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Cuba is littered with must-see sights relating to the revolution and the immediate euphoria which surrounded the end of the American-influenced Batista regime. In Havana there is the impressive Museo de la Revolucion housed in the former presidential palace along with the world-famous sculpture of Che Guevara at the Plaza de la Revolucion and at the Bay of Pigs there are small monuments on the roadside at each spot where one of Castro's men died. On our visit to Cuba, we did not feel the impact of the revolution anywhere as strongly as we did in Santa Clara. Here you'll find loads of murals dedicated to Che Guevara, the Argentinian-born hero of the revolution who was made Minister for Finance and put in charge of educating Cubans about Marxism after the overthrow of the Batista government; at bus stations, on the side of petrol stations, outside the many CDR offices (the CDR is the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution - a neighbourhood group responsible for ensuring that people in the area live according to socialist principles - many see it as a group of busy-bodies spying on behalf of the government) - basically any spare space suitable for a mural.
Most importantly, though, in Santa Clara is the national monument to Che Guevara and the heroes of the liberation of Santa Clara, for it was due to the events in the city that the government finally fell and Batista fled the country. The city still bears the scars of the battle that raged almost fifty years ago and the citizens of Santa Clara know fully the contribution of their city and its people to the struggle for liberation.
Many travellers within Cuba do not leave enough time to do justice to Santa Clara, stopping off just long enough to have their photograph taken at the Che Guevara monument before moving on again. However, the city has plenty to offer and visitors shoudl leave at least two days to do it justice.
Most visitors arrive by bus (Santa Clara is no longer part of Cuba's less than extensive rail network) and the bus station which receives intercity bus services is located slightly outside the centre of town. We were met by "the Senora" (as she will hereafter be known); "Our Man in Havana" had contacted her and advised her what time we'd be arriving so she came to meet us. We took a horse and cart to her house, taking in the hustle and bustle as we made our way through the busy streets.
We were amazed when we went into her house. It looked to be a very narrow house in the middle of a terrace (indeed it was narrow) but from the front door we could see all the way through to the back of the house. Down on side ran an unroofed corridor full of sunlight and the most beautiful plants and hanging baskets - the Senora's pride and joy. She was often to be found pruning or re-potting and the place really looked wonderful because of her endeavours. The first room was a small living room complete with the ever-present red vinyl sofa and above it on the wall, a large framed and now faded and yellowing picture of Che Guevara. When you walk through the residential areas of Santa Clara you can see that most houses have such a portrait of Guevara in their living rooms - more so than in other cities.
Carrying on from this was another small sitting area with a TV set, a couple of wooden armchairs and the most wonderful 1940s bar - sadly now a bit battered and with most of it original door handles missing but still a stylish piece, next to which stood an antique champagne cooler.
Then came the indoor garden area, and leading off this were the bedrooms, the dining room (in which was a cabinet crammed with fantastic art deco pieces); the large kitchen was situated at the rear of the house.
Our room was a good size and had an small en suite shower, though we didn't trust the electrics and opted for cold showers only during our two night stay. While there was little traffic on the street outside we could still hear the clip clop of horses and the hooting of the bici-taxis as they went past. More entertaining was the indoor traffic - the Senora had loads of visitors and she was always answering the door to someone fetching something to sell for hard currency (only people dealing with tourists usually get their hands on hard currency - see my other ops on Cuba) and only hard currency will do when you suddenly get guests who want fish for dinner.
Arriving late in the afternoon we decided to leave the major sightseeing for the following day and headed to the Parque Vidal - not a park but a large pleasant square in the centre of the city with fountains, plenty of places to sit and a very British-looking white wrought iron bandstand. This is where the people of Santa Clara stop to sit and chat, where the school children take their sandwiches at lunchtime and where the teenagers congregate in the evenings. There are cafes and restaurants around the square and a branch of the famous Cuban ice cream parlour Coppelia. We however, bought our orange-flavoured ice cream from a street vendor; he had no cones but our ice-cream was served in a piece of brown paper folded into a cone shape.
Many of the city's famous buildings look onto the square. One such is the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, the tallest building in the city; its facade still bears bullet marks from the fighting in 1958, one of the defining moments of the revolution. Having read that the hotel had a rooftop bar we decided to have a look for ourselves.
The first step was to see a lady whose official job seemed to be to take money from people (hotel guests included) wishing to use the reeking toilets on the ground floor of the hotel. We had to show our passports and sign two forms before we were given a ticket which we took to the main reception desk and handed over with a Convertible Peso. We then waited an eternity for the lift to come back to the ground floor and were ushered into the lift by a man speaking poor English and who claimed to be a guide. We said we didn't want a guide but he kept trying to tell us more useless information about the hotel. He took the hint eventually when we turned our backs on him having reached the top floor and made our way past more stinking toilets out onto the roof top.
Here there was a handful of cheap plastic tables and chairs (every table had wonky legs, sending drinkings flying across the table if you forgot NOT to rest your arms on the table). The waiter brought over a beer and a mojito and attempted to answer our basic questions based on what we could see, but was a bit of a dead loss really - questions about baseball (highly popular in Cuba) could not elicit a response about the date of the next match, how the team was doing or at what time matches are usually played. Nevertheless the view was wonderful and it is the best way to appreciate that the city sits in a basin surrounded by rugged hills on all sides.
Our second encounter with the hotel came when we were looking for somewhere to eat the following evening. We had turned down a few eating places because they just looked awful and another couple because they were already full with queues outside the doors. We had hoped someone would approach us to recommend a paladar but none had materialised. Our last resort was the Hotel, after all in most cities you would expect that the largest hotel would be a safe bet to get something to eat.
