Santa Clara Where roads cross
By: Ciro Bianchi Ross, photos: Alejandro Gortázar
Enrico Caruso sang at La Caridad Theatre in 1885. The first university opened its doors in 1952. The provincial hospital is now one of the most prestigious in the country. El Mejunje is a one of the country's finest cultural centres. With its clean and straight streets, its horizontal and eclectic architecture, its monuments and bridges, Santa Clara is a city full of life that has the rhythm of Cuba. It is also full of history - this is Che's city.
It was in Santa Clara that Commander Ernesto Che Guevara struck the final blow in the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959. The fa9ade of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel, just across from the beautiful Vidal Park, still has bullet holes from that famous battle. On the outskirts of the city, you can also see some of the wagons of the armored train that, full of soldiers and weaponry, was derailed by the Rebel Army.
In the memorial square bearing his name rest the bodies of Che and his comrades from the Bolivian campaign.
Santa Clara is the capital of Villa Clara, one of the central provinces of the island and the one with the greatest industrial and agricultural development. It is located 270 km to the east of Havana. Access is provided by an international airport, railroad, and the national highway. The northern keys, Las Brujas, Ensenacho and Santa Maria, are linked to the mainland by a causeway built some years ago opening the area up to tourism.
But Santa Clara is also the door to other places in Cuba. The blue mountains of the Escambray have some well kept secrets reserved only for ecotourists. Lake Hanabanilla, located 53 km from the city, is an ideal place for black bass fishing. The Elguea baths, 100 km to the northwest, are said to have miraculous powers that can cure the most unbelievable diseases. Some say that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt was planning to visit the baths on his doctors' advice until his life was cut short.
Historic Remedios The nearby city of Remedios, 43 km to the northwest, is one of the great treasures of Cuba and well worth a visit. Remedios was the eighth town founded by Spanish colonizers in 1524. Attacks from pirates forced its inhabitants to move the location twice until they found the current location. The town kept growing until 1689 when, for purely economical reasons, 18 families decided to move inland and founded the city of Santa Clara on July 15 of that year. These new settlers fled Remedios because, according to them, the town was haunted by demons and the priest of the city had found around 800,000 of these creatures. Since not all the people from Remedios wanted to leave the town, those who emigrated returned to sack it and burn it. Still, the town came back to life and became an important cultural center.
In the early 19th Century it was once again ravaged by fire and again rebuilt. Most of the current colonial buildings belong to that period. It has a splendid urban layout that many experts compare to the one in the city of Trinidad. The main square runs between two churches, the Buen Viaje (currently closed for repairs) and the San Juan Bautista.
The latter is famous for its artistic attributes: its altar of cedar and gold; the roof of mahogany carved with Moorish styles; and the image of the pregnant Virgin Mary. But this city is mostly famous for its Las Parrandas.
A Unique Party The word "Parranda" means partying, brawling fun and is used to name the groups of musicians that go out at night to play and sing to have fun. Almost 190 years ago, a priest in Remedios named Francisquito started to worry about the growing absence of parishioners to the Christmas masses that started on December 16 and ended on the 24. He had the idea of having some kids, using cans and pans, making such a loud racket at night that people, being unable to sleep, would have no other choice but to go to church. This was, naturally, well received by the young people and some time later each of the city's districts - EI Carmen and San Salvador - had its own band of noisy musicians.
With the passing of time they changed instruments and perfected their rhythm until it became known as the sound of parades on Christmas Eve in Remedios. It is not known if Father Francisquito got more followers into his church, but he surely created one of the most appealing and unique parties in the country. Each Christmas Eve, people from one district go to wake up people from the other one and vice versa.
It is, to put it simply, a crazy party. Prepared for over the whole year, requiring hard work and props like no other, it only lasts 12 hours. Dance is not the essential part of it since Cuban music also gives space to European polka. There are no masquerades, disguises or congas, just a celebration in which everyone is involved in some way; from the building of the floats and the square's decorations to the party itself. A line marked on the street divides the center of the city. On one side are the Sansaries (from the San Salvador district) and on the other the Carmelitas (the "brown" people from EI Carmen district). Both sides wait for the church bells to toll 9:00 p.m. on December 24 to start the competition.
Parades in Remedios are a sort of war with each district making use of their "weaponry" in the form of rockets and fireworks. Each side with its float, built to symbolize their district, fireworks, and their music tries to win over its rival. Each side puts on several presentations in separate areas until the final one where all the participants give up what they have left and the show becomes pure noise.
The Christmas mass with fireworks flying all over is one of the most fevered folk experiences in Cuba. The lights, fireworks, and the noise is intended to simulate a war between these two districts and usually there is no winner since, at daybreak, both parties declare themselves victorious and triumphantly run around to their music.
Return to Santa Clara There are some fine museums to be found in and around Santa Clara including the Che Museum, the Armoured Train Museum, and a Museum of Decorative Arts. There are also several appealing festivals like the one on Gloria St. every August 16 and a Flower Party on the second Sunday in May. If you want to see the more authentic traditions of the city, the right time would be between November l3 and 19 during Culture Week.
Hotels are comfortable and the best places to eat are at Villa La Granjita and the Santa Clara Libre Hotel. After a good meal, head to Los Caneyes disco for some dancing or El Mejunje for a good show.
Other options are to enjoy the abundant flora and fauna at Hanabanilla Lake, waking up in a cabin at Las Brujas Key, or swimming in the crystal clear waters of Santa Maria Key. There are a surprisingly large number of things to do in this little town in the middle of Cuba.