While Varadero courts beach-lovers and Trinidad pulls in history geeks, gritty Santa Clara doesn’t stand on ceremony for anyone. Smack bang in the geographic center of Cuba, this is a city of new trends and insatiable creativity.
Ernesto Che Guevara.
On the southwestern outskirts of the city, about 1km from Parque Vidal, the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara marks the final resting place of Che Guevara’s body and pays tribute to Santa Clara’s adopted son and hero, who led the Cuban rebels to victory against General Batista’s dictatorship here in 1958, in one of the decisive battles of the Revolution.
The large thundering monument is in classic Cuban revolutionary style: big, bold and made of concrete. Atop the grey-tiled steps of a hulking grandstand are four bulky monoliths; towering down from the tallest one is a burly-looking statue of Guevara, on the move and dressed in his usual military garb, rifle in hand. Next to the statue in a huge, somewhat jumbled mural, with Guevara’s march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara and the decisive victory over Batista’s troops depicted in cement.
Underneath the monument, the surprisingly small Museo and Memorial al Che occupies a single U-shaped room, and provides a succinct overview of Che’s life. Photographs line the walls, and it’s these that tend to hold the most interest, with depictions of Che from his early childhood all the way through to his life as a rebel soldier in the Sierra Maestra and a Cuban statesman in the early years of the Revolution.
Opposite the museum entrance is the mausoleum, a softly lit chamber where the mood of reverence and respect is quite affecting. Resembling a kind of tomb with an eternally flickering flame, this is the resting place of Che’s remains, as well as those of a number of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans who died with him in Bolivia, each of whom is commemorated by a simple stone portrait set into the wall.
History was made at the site of this small boxcar museum on December 29, 1958, when Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a band of 18 rifle-wielding revolutionaries barely out of their teens derailed an armored train using a borrowed bulldozer and homemade Molotov cocktails.
The battle lasted 90 minutes and improbably pulled the rug out from under the Batista dictatorship, ushering in 50 years of Fidel Castro. The museum – east on Independencia, just over the river – marks the spot where the train derailed and ejected its 350 heavily armed government troops. The celebrated bulldozer is mounted on its own plinth at the entrance.