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Chan Cham Perou

Santa Clara  —  Where is el Che? Che is everywhere. This expression, with all due respect for Che and for religion, arose quite spontaneously after only a few minutes of walking in the city centre of Santa Clara.

He is everywhere - on official buildings, as well as on the facades of businesses and residential balconies - the iconic Che with his star beret, armed with a visionary, determined and bewitching look in his eyes (from a photo taken by Alberto Korda). This is expected, since the most important events in the Cuban revolution, among which were strategic meetings and the victorious 1958 battle, took place here. Of course, the monument to the famous train attack, the headquarters of the Communist Party and the spectacular Che Mausoleum can also be found in Santa Clara.

Apart from history fanatics who will want to stay in Santa Clara for a few days, most travelers choose to spend a day in the city as part of an excursion offered from most hotel complexes in Cayo Santa Maria, with stops in Caibarien, Remedios and Camajuani.

A tale of a short stay with powerful moments.

Meeting with the Cubans

Beaches and the Cuban sea, as magnificent and unique as they may be, must be left behind for a while in order to appreciate the big island, its rich history, its contemporary day-to-day reality, and the Cubans with their sparkling eyes, smiling and singing lips and rolling and dancing shoulders and hips that quickly give rise to solidarity, friendship and even, sometimes, love, among travelers.

Santa Clara, a living memory

The visit to the Che Mausoleum, where his body rests, is unavoidable and memorable. The monument’s stunning beauty and scale leaves us speechless: the gigantic statue, which rests on a high pedestal, gives the impression that Che is floating in the sky. An engraved wall is erected on each side of the monument. One side illustrates his life and battles and the other reproduces his farewell letter to Fidel Castro.

The monument also houses an Eternal Flame and a museum that is rich with Che’s personal belongings. Photos are unfortunately forbidden. But one can easily imagine the galvanization effect this immense esplanade must have on Cubans when celebrating their country’s historical events.

The majesty of the site inevitably provides food for thought and entices us to learn more, to get to know Cuba in more depth.

Santa Clara, active and cultivated  

The main hotel in downtown Santa Clara is the Santa Clara Libre, once known as the Cloris. It is famous for events that took place there during Che’s era.

During our stay, a book fair was enlivening the pedestrian zone in the city center and the lovely and chic restaurant where we ate was decorated with works of art representing the Golden Twenties.

After a visit to the Provincial Museum of Villa Clara, the Museum of Decorative Arts and La Caridad Theater, it was nice to mingle with workers, students and families in the narrow streets lined with colorful and well-kept buildings.

On the "Green Route", between Santa Clara and Cayo Santa Maria

In a bus with salsa music in the background, we come across horse-drawn carts, 3-wheeled taxis called "bicitaxis" and proud representatives of the three eras of automobiles on the island: old Americans, Ladas and contemporary Chinese vehicles.

Motorcycles, mostly old ones, are also very popular. Might they be inspired by Che’s famous trip, which was well-documented in the “Motorcycle Diaries” movie?

As we watch Cubans practicing their second national sport – hitchhiking -, on street corners or at crossroads, government representatives, dressed in yellow, invite people to board government vehicles, attracting our attention.

The landscape is filled with garlic and onion fields and, as you might have guessed, tobacco and sugar cane. Small houses are most often charming with their pale colors and their windows and balconies decorated with white wrought iron and sometimes overflowing with flowers.

Remedios

The whole history of sugar cane exploitation is remarkably well illustrated at La Reforma, a true open air museum with human scale sculptures of workers, equipment and animals from the different periods and times of exploitation. It shows quite clearly the harshness of the lives that African slaves and Cubans, at the beginning of the Spanish occupation, had to experience. Fortunately, work conditions have since improved.

Real ancient locomotives and molasses wagons show the vital importance of rail transportation in the production process. And we were even offered a stream train tour.

The Mulata Rum Museum, close to La Reforma, can also be visited.

In Remedios, where legend says hell is located under the main square, we visit Saint John the Baptist Church, a gothic and Moresque monument, built in the 16th century. It holds the only Jesus in Carrara marble. Its altar is entirely covered with gold leaves and in the Virgin display window we can see an offering by the local baseball team for a miracle: a photo of the team with the ball that gave them the fist victory in ages…

Remedios is also a small town with narrow and winding streets, which were meant to outsmart the pirates, a charming Statue of Liberty and historical buildings, thanks to which the city was recognized as a Cuban National Monument.

Camajuani : the legendary cigars 

The legend is well alive in Cuba. Cuban cigars zealously maintain their reputation as the best in the world, notably due to the quality of tobacco grown in the country, to the aging process of the tobacco that lasts up to 4 years and to the fact that cigars are still made by hand by hundreds of artisans. Working for no less than 32 makes, they produce between 60 and 120 cigars a day, depending on their size.

A few tourism sites offer a short demonstration of cigar making; however, nothing comes close to a visit to a real factory, such as Tabacuba in Camajuani, to learn more about the importance of selection in the different parts of tobacco leaves. Each is ideal for a purpose - filling, wrapping or sealing - and their impact on the flavour, aroma and combustibility, as well as their categorization by texture, size and color. Preservation of the industrial secret, the private lives of the workers as well as fear of theft oblige visitors to enter the site with bare hands, no hats, no bags and no cameras.

We also learned that the perfect companion to the Cuban cigar was Ritual rum.

