About a 4 hour drive from Havana, Santa Clara, holds a special place in Cuba's revolutionary history. Capital of province Villa Clara, this city is a mini pilgrimage destination for Che Guevara worshippers. As history develops, the city itself is trying to disembark purely from that reputation. This is embodied by its central, lively nightlife and being home to one of Cuba’s biggest universities. After all, 250,000 people reside here making it into Cuba’s top 5 largest cities by population. For the traveler, Santa Clara offers a more authentic alternative to the major tourist destinations in Cuba of Havana, Trinidad, and Vinales. It's a good example of a more typical Cuban city where the everyday life of the locals is more evident and accessible.
A good 10,000 miles out in his calculations, Christopher Columbus believed that Cubanacán (or Cubana Khan, an Indian name that meant 'the middle of Cuba'), an Indian village once located near Santa Clara, was the seat of the khans of Mongolia; hence his misguided notion that he was exploring the Asian coast. Santa Clara proper was founded in 1689 by 13 families from Remedios, who were tired of the unwanted attention of passing pirates. The town grew quickly after a fire emptied Remedios in 1692, and in 1867 it became the capital of Las Villas Province. A notable industrial center, Santa Clara was famous for its prerevolutionary Coca-Cola factory and its pivotal role in Cuba's island-wide communications network. Santa Clara was the first major city to be liberated from Batista's army in December 1958. Today, industries include a textile mill, a marble quarry and the Constantino Pérez Carrodegua tobacco factory.
Viazul provides several buses a day to/from Camagüey, Havana, Sancti Spiritus, and Santiago de Cuba. There is also daily service to Varadero, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad.
There are several trains to/from Havana each day. Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba are served by a daily overnight train and a twice weekly daytime local train that runs west on Thursdays and Sundays and east on Mondays and Fridays. A local train may leave Cienfuegos for Santa Clara (very) early in the morning, returning in the evening. Another local train may travel from Sancti Spiritus to Cienfuegos via Santa Clara in the morning, returning in the afternoon. Check that the local trains are running in advance.
Santa Clara is served by Abel Santamaría Airport. This airport is used by tourists who are going to all inclusive resorts in Cayo Santa Maria, as well as many travelers from the USA who are engaged in person-to-person cultural travel. Air Canada, Air Transat, Sunwing, Westjet and Cubana serve many Canadian cities from this airport, while American Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest airlines serve US cities. Bahamasair provides direct service to Nassau, Interjet to Mexico City, and Copa to Panama City. Many European carriers offer connections from France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK.
Travelers connecting with all-inclusive resorts and tours will often board buses in the parking lot across the street from the airport.
Independent travelers can sometimes find taxis but more likely will need to rent a car or arrange for the 16 km (30 minute) car ride to town from the operators of the rental car company at the airport. One should expect to pay approximately 20 CUC for the ride.
For currency exchange at the airport, there may be an office open inside the terminal but often it will be closed. If it is closed, walk around the building to the northeast corner of the building as there will sometimes be a window open for currency exchange.
The currency exchange stations are painfully slow but are accurate and will give you the best exchange rate possible. You will be asked to show a passport for currency exchange.
Pre-Security and Arriving Airport Amenities
The waiting areas are hot, crowded and have little seating so if you will be in this area for as significant period of time it is best to walk cross the street and enjoy some refreshments at the outdoor cantina (open to the air but covered with an awning.
Post-Security Departure Airport Amenities
The post-security waiting area is climate-controlled and very comfortable with lots of seating. There is a small cafe serving snacks and cafe Cubano. There is also good selection of gift shops in the waiting area for departing passengers after clearing security, which includes leather crafts, clothing, books (in English and Spanish), postcards, and rum. Most prices are fairly comparable to prices elsewhere in Cuba, however, it is smart to not change all of one's CUC's back into USD/CAN/Euros prior to entering this area, as prices are much better if paid in CUCs and not in other currency.
Pedicabs and horse carriages operate in the centre of town and can take you to Che's mausoleum. The price will vary based on distance but will likely range from 1-5 CUC.
Taxis are also plentiful and cheap, but it is advisable to agree on a price before departure. Taxis can be used for both local travel as well as travel to other cities. As of October 2016, the fare for a shared taxi to Havana was approximately 50-80 CUC.
