Why Santa Clara is Cuba's capital of culture
Mention Cuba and you'll likely think of historic Havana, the beaches of Varadero, rural Viñales and the cobbled streets of Trinidad. But overlook Santa Clara, the capital of central Villa Clara province, where the country's hero rests and the nation's cultural scene flourishes, and you'll miss out on an altogether different side of Cuba.
Che Guevara may have put Santa Clara on the map with his monumental mausoleum and other revolutionary landmarks, but there's plenty more to experience here. As well as a thriving, inclusive space for music and arts, Santa Clara is ideally located close to the likes of colonial-era Remedios and the beach resorts of Cayo Santa María.
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All things Che Guevara
Che Guevara joined Fidel Castro and his small band of rebels attempting to overthrow Cuba's then-dictator Batista in 1956. From their guerrilla stronghold in Cuba's eastern mountains, Guevara rose to become Fidel Castro's confidant and a commander.
In December 1958, he captured Santa Clara during a key battle, in which he and his men famously derailed an armoured train packed with Batista's troops and weaponry. Fidel Castro toppled the Batista government and declared victory a few days later in January 1959.
Guevara later left Cuba to foment revolution abroad but he failed in Bolivia and was assassinated. His remains, which were found in southern Bolivia in the mid-90s, were brought back to Cuba in 1997 and entombed in a giant mausoleum beneath a towering sculpture of Guevara, which dominates Santa Clara's Revolution Plaza.
Inside, Guevara's remains, and those of his fallen comrades in Bolivia, are tucked into a slate wall marked by a photograph and adorned with a red carnation.
Next to the shrine is a small museum featuring an eclectic mix of his letters, asthma inhaler, photos, maté drinking pot, his Zenit 3M camera and the ashes of Alberto Granado, his biochemist biking companion. The two toured South America on their coming-of-age motorbike trip in 1952, later immortalised in print and then film as The Motorcycle Diaries.
A small museum, Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, can also be found inside the fated 1958 train carriages next to the railway tracks in the city.
Don't miss the Café-Museo Revolución. This former antique shop now serves up coffee, cocktails and ice cream shakes with a huge helping of Che Guevara.
The Spanish owner's devotion to all things Che and the Cuban Revolution is mesmerising. Sit down at an old sewing machine-turned-table, order from the menu, styled with a Cuban ration book cover, and admire the original photos, letters and artefacts in this extraordinary museum to Cuban Revolution politics.
Get your cultural fix at the city's clutch of attractions. Surrounding the bandstand of the main leafy park, Vidal Square, packed with locals on the public wifi connection, is the plain 19th-century Caridad Theater.
Head inside for the remarkable horseshoe-shaped theatre with balustraded balconies, and an elaborately painted ceiling. Check the boards outside for dance and orchestral concerts.
Across the square, outside the Casa de la Cultura, look for live son and salsa concerts. Dancers will invite you for a twirl: step to it if you have dancing chops.
A 19th-century cloistered beauty, the Museum of Decorative Arts features clocks, marble busts, chandeliers, painted fans and, possibly, the most ornate hat and coat stand ever created in bronze.
Like many cultural institutions in Cuba, it holds regular peñas (music gatherings); look out for concerts by Santa Clara's trovador Roly Berrío.
Roly Berrío's lyrics lure music fans to Santa Clara's hit and much-loved club El Mejunje (The Concoction), a bohemian cultural space in a colonial backyard with a bar-café, graffiti, murals, performance space and art gallery.
Its force as a cultural promoter, especially with the city's gay and trans scene, has helped cement Santa Clara's reputation as the most liberal of Cuba's cities.
El Mejunje's roster includes trovadors, local rock bands, cabaret, drag shows and children's theatrical entertainment. Thursday night's must-see is La Trovuntivitis, which celebrates Cuba's Nueva Trova with a great line-up of trovadors.
El Mejunje's inclusive spirit means it's a hotspot for visitors from near and far. Santa Clara celebrates International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia every May and holds transvestite catwalk parades on red carpets laid out in the city every March.
Also look out for rock festival Ciudad Metal, which attracts crowds to its huge tattoo convention, every November.
Santa Clara's other tats are the satirical pics painted on its walls. Some 50 years ago, the graphic humour paper Melaíto was founded in the city and, if you tour on foot, you'll discover the caricatures and humour in the street art by some of the main graphic designers.
Santa clara after dark
Kick back with an icy mojito or beer in the popular La Marquesina bar next to the theatre or at the great people-watching terrace of the Hotel Central. For quieter ambience, check out the local peso café Ay Mamá or the aforementioned Café-Museo Revolución.
For delicious Cuban criollo food, including ropa vieja (shredded pork or beef in a tomato and vegetable sauce) or shrimps in fresh tomato sauce, sit down in the plant and furniture-filled colonial courtyard of Hostal Florida Center. Live entertainment accompanies the evening dining experience.
The call of the sea
Head some 70 miles northeast to the flour-soft sands and shallow turquoise waters of Cayo Santa María, a string of islands that dot the Atlantic Ocean just off Cuba. The area's two premier beaches, Mégano and Los Ensenachos, are straddled by just one resort.
En route to the keys, pass tiny Remedios and its church with an ornate gold-leaf baroque altar. The town is famous for its annual Christmas Eve floats, parades, music and fireworks festival, Las Parrandas.
Be sure to stop for a steam train ride at the old sugar mill museum, Museo de Agroindustria Azucarero Marcelo Salado. Then indulge in all that sugar and rum as you slumber under a beach umbrella with a steady delivery of mojitos.
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