Caibarien

Caibarien is known as a bedroom suburb for workers in the tourist industry in Cayo Santa Maria, but it also welcomes tourists on its beaches and at a few hotels.

Intriguing: at the roundabout at the entrance of the town, a gigantic crab welcomes you. Why? In spring, the city is literally invaded by crabs… Residents happily chase them before cooking and eating them…

Cuban flavors, night and day 

On Cayo Santa Maria, between hotels, a new Cuban city has grown, known as Pueblo La Estrella: a few streets, restaurants, boutiques and a discotheque, as well as a main square with a gazebo.

During the day, artisans and businesses proudly display clothing, interior decorating objects, paintings, wood sculptures and leather pieces outside, celebrating the Cuban life in all forms. Sculptures and leather pieces that celebrate motorcycles and baseball, the national sport, are particularly attractive. Men will often be tempted by a baseball bat or a glove or a motorcycle sculpted in wood or leather, while women will walk away proudly wearing a new handbag or a ring made out of mother of pearl.

At night, musicians in the gazebo entertain us. On the main square, at a lovely kiosk equipped with a sugar cane press, we were offered a first glass of sugar cane juice, then a giant Cuba Libre, followed by a bottle of rum as a souvenir or just in case…

At a high end restaurant, an experienced barman showed us how to prepare three of the legendary Cuban drinks: the Cuba Libre, the Mojito and the Parrandero, then challenged us to try to prepare our favorite ones before we were treated to a tasty 4-course dinner.

Later on, the seven musician orchestra playing in the discotheque attracted everyone, first in a salsa and reggaton lesson, quickly followed by a dance contest. And the bar is still open… We finally got back to our hotel by 11 P.M. and nobody felt like going to bed… the feast continued!

The 26/26 Cayo Santa Maria Regatta

On every 26th of the month, 26 catamarans – the reason why we personally named it that- enter a boat race that departs near the new Eurostar Hotel and crosses the finish line at the Dolphinarium.

From the beach, the view of so many colorful sails on the turquoise water is enchanting. It is even more magical for tourists (2 per catamaran) who dare to go onboard and compete for a few convertible pesos.

It is a friendly competition between skippers, whose reward is pride, while the tourist crews of the first three boats to cross the finishing line win a swim with the dolphins and a free meal.

No need to resist 

In the area, American cars from the 50s are still running in the streets, most of them still in good condition. It is easy to ride in one of them: they are taxis. And if you add a small tip, the driver will be glad to pose with you for a photo.

Cayo Santa Maria : an international destination

This island, linked to the big island by a 48-km stone bridge, is part of the Jardins du Roi archipelago recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Cayo Santa Maria’s tourist development started only 15 years ago, but the quality of its environment and establishments make it the second center of tourism in Cuba after Varadero.

Quebecers were the first to discover it, but they have been joined by Canadians from British Columbia and Newfoundland. Argentineans and Brazilians are also arriving in significant numbers, attracted by the deep sea and harpoon fishing.

Eating well in Cuba

Yes, quality and diversity - even for a 4-star hotel - were offered at the Sol Cayo Santa Maria, noteworthy as the very first to open its doors in Cayo Santa Maria.

The dining room buffet fulfilled our expectations with ceviche as well as fresh meat, fish and seafood grilled for us on demand. The same goes for eggs and omelets at breakfast. And their espresso/latte/cappuccino coffee machine was very busy!

The very best pasta of our life, all holiday destinations considered, were enjoyed at the “à la carte” restaurant, La Fontanella. It was served with a blue cheese sauce or a lobster bisque sauce with shrimp and squid. The veal and fish “à l’italienne” were also divine.

Clients at the Sol Cayo Santa Maria have no cause to be envious of anyone booked in other neighboring sister-establishments: the Melia (4.5 stars) and the Las Dunas (5 stars). As a matter of fact, those three hotels are part of the quality Melia Group.

Worth mentioning is the sweet and well-positioned VIP section for kids in the dining room.

Where to stay and sleep during excursions?

We would suggest the following: stay at a complex such as the Sol Cayo Santa Maria, your best option as far as quality/cost, including air transportation, meals, nice rooms, polite personnel, entertainment, a lovely piano bar where you can listen to classics as well as cult film music, professional massages and a whole choice of nautical sports.

Since hotel rooms in other towns are very inexpensive, as is the cost of the Viazul bus, it is easy to go spend a night at Caibarien, at the Hostel La Nena, at the El Carretero or at Virginia’s Pension. Bear in mind that they are small establishments, so booking well in advance is advised.

Spending at least one night in Santa Clara is a must! Stay at the Santa Clara Libre Hotel, of course! Rooms in private houses (casas particulares) are also inviting and there are other establishments in the area but they would require a car rental.

Will we go back? Absolutely!

When? There is no bad season: we have travelled to Cuba in all seasons, even during what is known as the rainy season (very short) or the hurricane season (very rare).

For those sick of a long winter that doesn’t seem to be ending, why not in April?

Next time, we will be visiting the colonial city of Trinidad.

Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

www.gocuba.ca
www.meliacuba.com

 Che in front of the Communist Party HQ

 Che's Mausoleum

Theater La Caridad

Mural in Santa Clara

A group of students

Ford 55

Taxi for lovers

Camajuani

Cigar making 

 Calbarien

A sweet en route

The 26/26 Regatta

Ceviche

 Sol Cayo Santa Maria

Sol Cayo Santa Maria

 

 

 


  

 

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