Things to See & Do
Santa Clara Cuba Walking Tour
Santa Clara is a relatively small city, and half the pleasure is in admiring the colourful architecture and observing daily Cuban life. This means that one of the best things to do in Santa Clara Cuba is to hit the pavement and take a walking tour.
Parque Leoncio Vidal Santa Clara
Parque Leoncio Vidal or Parque Vidal is the main plaza or town square in Santa Clara Cuba. The plaza is the geographical and figurative heart of Santa Clara. It’s a popular place for locals to meet and tourists to hang out, and has a constant hive of activity from live music to old men playing chess.
Parque Vidal is surrounded by restaurants and bars and interesting colonial and neoclassical architecture.
Teatro la Caridad – Santa Clara Theatre
Teatro la Caridad is Santa Clara’s theatre, and is one of the only old colonial theatres remaining in Cuba. The theatre dates back to 1885, and is beautifully restored.
It’s definitely worth paying 1 CUC to enter the theatre and see the ornate chairs, gallery and intricately painted ceiling. There’s usually a tour guide at the theatre to bring it’s history to life. When we visited, the theatre guide only spoke Spanish, so we were happy to have our tour guide Yasmany translate for us.
As well as being rather spectacular, Teatro la Caridad remains a working theatre to this day, with regular shows including music and ballet.
Statue of Che Guevara Holding A Child
The Statue of Che Guevara holding a child is a small life sized statue of Che Guevara, you guessed it, holding a child. Take a closer look and you’ll find hidden symbols of Che’s life in the statue, including a small boy riding a goat on his shoulder.
You’ll only need a few minutes to check out the Che Guevara statue, so it’s a good passing stop as you walk around the streets of Santa Clara.
Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado – Derailed Train Monument
The site of one of the most important battles in Cuban history, where Che Guevara and his men ripped up the railway line, derailing an armoured train, and defeated the men inside. The site shows the actual bulldozer used, and a number of the actual train carriages in situ. Inside the carriages are exhibits, with accompanying text, in Spanish only.
Mausoleo del Che Guevara – Che Guevara Mausoleum and Monument
The Che Guevara mausoleo is across the west side of Santa Clara. The site has a massive Che Guevara statue monument, along with a small Che Guevara museum and memorial underneath the statue. The statue dominates the skyline, and you’d be forgiven for missing the museum and mausoleum if you didn’t know they were there.
The Che Guevara museum and memorial are free. There’s a baggage check area, as no bags or cameras are allowed inside. The museum has photos and some writings from Che, with captions in Spanish. Che Guevara was buried in the mausoleum in 1997 after his remains were exhumed and returned from Bolivia where he was captured and killed in 1967.
Gift shops in the post-security area of Abel Santamaria Airport - Lots of handcrafts made of wood, leather and fabric. Books in English and Spanish. Cuban Rum. Best deals can be had by spending CUC's, however most vendors will accept USD, CAN and Euros.
- Dino's Pizza, Marta Abreu No. 10. Has decent pizza. Internet access 5 CUC
- El Castillo. Peso-priced. Pork, chicken, salad, etc.
Drinking & Nightlife
Thanks to its large student population, Santa Clara has some of Cuba's best nightlife outside Havana – and it's not just the usual suspects. The city has an established gay scene and a strong contingent of roqueros (rock musicians). Most of the nightlife is on or around Parque Vidal, although there are a couple of outlying strongholds, including a new cabaret venue.
Cafes and cantinas are located in one section of 'Main Street' (listen for the live music) where the usual Cristal Cerveza, rum and cafe abound. In fact, a real treat is the ridiculously cheap and fantastically fresh and tasty espresso located on the strip.
There’s always something happening in Santa Clara’s town square, from music in the square to a show at Teatro la Caridad to the many restaurants and bars lining the square. We enjoyed Las Terrazas for a drink in the afternoon sun. Las Terrazas is a burger bar with a local feel (think old Cuban men drinking rum from a plastic cup) upstairs overlooking the square. After that, we hit up Hotel E Central Villa Clara overlooking the square for swanky drink on the verandah. Hotel E is more upmarket (cocktails 3-5 CUC) and seemed to attract well to do locals.
Club El Mejunje
El Mejunje is a local institution, famous for (amongst other things) holding Cuba’s first drag show and being LGBT inclusive. This place simply oozes cool. El Mejunje is located in a ruined colonial building with overgrown trees on the inside and murals on the outside. As well as a bar, El Mejunje has a cultural centre which had an art exhibition when we visited.