirrors, and ornate ladies’ fans. There are temporary art exhibits with painting and sculptures from Cuban artists from different periods, the Museum can be viewed in one hour and is a pleasant experience.
The courtyard is used often in the evenings for chamber music concerts and other cultural events, the program is posted at the entrance.
Armored Train Battle Monument
From Parque Vidal just a 5-min walk down Independencia street, you find the monument at the site where in 1958 a small guerrilla force under the command of Che Guevara ambushed the government troops riding an armored train, on their way to reinforce the city defenses. The rebels commandeered a bulldozer and destroyed the tracks on this spot and waited for the incoming train to derail, then attacked the tumbled boxcars with Molotov cocktails, prompting the demoralized soldiers trapped inside to surrender. The action proved decisive in precipitating the rebels’ victory in Santa Clara.
At the site you can see now on the side of the road a small memorial dedicated to celebrate the event, with the bulldozer on a concrete plinth and some of the armored boxcars in display, and inside the carriages there are artifacts, war memorabilia, and photos that you can browse for a small fee.
Santa Clara has one of finest cigar factories in the island (Fabrica de Tabacos “Constantino Perez”), and it produces some of the top brands of the legendary Cuban cigars. You can visit the factory in a much more relaxed fashion compared to the large factories in Havana often crowded with tourists, in about 30 min you get a good overview of the manufacturing process by the local guide, as you watch the ‘Montecristos’ or ‘Romeos and Juliet’ stogies being skillfully rolled completely by hand in front of you. Stop by the little cigar shop across the street from the factory, they not only have a great selection of quality cigars, but also Cuban rums, nice coffee, and souvenirs.
El Carmen Square
A small church on a hilltop and a tamarind tree mark the spot where the first settlers held mass in 1689 and decided to make this their new home: El Carmen Hill still has a tamarind tree (the fourth one planted by the proud locals to continue the tradition) now surrounded by a monument celebrating the foundation of Santa Clara, with the names of the original founding families. If you walk around looking for the perfect angle to take a picture of the pretty church, you may notice a monument to ‘El Vaquerito’ (the Little Cowboy) a guerrilla squad leader killed in action on this spot in 1958, when the police station across the square was under siege by Che Guevara’s forces.
Popular with locals and visitors alike, El Mejunje (“the Concoction” in Cuban vernacular) is a large courtyard with trees surrounded by ruins and brick walls covered in graffiti; the place where local artists met for jamming in the 90’s became a nightclub/bar/art space offering now a weekly program catering to a wild variety of tastes: young and old-school Cuban troubadours, “jukebox” nights playing music from the 50’s and 60’s, Afro-Cuban music and folkloric performances, Rock nights with taped music or live bands, theater performances, salsa dancing, theater in the courtyard stage, even drag shows as the nightclub became years ago a haven of tolerance for the LGBT community…
The place promotes local talents, and Cuban bands and troupes touring the country always make a stop at El Mejunje as it is recognized as a cultural hub in the center of Cuba, so if you are in Santa Clara check the schedule because there is a good chance to have a great time with the locals.
A small club featuring a variety of shows, live bands, karaoke and recorded music for dancing; with mostly locals in attendance and plenty of rum available, a lot of highly energetic partying and dancing is guaranteed. The place also caters to birthday parties and other social occcasions.
Bar La Marquesina:
At the corner of La Caridad Theater overlooking the main square is La Marquesina, a little bar with live music and a few tables outside, a great spot to enjoy a Cuban coffee, a cold beer, or a Mojito cocktail listening to popular Cuban tunes performed by a small local band.