After a long week of debating with the people living in my house on what city to visit next, I yielded to the desires of the masses and canceled my plans for a solo trip to Camaguey. I instead joined a group of 6 heading to Santa Clara to tour revolutionary sites associated with Ernesto Che Guevara. Che was an Argentine doctor, revolutionary and commander in the rebel army of Fidel Castro during the fight against Batista in the liberation of Cuba. After the Cuban revolution, Che fought with guerrilla forces in Angola and Bolivia where he met his untimely death, execution style, from the hands of an enemy he made during his fight in Cuba. His body and that of his men were hidden for years in a mass grave in Bolivia but after its discovery, it was transferred to a mausoleum to be laid to rest in the company of his campadres in Santa Clara. During the Cuban revolutionary war, Che commanded and strategically won an important battle in the town of Santa Clara by ambushing, derailing and capturing a train filled with weapons and enemy soldiers.
Santa Clara is located in the Villa Clara province and lies 4 hours to the east of Havana. To get there, we took the local peso bus departing at 7:30am and arranged to have a brunch waiting in the house we were to spend the night. The house owner said his house was about 2 km away from the bus terminal and so we figured it would be a quick 30-45 minute walk but upon arrival to the hot city of horse drawn carriages, this walk immediately became unappealing. I paid for my first horse and buggy ride from the terminal to the casa and to no surprise, there was no brunch waiting for us. After settling in and doing some preliminary planning with the owner, we began our trip by grabbing lunch around the corner from the house. The house owner recommended/strong armed/herded us to this venue because he felt like we didn’t have enough knowledge of the town to find a place to get food. Knowing how things work in Cuba, I knew this wasn’t the case but I was too tired and hungry to say otherwise. In most cases, everyone gets a cut for every deal out here. For leading us to the restaurant, he probably got a cut of whatever we paid but again, no one knows and after eating a good meal, I didn’t really care.
After our meal, we walked about 30 minutes to the Che memorial, museum and mausoleum. Of the three, I liked the museum best. It was designed to tell the tale of the revolutionary from birth until death hence it had pictures and articles from his birth, high school, medical school, motorcycle trip, days as a rebel doctor and finally, his life as a fighter. It was also well air conditioned giving me a good break from the misery of the sun. Next stop on this trip was a chocolate store located 20 minutes south of the museum in the central plaza. Other people we know who had previously done this trip recommended this shop as the place to get good ice cream. With the intensity of the sun that day, any sought of cold/icy beverages was God sent. I think we spent about 45 minutes in this location then split up into 2 groups; one went to the museum of fine arts and the other, to the house of mani (peanut product store). We all agreed to meet up again at 7:00pm on top of la loma to watch the sunset. Loma is a hill in the middle of Santa Clara with a beautiful panoramic view. This was also the location where the troops of Che were stationed and so there is a monument located on top of it in memory of them.
My group arrived at the loma first around 6:45pm and the plan was just to listen to some Buena Vista Social Club while waiting on the other group to arrive but instead, we run into a man who worked at the local cigar factory. We expressed our missed opportunity due to planning to take a tour of it and purchase some souvenir cigars. We unfortunately didn’t begin touring early enough to make it back to the factory by the time it closed. After passionately hearing out plight, he offered to help us by selling us some cigars from his personal stash at ¼ the official prize. We told him we would think about it and stop by his house later that day but before the sun could even begin descending, homeboy was back with 3 boxes of cohibas (valued at about $250 a box with 25 cigars). He offered each box at $50 which was an insane deal so we bought the boxes later to find out they were fake. Damm! We had our suspicions but I think we all hoped that they would be real and thus this would have turned out to be the deal of the century. Make no mistake, this guy was not just like every fake cigar hustler in Cuba. He spoke English really well, never mentioned that he worked as a manager in the cigar factory until we asked where and why he learned English and he also never offered to sell us cigars until we mentioned that we were looking to buy some souvenirs. We gave him all the right avenues to an easy, quick sale in which he even gave us 9 free monticristos because he said we were cool. Got to respect the man’s hustle. I give him a lot of props for being smart enough to just let us dig our own holes. It just seemed too good to be true so when we returned to Havana, I took the cigars to an official store to have then validated and the gentlemen there made me compare them to some official ones. Damm again!! I wonder if he actually worked at the cigar store now or if anything he said was true. Looking back at it, I am never buying anything from Cuba that is not sold in an official store. Id rather pay for something I can trust as genuine and have less of it than take a chance with something cheap.
That said, after the sunset, we walked back to the casa, happy to have scored a great deal and went off to see a Cuban mariachi play at the town square. The first Saturday of every month is celebrated with music, dance and food at the plaza. The events for this night ended up centered on eating pulled pork sandwiches, drinking honey wine and averting our eyes from all the 14/15 year olds dancing in the plaza dressed like they were 25. It was truly awful. At about midnight though, we found out were all the adults hung out so we relocated to that venue. Funny thing was that we needed ID’s to get in and I didn’t have mine but a picture of my passport and some luck got us in.
The rest of Santa Clara was pretty routine. Woke up, had breakfast, went to a catholic service then waited 5 hours to get on a peso bus back to Havana. Santa Clara is Cuba’s catholic capital and the center of the most progressive youth society in Cuba.
More on Che:
The revolutionary life of Ernesto Che Guevara began when he took off his last semester of medical school to tour South America on a motorcycle with his best friend. Together they traveled from Patagonia to Venezuela coming in contact with different levels of poverty that they had never been exposed to in Argentina. This opened his eyes to the many problems facing Latin America and sparked a desire to dedicate his life to making a difference. This journey later becames the plot of one of my favorite movies, “Motorcycle Diaries.”