We set off from Trinidad on a three-hour bus ride toward Santa Clara, armed with our newest casa particulare referral. Santa Clara was the site of the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution, and is now home to Che Guevara’s mausoleum and a museum dedicated to his life, so we didn’t want to miss it.
We settled into our new casa, which was across the street from the city’s oldest church, Iglesia Carmen, built in 1748.
Our host recommended that we go to Casa Ronaldo for dinner, and assured us that the chef could make us something delicious and vegetarian. When we arrived, the staff didn’t speak any English, but somehow we communicated our dietary needs, and they confirmed that they could meet them without a problem. Without menus, though, confusion reigned when we tried to order. Finally, we were led into the kitchen, where they opened the fridge and offered James various kinds of fish to choose from. It looked like it would be pizza once again. For the remainder of our time in Santa Clara, we reluctantly ate at Dino’s Pizza, the same chain that had caused us so many stomach problems during the previous week in Havana. We prayed that our stomachs were stronger now, because otherwise we would be facing a very hungry couple of days.
After dinner, we took a stroll through nearby Parque Vidal, a common meeting place in the centre of the city. The park was lovely, especially against the sunset, and the atmosphere was friendly and communal. Cubans of all ages filled the benches and spent a lazy evening chatting and watching the life of the city go by. This is the view of the sunset from the park:
The next morning we checked the news at an internet cafe to find out that the Canucks had lost the Stanley Cup to the Bruins. We were very disappointed, but tried not to let it put a damper on the rest of the day, because we were planning a tour of a large cigar factory. This had been on our B-list of sites to see because generally we don’t like doing activities with groups of other tourists, but we were very glad we did it. We had never been in that kind of factory environment before – with employees turning out cigars as fast as possible in a kind of assembly line. We learned that the tobacco leaves are first stuffed and rolled, then the strength of the tobacco in each cigar is tested. The top leaf is then added, and the cigars are taken to a different room to be sorted by colour. Tobacco leaves come in different shades of brown, and while different colours do not produce different tastes, manufacturers like the cigars to be a uniform colour when a box is opened. This was a fun process to watch, as a table full of cigars that all appeared ‘brown’ to us was quickly grouped by subtle shade differences. They are then labeled and put into boxes, ready to be shipped out. By the way, Cohibas are the best cigars because their leaves are fermented for at least three years. Unfortunately no photography was allowed in the factory.
Afterwards, we walked to the Monumento de la Tren Blindado, where Che led the revolutionary army to derail a train carrying soldiers and supplies toward Batista. Che then captured Santa Clara, prompting Batista to flee the country, and ushering in the revolutionary government. The monument is comprised of commemorative statues and the train car that was stopped in its tracks, full of old military gear.
We then continued the historical afternoon with a visit to the Monumento de Ernesto Che Guevara – a large complex including a museum and a mausoleum containing his remains and those of the others who were executed with him by the CIA-backed Bolivian government.
The grounds also include a cemetery for revolutionary fighters, some plots still empty for surviving soldiers.
At one point, while we were the only visitors inside the sombre mausoleum, the power suddenly went out, leaving only the light from the eternal flame to illuminate the plaque marking Che’s remains.
The next day we ventured to the Museo Provincial, which is housed in the former military barracks where Batista’s soldiers surrendered in the Battle of Santa Clara. There were very interesting artefacts from throughout Cuban history, including a special display about the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961. After coming to power, one of Castro’s first aims was to abolish illiteracy, and he sent educators out to the countryside in the form of “literacy brigades” to construct schools and train educators. Remarkably, the literacy rate in Cuba jumped 30 points to 96% within the year 1961 alone.
Our last view of Santa Clara was of the neighbourhood surrounding the bus station as we prepared to depart. There is an entire block of these imaginative anti-US, pro-peace murals – here are some of our favourites: