Province of Villa Clara, Cuba
Known as the City of Che Guevara. But I loved the city for its romantic feel and the music scene.
Yes, we came here for the revolution legacy and found music. In the hub of the city, Parque Vidal, we heard rock and roll music by a young band, while symphonic music plays in the Glorieta gazebo and the Marquesina bar is home to guaracha music. Che's city has certainly become the place of a little cultural revolution. The city’s radical spirit manifests itself in forward-thinking club nights, including the country’s only official gay club with a drag show. The city's LGBT cultural centre and space is called El Mejunje (The Mixture). I wonder what Che would think today. He infamously sent gay people to the concentration camps that he set up after the Revolution for state enemies. Interestingly, the new constitution of Cuba came into force on 10 April 2019 and it bans discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation. It also removes the requirement that marriage be 'between one man and one woman'. Although this does not specifically allow same-sex marriage, it is a step forward. Cuba is definitely changing.
As I already mentioned, Santa Clara was on our 'revolutionary' route. We came here specifically to embrace the Revolution because my co-traveller Daniela was writing a travel review of Cuba on the 60th anniversary of the Revolution. My son Rhodri was doing photography for her project. For my husband Rhod and myself it was just a holiday. We came here in January 2019, on a three-day road trip from Havana.
This is the city of Che Guevara because the last battle in the Cuban Revolution took place here, under his command. It was a decisive chapter in the revolution as President Batista escaped Cuba within 12 hours. Che Guevara was executed years later in Bolivia, while trying to spark another revolution there, and Fidel had him buried in Santa Clara in 1997, when his body was found. Camilo Cienfuegos also fought for this city, but he died when flying between Camagüey and Havana. Lost or assassinated? Funny how revolutions work, often discarding those who started the fire for change. So no body, and no funeral for Camilo and Santa Clara remains Che's city. For the details of his Mausoleum see my separate post Che's Monument and Mausoleum. Huge and impressive but for me, it posed a lot of questions about the substance of the Cuban revolution.
As for the city itself, it felt like being in Europe. Cobblestone streets, pretty colonial houses, people on the park benches, happily chatting into the night. And music everywhere. You see, before we came to Cuba, everybody told us there would be music at every corner. And this was not the case. Maybe the trends are changing, otherwise I have no explanation for the lack of music. Music at each petrol station? No such thing. Music at restaurants? We found four private restaurants in the whole of Havana that played music for foreign customers. Nowhere else, certainly not at the restaurants for locals. Music in shops? No radio was turned on (well, and as there were no products for sale, why would they need background music?). Music in the countryside? None. So to find music in Santa Clara in a bar for the locals was a big deal for us.
Here is our encounter with this delightful city. By the time of our arrival, around 6pm, it was nearly dark (we drove from Havana that day, with a short stop at the Varadero beach resort). Our driver Noel stopped his 1952 Chevrolet right by the main square, Parque Vidal. Wow! A large square park with trees and statues, lined with colonial buildings, all beautifully restored (unlike many in old Havana). The first one, on our left, was Hotel Santa Clara Libre (formerly the Santa Clara Hilton), scarred by bullet holes from the famous battle. Not a very attractive building when compared to the rest of the old beauties but nevertheless we were looking at it, inspecting the bullet holes, when a person approached us and offered us a casa particular. The private homestay was just across the street from the hotel. We agreed and carried our luggage to the third floor, only to find out that suddenly the agreed price had changed and no, we could not enter the kitchen to make coffee. So we tried Plaza Central Hotel on the main square instead. The receptionist recommended us the same casa particular, rather than the hotel room. It was clear that the casa particular in question was her cousin's apartment and they just helped each other here. Why would the receptionist offer a hotel owned by the state when their family member could benefit instead? Logical; I can't blame them.
We then tried another hotel, round the corner, Hotel Floreale. The colonial house with its spacious entry hall looked rather Italian with its marble columns. After check-in we returned to the main plaza. The atmosphere was just so inviting. People were sitting on benches around the Glorieta gazebo. Vidal Park is certainly a meeting place, starting point or simply a stop during the day’s journey.
We then tried another hotel, round the corner, Hotel Floreale. The colonial house with its spacious entry hall looked rather Italian with its marble columns. After check-in we returned to the main plaza. The atmosphere was just so inviting. People were sitting on benches around the Glorieta gazebo. Vidal Park is certainly a meeting place, starting point or simply a stop during the day’s journey. Next to it we spotted a bust of Leoncio Vidal, the colonel from the War of Independence, who died on that spot fighting Spanish forces, and for whom the park is named. Yet another statue, that of Marta Abreu, told us about another part of the town's history. Santa Clara was once literally known as 'the city of Marta'. She donated money to build Teatro la Caridad (the Charity Theatre), schools and shelters for poor children, an electrical plant, a train station, a fire station and public laundries. While Santa Clara was founded in 1689 by a few families from the town of Remedio (escaping constant attacks from pirates), it was really Marta Abreu who 'made' this landlocked city 200 years later.
