If Havana is the fifties-themed romantic blockbuster, with cinematic backdrops and faded glamour, then Santa Clara is the left-field indie flick full of characters and unassuming charm.
There are certainly more beautiful places to see in Cuba, but Santa Clara offers something genuine and authentic away from the standard tourist trail that more than makes up for its less than stunning appearance. The focal point of the city is its main square -- lively Parque Vidal. Centered around a (frequently used) bandstand, this tree-lined plaza is the place to be on any evening but it gets especially busy on weekends when street sellers emerge, families take their children to ride in miniature goat-drawn carriages, and a big screen often blasts out music to appease teenage revelers.
The city is famed for its connections to Ernesto "Che" Guevara and as a major site in the Cuban Revolution. The Monumento al Tomo del Tren Blindado is a tiny museum housed in a series of boxcars, which marks the site and tells the story of the attack on President Batista’s troops, who were traveling in an armored train successfully derailed by Che’s men. Visitors should not miss the Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum, where there is also a small but highly informative museum dedicated to the revered revolutionary.
Santa Clara does seem have a more liberal outlook than some other cities in Cuba. There is an active gay scene here and drag shows are popular. It is also big on arts, theater, and live music. On weekends enthusiastic bands play to a mainly local audience outside the theater and the Casa de la Cultura; be warned, though -- the happy crowd will only too gladly drag you in for a spot of Salsa!
Surprisingly, most businesses around Parque Vidal only accept the Cuban Peso, rather than the CUC (Convertible Peso, introduced as a tourist currency). This means that things are incredibly cheap -- for a few cents, you can enjoy a take-away mojito from a stall, a hot roast pork sandwich, and any number of snacks or treats.
Horse and cart is still a major mode of transport here -- the rickety carriages act as a very cheap collective taxi service around town, as do the marginally more modern "moto-taxis" and "bici-taxis." The Viazul tourist bus station is a cab ride away from the center. There is also a train station, which infrequently links Santa Clara with Santiago and Havana, but trying to decipher any sort of schedule requires excellent Spanish and a lot of patience!
As with Cuba in general, places listed as hostels in Santa Clara tend to be more like home-stays where you pay for a room in a family home. Such Santa Clara hostels, however, are dotted all over the city, with plenty of options within easy reach of the center.
Hi, I'm Laura T,
the Hostelz.com local expert for Santa Clara hostels. Welcome.