Santa Clara Cuba Travel Guide
Of the cities that i visited in Cuba, Santa Clara was certainly my favorite. Havana was scam heaven, Camagüey a little gritty, Trinidad a recluse's oasis, and Santa Clara the charming City of Che (as i call it).
Like i mentioned in my previous Cuba travel post, Viazul provides several buses a day to/from major cities such as Camagüey, Havana, Sancti Spiritus, and Santiago de Cuba. A daily service to Varadero, Cienfuegos and Trinidad is also available.
Flying is also an option, and on hindsight, i should have just flown directly back to Canada from Santa Clara instead of taking the route via Havana. My advice is to get an open jaw ticket if you're headed east. Several Canadian airlines operate connecting flights between Canadian cities and the Abel Santa Maria airport so you have plenty of options. The airport connects some European cities such as Warsaw as well.
The must visit spot would be the Che complex, 2km west of Parque Vidal (via Rafael Tristá on Av de los Desfiles), near the Víazul bus station. The complex is a mandatory stop for those on a Che pilgrimage and it houses a monument, mausoleum and museum in honor of Ernesto Guevara. The above statue was erected in 1987 to mark the 20th anniversary of Che's murder in Bolivia.
Nearby, the mausoleum contains 38 stone-carved niches dedicated to the guerrillas killed in that failed revolutionary attempt. Che's body was recovered from a secret mass grave in Bolivia in 1997 and reburied here.
The adjacent museum provides an insight to the charismatic Che's life. There you'll see his transformation from a school boy to a revolutionary guerrilla leader.
Make a trek up Loma del Capiro aka Capiro's Hill for a view of the city. Che used this as a hideout and command center to invade the city in a battle known as Battle of Santa Clara during the Cuban Revolution.
A monument commemorating the battle was erected here. It's not easy getting to this spot and we had to ask for directions several times. Several detours through many unmarked roads later, we finally found the hill. The view is pretty amazing as you can see and there were locals and tourists alike chilling out on the breezy summit.
Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado is another place where Che left his mark.
Here marks the spot where Che and his band of revolutionaries derailed an armored train using a borrowed bulldozer and homemade Molotov cocktails on 29 Dec 1958.
There wasn't much to see here but it's kinda on the way back from Capiro's Hill.
We wanted to go for the cigar factory tour to learn a little more about these pricy smokes (not that we even smoke). Guided tours (45mins for 3CUC) were said to be available. However, when we were there, we were informed that the tours have stopped since Oct 2012 even though the factory is still in operation. That said, the tours may be back in operation again with greater relaxation in policies.
A little on the cigar factory. They hire about 300 employees to hand roll the cigars for brands like Romeo y Julieta, Hoyos de Monterrey, Montecristo and Partagas. Even if you can't visit, you can certainly get the cigars in the small shop across the street (add: Calle Maceo #181, e/ Berenguer y Julio Jover).
These quality cigars are super cheap by the way. They were going at 20 sticks for 50 pesos (which is about 2 Euros). I think the local sg price is about $50 or more EACH. When we got back to Toronto, we were chided by the immigration officer for not buying any. :P
Other than the above suggestions, if you're really lazy to walk around, you could just chill out by Parc Leonico Vidal, which is the main city square.
Catching a play isn't a bad idea if you understand the language. The theatre was rather packed.
At night, music and dance dominates the square. There were bands playing at different corners and people spontaneously breaking in dance. We joined in of course!
I highly recommend Casa stays in Cuba as they are a great way to interact with the locals. Also, they are cheaper than the hotels. That said, casa stays are booked using a trust system so it's the casa owner's words against yours. There can be situations of overbooking and you just gotta pray that they can find you alternatives as good as their casas. Remember to call ahead to reconfirm your reservations at least 2 days before.
For our stay in Santa Clara, we booked our lodging via BBInnVinales.com for 2 nights at Casa Hostal Autentica Pergola - Street Luis Estevez #61, Independencia (Boulevard) Y Marti, Santa Clara +53 42 208686/ +53 53427936. It was slightly more expensive than our other casa stays and costs about 30/35 CUC per night depending on the season. The casa comes highly recommended on several sites and i was really glad that i managed to book 2 nights here (it's a pretty place). However, they screwed up our reservation and we could only stay for a night. BAH!
Here's our room on the ground floor. It looks kinda dated but was sufficiently comfortable. There's no air-conditioning but it was breezy enough and there's a fan in the room. You can expect a hot shower though the water pressure is nothing like your regular hotels.
The interior of the casa is well maintained. It looked like a museum actually. Rocking chairs are available outside our room and there is a nice garden with a fountain in courtyard just beyond.
There's even a nice rooftop garden/dining area where you can enjoy your breakfast. We met other guests and they said the breakfast was decent enough.
Well, the not so friendly owners arranged for another casa for our remaining stay in Santa Clara and it was 10 CUC cheaper. At this point i was just grateful for a place to stay and it was just around the corner as well. It's called Hostal Amalia and it sits in a conservation house. For 25 CUC, we got ourselves a big room with hot showers.
The owners were super friendly and they helped us with booking a 'taxi' to send us to the station on the day of our check out.
I liked the nice rooftop terrace where we could chill out with our books.
The owners accommodated our early breakfast on our check out and i loved the fresh fruits, bread and omelette that they prepared for us.
We did try to look around for another casa while Pergola was trying to sort the overbooking problem. I'll certainly recommend Hotel Florida Center! It's not as as glitzy as Casa Hostal Autentica Pergola but it sure felt very homey. Plus it was only 25 CUC per night!!! Sadly they were fully booked.
We love to check out the 'supermarkets' (though they are nothing like our super and hyper marts). Santa Clara's supermarkets are very well stocked with snacks, fresh meat and alcohol (very cheap rum too).
Street vendors hawk their fares around Parc Vidal so you can dig into some porchetta sandwiches while people watching. The buns are freshly made from the bakery just off Boulevard street.
It's also interesting to see where our meals come from and I sneaked a few shots at the local market.
We had our best peso meal at Restaurante El Alba and even stood in line with the locals to get a table at this popular establishment. Another tip, remember to get your CUC changed into Pesos because you'll get access to these really cheap and good meals!
I had a Cordon Bleu for only 45 pesos (2 CUC/Euros) and it came with a huge serving of salad, black rice and chips. It was really tasty.
The grilled fish was only 70 Pesos and it was delicious as well
If you're not ready to rough it out at the peso restaurants (honestly the food was great), your best bet for a good but not overly overpriced meal (price is relative) would be from a casa. We did not eat at Hostal Pergola Autentica as it is a bit more pricey and we were put off by the mix up.
Even if you don't stay at Hotel Florida Center, you should head there for a meal because their food is AHMAZING. We paid 12 CUC for shrimps and lobster and that sauce was reminiscent of my best meal in Split!!! The boiled beef in olives and onion was light and sourish. I was expecting a rich beef stew but well.. In short, go for the seafood!
As for dessert, there's the super cheap Coppelia. I believe there is at least 1 in every major city.
BUT BUT BUT, we found a better quality ice cream parlor in Santa Clara!
I'm practically the statue of liberty with her towering ice cream cone! Head to El Batazo, a hole in the wall ice cream parlour just off Boulevard street. It's on some dark street and it was the only lit spot but look at that queue of Cubans. It's pricier than Coppelia (6cuc for 2 scoops) but it tastes so much better! Oh and they open from 9am-11pm! Yes that is how crazy Cubans are for their ice cream.
Super long post here but Santa Clara is certainly a must visit if you're headed to Cuba. I'll try to update on the other cities soon (fingers crossed).