Santa Clara

Santa Clara is best known for being the site of the last and definitive battle of the Revolution, when Che Guevara and his men captured an armoured troop train and subsequently the city. Che's body is interred here and his mausoleum is a major visitor attraction. Long underestimated by tourists on their way to somewhere else, Santa Clara is a pleasant university city lying in the heart of Cuba, with a sense of urgency and purpose. It is a cultured city and, as well as the monumental mausoleum, there are several art galleries and museums to stroll around and parks to sit and take in the atmosphere. Santa Clara's nightlife is humming, with any number of clubs and music venues where you can take in traditional or more contemporary Cuban styles, or there is the beautiful old theatre where you can find dance or drama performances of an international standard. South of the city, the land rises gently to the Alturas de Santa Clara, a range of hills reaching 464 m at its highest point, and then the magnificent Sierra de Escambray. There are lakes and reservoirs in the hills, where you can hike, birdwatch or fish in a peaceful and picturesque landscape.

Ins and outs

Getting there

There are no domestic
flights
to Santa Clara but international charters come from Canada and Italy. On the cays, an airstrip receives short-hop flights and air taxis (
Gaviota
). Santa Clara is on the main cross-island railway line.
Train
services join the city with Havana and Santiago de Cuba and with most of central Cuba's towns. The railway station is quite near the middle of the town. If you are travelling by
car
, the arterial
autopista
running from
Havana to Santiago de Cuba links the city with these two major urban centres and other provincial capitals. Lesser roads go north to the cayos and south to Trinidad. Daily
bus
services make Santa Clara easy to get to on any route through the island. The long-distance bus station is about 2.5 km from the centre.

Getting around

It is easy enough to walk around the town centre but the main attraction, the Che Guevara mausoleum in Plaza de la Revolución, is some way out. Walking takes about 20 minutes.
Car hire
is available if you want to make excursions further afield, or there are guided tours for the cays from some of the travel agencies in town. If you are staying in a
casa particular
ask if anyone in the family offers their services as a driver and/or guide, which will be cheaper than an official taxi.

Tourist information

There is no tourist office as such, but several state tour agencies in town can give you information on trips and excursions, as well as make hotel reservations and reconfirm flight tickets. If you are staying in a
casa particular
you will probably find your hosts to be a mine of information worth tapping into. They will usually make phone calls for you to arrange transfers or accommodation at your next destination. The hotels all have a
buró de turismo
, which sells organized tours and little else.

History

The village of Santa Clara was founded on 15 July 1689, when 17 families from San Juan de los Remedios migrated from the coast to the interior. Land was parcelled out and a powerful landholding oligarchy was formed. The settlement grew and the economy prospered on the fortunes of stockbreeding, tobacco, sugar, other crops and the exploitation of the Malezas copper mines, while taking advantage of the favourable location on the main trading route through the island. In 1827 when the island was divided into three departments, Santa Clara was one of the sections of the central department. In 1867 the town became a city and in 1873 the railroad arrived, linking it with Havana. In 1895 when the island was further divided, this time into six provinces, Santa Clara became the capital of Las Villas, which included within its boundaries what is now Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and the Península de Zapata. The 1975 administrative reorganization sharply reduced the provincial territory, renaming it as Villa Clara, with Santa Clara as its capital and dividing it into 13 municipalities. Aside from Santa Clara, where most of the heavy industry is concentrated, other important urban centres are Caibarién, Camajuaní and Remedios to the northeast, Placetas to the east and Sagua La Grande to the north.

Santa Clara was the site of the last battle of the Revolution in December 1958 before Castro entered Havana. Batista was on the point of sending an armoured train with military supplies, including guns, ammunition and soldiers, to Santiago de Cuba to counter-attack the revolutionaries. However, when the train arrived in Santa Clara on 24 December it could go no further because the rebels had destroyed several bridges. Che Guevara had his command post in the university and his troops were hiding in the outskirts of Santa Clara. The train was parked near the Loma El Capiro and soldiers on board climbed up the hill to see Che's troops advancing. They opened fire but were defeated and the rebels took the Loma. Che moved his command post to the building which is now the seat of the PCC Provincial and from there made plans to derail the train, which took place at dawn on 29 December. At around 1500 the same day, the train retreated but was ambushed by 23 men. Fighting for the train was over within an hour, but the battle for the city lasted until 1 January 1959 when news spread that Batista had fled the country. It is said that the capture of the train was the decisive factor in the triumph of the Revolution and it is now a major tourist attraction.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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