While checking out the statues, we were approached by a young man who offered us a Wi-Fi card (for 10CUCs=10US), which we bought. I like the fact that in Cuba people offer the services that you need right in the street. That way everybody benefits. We had no idea at the time where else we could have bought it otherwise. For dinner we opted for the restaurant Santa Rosalía, just round the corner from the plaza. It is a huge building with tall ceilings and an indoor patio. We heard a pianist and that is what lured us in. We were the only foreigners in the place, and I can't judge if that was a coincidence. But it is for sure a state-run restaurant, not private. We were told that a live band would start from 10pm but by then we were gone. As for the food, we chose a buffet dinner so we could try different dishes and I must say it was our best meal in Cuba. The buffet included seafood, chicken, rabbit and even beef, the most varied menu I have seen in Cuba. And while Cubans eat mostly rice with their meals, this restaurant even had potatoes on the menu (also sweet potatoes). You may think I am too descriptive of our meal but chicken and potatoes are not readily available here. And food is generally not what you come to Cuba for. So this really felt like a special treat to us.
We tried ropa vieja, the national Cuban dish of shredded beef, cooked slowly with tomatoes and peppers. Traditionally, it was used as a way to consume the leftovers of beef stew. And why its funny name? It literally means 'old clothes'. Shredded beef and vegetables resemble a heap of colourful old rags, that is why. Variations of this meal can be found in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic so it seems Cuba stole this dish from the islands. Or the other way round? What is intriguing even more is that it is the national dish of Cuba, while Cuba is the land where beef is banned. Yes, 'red gold' is one of the hottest underground commodities in Cuba. Even if you have your own cattle, it is against the law to eat them or sell them. An individual owner of a cow can only milk it, not slaughter it. To buy or sell a cow, he needs the state’s permission. And why? After the Revolution, most of the cattle in the island disappeared. The Communist Party of Cuba decided to create a superior race of milk-producing cows by crossing the island’s native cows with some from India and Canada. But the new cows did not adapt well to the Cuban environment and many perished. The PCC then criminalized the illegal consumption of beef in 1979. Anyone caught killing cows or carrying beef can be sentenced to four to ten years in prison. Given the circumstances, I don't understand how they can serve it in restaurants and how this dish still 'carries on' as the national dish when the Cubans are not allowed to eat it. Imagine the temptation for the staff in the restaurant!
While walking back to our hotel room, we heard live music at the bar La Marquesina, at the corner of the Teatro La Caridad building. Unassuming little bar and so much fun! We sat down, had some mojitos and listened to Septeto Los Gimez, known as the local Buena Vista. They played ‘guaracha’ music, a mix of funny songs. This music style has a rapid tempo and comic lyrics. Such songs were played in comic theatres in the mid-19th century and it was also a favourite musical form in the brothels of Havana.
The group has some veterans as it started 50 years ago. They often dedicate one of their songs to a new visitor. In our case it was our travel companion Daniela. Dedicating a song to someone is improvising, on the fly, fun for the receiver. Daniela certainly enjoyed it. The Septeto Los Gimez is an amateur group but they do sell CDs. We did buy one but here is a link to Youtube that someone posted, to get a sound bite.
In the morning we returned to Parque Vidal, to sit on a bench again and observe the life of the city. Would you believe that the park was encircled by twin sidewalks during colonial times, with a fence separating blacks and whites? Today, all races are mixed on the benches here, young people stopping on their way to work, old men in guayabera shirts gossiping and young kids getting pulled around in carriages led by goats. Yes, by goats! A speciality of Santa Clara. I was trying to find an explanation for such rides and the answer was hiding in a statue of Che on the way to the train that he derailed during the revolutionary fight in the city (Tren Blindado, check it out on your way to the Mausoleum). On his left shoulder he has a child (a symbol of new generations) and on his right shoulder there is a small statue of him riding a goat. It is a reference to Che' childhood, as he rode away from the security of his family in Argentina, to the big unknown world. Today it is a traditional entertainment of children of Santa Clara, during the weekend, to circle the plaza on such a carriage.
And there is one more statue worth mentioning. The Boy with a Boot (El niño de la bota), a long-standing city symbol, in the main park. The boy is standing with a bare right foot and holding up his right boot. Water flows from the toe of the boot, creating a fountain. There are a number of such statues in various cities (24 in total), made by the New York company J.L. Mott. The boy is reported to be a young Italian newspaper seller who drowned. Another story has him as an American civil war drummer-boy who carried water in his leaking boot to help fallen comrades. In yet another version he is a firefighter using his boot in a bucket chain. So which one applies to Santa Clara?
I like the fact that the boy offers an open-ended story. I don't think he represents the American drummer-boy nor the Italian newspaper boy. It is certainly not related to any communist propaganda and that makes it really appealing, so different from most sculptures in Cuba.
The clue might be with the person who ordered the statue. It was a Colonel of the Liberation Army, Francisco Lopez Leiva, who chose it in 1925 from a catalogue of the J.L. Mott art shop, and he had it brought from New York to Cuba and set up in a fountain of his own design. And why? Lopez became a journalist and in his newspaper articles he was an advocate for the need of building an aqueduct, bringing clean water to Santa Clara. Once built, in that context, it seems logical that this boy simply could have been a celebration of newly found fresh water.
For me the boy seems a silent witness of all the changes to Santa Clara ever since. And they keep coming: recognising private property, enabling internet access, encouraging foreign investment. But the traveller does not need to be worried. While there is now a newer fleet of imported vehicles, you can still have a ride in an old classic. The changes are not changing the city dramatically. It still has a romantic feel and keeps its identity, while the food, accommodation and the connection with the world is improving….
How to get there:
Arriving by car, you will enter the city on the Carretera Central. From the east, turn off at Colón, from the west at Rafael Tristá. Both are one-way streets that will lead you to the hub of the city, Parque Vidal.
If you want to go by bus, use Viazul services.
Mix & Match:
You can combine with a trip to Cienfuegos or Havana.