Reaching the restaurant we were at first turned away by a disinterested waitress because we were not hotel residents. Then someone looking like a manager called us back and led us into a smaller dining room with about five tables, where we were seated at table which seemed to have been used several times already that night judging by the stains and crumbs on the cloth. We were given a menu which had barely a handful of dishes and when we ordered were told that most of them were not available. Frustrated we were about to leave when one of the waiters asked us to wait while he made a phonecall. When he retruned he told us to wait downstairs at the front door and someone would come to collect us.
Someone did come to collect us. A man whob took us in a very decrepit car, reeking of petrol, to his family's paladar(see my review of "Cuba in general" for more on paladares), tucked away discreetly on a side street (paladares may not promote themselves in Santa Clara and are therefore often very hard to find). There we ate like kings and were entertained when the guests of the owners sitting at the other end of the dining room took a guitar from behind the bar and started playing and singing Cuban folksongs. What started off a disastrous night became one of the best of our three week stay!
This, though, is indicative of what is lacking in Santa Clara. So much more could be done to attract and cater for tourists with losing any of the charm that makes the city so special. One such issue is that of the opening hours and days of the major sights of the area. Cuba in general does not have dedicated tourist offices and very little printed literature is available within the country. This often means taking chance and finding places closed either because of strange opening hours or for long-term closures to carry out refurbishment or repairs.
The museum at the mausoleum underneath the Che Guevara monument was closed for the foreseeable future when we visited in November. We were, however, still able to walk right up to monument which is a mammoth sculpture of El Che (erected in 1987) in revolutionary uniform carrying a gun slung over his shoulder. It stands on a series of massive plinths and visitors can climb these to get close enough to read the inscriptions engraved into the blocks (all in Spanish but those with a smattering should be able to get the gist). The mounment overlooks the Plaza de la Revolucion which is vast paved and lawned area which is used every year for a huge rally. Along the edges are massive hoardings on which are more portraits of Guevara and revolutionary slogans. In all a truly emotive sight.
A small doorway at the rear leads visitors to the mausoleum. In the 1997 the bodies of 17 revolutionaries, including Guevara, were brought back from Bolivia, where they had been executed, allegedly by CIA agents, and buried under the monument. A candle burns constantly and on the walls are the sculpted heads of those guerillas buried there. It is a very tranquil and sacred-feeling place.
Another memorial to the guerillas in Santa Clara is "El Treno Blindado" - the derailed train which is on display next to the railway track where, in an ambush devised by Guevara himself, a tank was used to remove sections of the track to scupper a train carrying a larg number of Batista's troops. The carriages have now been adapted to house a series of exhibits relating to the role of Santa Clara in the revolution. The guidebooks say this is free but its unlikely you'll be able to get away without having been asked for one Convertible Peso by the attendant. The captions with the exhibits are in Spanish and English so its not necessary to pay the languages students who loiter near the carriages hoping to make a few bucks. This isn't much to keep you here more than thirty minutes but it is a monument to an important chapter in Santa Clara's (and indeed Cuba's) history.
Santa Clara does not have many of the colonial monuments that can be seen in other Cuban cities. In fact, Santa Clara was not originally the chief town of Villa Clara province but became so following a fire in the then more important town of Remdios. As a result, Santa Clara has a more modern feeling than other towns although it does have the Teatro de la Caridad (a 19th century theatre where the revenue from performances would be given to charity, and the Museum of Decorative Arts which displays a vast array of furntiure from the colonial period. Both are worth seeing. Santa Clara's churches are not especially grand but are worth a look; the cathedral is under repair, as are many of the building surrounding the Parque Vidal but this means that money is being spent on restoring Santa Clara's gems.
On the northern edge of the town is another museum dedicated to the revolution. This one is at athe barracks where, in 1958, Batista's troops surrendered to the guerilas. A small display of historical items, photographs and documents can be seen here.
Santa Clara is home to one of the country's most important university's and this is reflected in the number of young people out and about during the course of the day. Many of the students spend their lunch break sitting in Parque Vidal and will approach tourists to practice their English. Young people also congregate here in the evenings to meet up and go off to one of the cafes or bars nearby. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and Santa Clara is one place in Cuba you're unlikely to be plagued by hustlers. The pace of life is much slower than in Havana or Santiago de Cuba and here the locals either express no interest in tourists or meekly approach you with really incisive questions about Europe. We were called across the street by one bar owner, probably because he wanted to get his hands on some Convertible Pesos, and he beamed with pride when he took up his invitation of a beer. The building had no roof, sticky plastic tablecloths and flies everywhere but it was still one of the best beers we'd had in Cuba and the owner didn't even mind when we paid in the local currency rather than Convertibles. Maybe he hoped we'd encourage other toruists to go in?
Accommodation in Santa Clara is limited if you do not wish to stay in a private house. Even the Hotel Santa Clara Libre - reputedly the best in the city - gets slated by the tourist guides who all mention its rather erratic plumbing. Private rooms in "casa particulares" are easy to find - you'll either be approached by the owners at the bus station or you can knock at houses where you see the green sign displayed. You can expect to pay around $25 (US) per night for a double room with private bathroom (including breakfast).
Santa Clara is a fantastic place for those interested in Cuban history. I would also recommend it to people seeking a break from the relentless hustling in some of the more touristy towns. It is a slice of the real Cuba where peole go about their lives largely uninfluenced by the distractions of tourists who do much to unssettle the younger popluation of the coastal resorts. I would suggest that anyone visiting Cuba should clear some space on theiir itinerary to call in on Santa Clara to soak up its very individual atmosphere.