Santa Clara Cuba is the fifth largest city in the country, and yet most tourists only see a fraction of it.
Many stop in for a tour of the Che monument, museum and mausoleum and head on their way.
But the capital of the Villa Clara province is perfect for travelers looking to get off the beaten track in Cuba.
While it’s a small city with less than 250,000 people, it’s quite different from other cities in Cuba.
It was founded in 1689. Like many others, including Trinidad, it was once known for cattle ranching, then sugar cane.
It’s most famous for it’s role Cuba’s independence from the Spaniards and the revolution.
But that’s not the end of the story…
It appears to be a quaint little town but it’s one of the most progressive. It is home to the second largest university in Cuba.
It’s the most LGBTQ+ friendly city by far and has well known drag queen shows.
I first visited Santa Clara on this incredible Cuba tour, which changed how I viewed the country. It wasn’t long in the city but I knew I would return.
Santa Clara isn’t just about the revolution. It is a hub for all kinds of dance and music from ballet to heavy metal.
It’s worth spending time in Santa Clara to get a sense of this liberal city.
History of Santa Clara
Santa Clara has always been in the literal middle of conflict.
It was a stronghold in the 10 Year War (Guerra de los Diez Anos) in Cuba’s battle against the Spanish.
But it’s most famous for the Battle of Santa Clara.
In this final battle, Cuban heroes Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos attacked the city from two sides.
While Cienfuegos was distracting an army just outside the city in Battle of Yaguajay, Che’s revolutionaries detailed a train of government troops and supplies.
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Che and Cienfuegos then met together for the final battle and captured the city. This caused the end of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Today many people still call this the “Che city” and most tourists come here for revolutionary history or a pilgrimage to El Che.
Interestingly, Cienfuegos was originally supposed to be the first leader in post-revolution Cuba.
However, he took a flight where the plane mysteriously disappeared and he was never seen again. Fidel Castro then became the leader of Cuba.
How Long Do You Need in Santa Clara
Santa Clara is known for its nightlife.
It has a large student population and there are lots of great spots so it’s worth spending at least one night in the city to try a Cuba Libre in the revolutionary home.
As the city is small enough to walk around you can check out the historical aspects of the city without feeling like you’re rushing through.
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If you're feeling fatigue from the non-stop noise and chaos of Havana, this is a good spot to just slow down and see what Cuban life is outside the tourist centres.
That said, if you have limited time, you could squeeze Santa Clara into a day trip to see its highlights.
Best Things to do in Santa Clara
Santa Clara is an interesting mix of history and progressiveness. It’s lesser visited and so most of the fun things to do in Santa Clara are actually for Cubans - not tourists.
Along with revolutionary activities it’s home to the first LGBTQ+ friendly club in Cuba that hosted the first drag shows and still has an annual drag show beauty pageant.
It also is home to modern artists, a large heavy metal festival (Ciudad Metal) and a large university of young liberal Cubans.
Santa Clara is not your typical Cuba experience. That said, because it’s not saturated with tourists there are fewer services in English.
Even though I speak intermediate-ish Spanish and am familiar with Cuba’s history I was happy to have an English guide on my Cuba Explorer tour.
Parque Vidal (Vidal Park)
Not only the literal centre of the city, this large park is also the cultural centre.
Colonel Leoncio Vidal Caro died in a battle in the Spanish war. It has a history of being the place to go to protest in the 1930s but also the revolution.
It is a city block and the centre for many of the other great things to see in Santa Clara.
Surrounding it are the Jose Marti public library, Teatro la Caridad and Santa Clara Libre (pre-revolution it was the Santa Clara Hilton).
There are several statues of Cuban heroes in the park, including Colonel Vidal, Marta Abreu (details on her below) as well as a wooden statue of the Eiffel Tower.
At night much of the city gathers here to watch musicians and other entertainers. Casa de la Cultura often hosts shows here on the weekends.
Teatro de La Caridad (Caridad Theatre)
Built in 1885, it is considered one of the most important buildings for art and culture in Cuba.
A well preserved colonial building, today there are ballet, comedy and theatre shows, many local and international artists have been featured here.
It’s worth paying 1 CUC to take a (Spanish only) tour just to marvel in its acoustics.
Profits from La Caridad fund two schools for poor children in Santa Clara.
Hotel Santa Clara Libre
Once a Hilton hotel, the name changed after the revolution when American businesses were ousted.
The most famous of the Hilton hotels in Cuban history is in Havana. Now called Habana Libre, it was occupied and turned into the rebel headquarters during the revolution.
Santa Clara Libre is the tallest building in the city. You can still see the bullet holes in the facade from the final days of fighting in the revolution.
Memorial Comandante Che Guevara (Che Memorial)
The most popular thing to do in Santa Clara, over 3 million people have visited so far. This part of Santa Clara includes the three Ms:
- Che Guevara monument
They are all together and you need about 90 minutes to visit.
Although there are several statues of Che in Santa Clara, this is the most significant.
It is 2km away but you can get a bicycle taxi or horse carriage there at Vidal Park.
This is a life-size bronze statue of Che Guevara. Behind it is the most important monument in Santa Clara - The Mausoleum for the Fallen of the Revolution.
Che died in the Bolivian revolution and was dumped in a mass grave along with 37 others. In 1997 the grave was discovered and Fidel Castro moved their remains to the mausoleum in Santa Clara.
There is a museum dedicated to Che’s life and death, with memorabilia from throughout his life, including early years.
But you need to visit early in the day as there is often a line and the sun can be scorching.
Technically, as this is a government site, the United States prohibits Americans from visiting.
However, no one at the site asks about nationality and would never report back to the US government anyway.
Lots of Americans go and simply don’t tell customs and immigration when they return to the US as there is no way to prove it.
Maybe if you decide to go you should hold off on posting photos on social media...just a tip 😉
Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado
The famous armoured train in Santa Clara. Revolutionaries derailed a train with molotov cocktails and a stolen bulldozer during the battle of Santa Clara remains here with a 1 CUC entry fee.
This event in 1958 was the last battle of the Cuban revolution and the end of Batista’s dictatorship.
Once word reached Havana the government surrendered. There is a reconstruction of this derailment in Parque del Tren Blindado.
Universidad Marta Abreu de la Villas
Next to Che, Marta Abreu is the second most famous historical figure in Santa Maria and you’ll also see many statues of her throughout the city.
She is known as “the Benefactress of the city.”
Although her family was well off, they were also philanthropists. They wanted all citizens of Santa Clara to thrive, which was actually unusual at that time.
Marta Abreu's family financially helped the Cuban rebels in the Spanish-American war in Cuba in 1902 and constructed important buildings in Santa Clara.
This included the electric plant, public laundry stations, a fire station, La Caridad theatre, several schools and the second largest university in Cuba.
Santa Clara is unabashedly proud to be LGBTQ+ friendly and was one of the first cities in Cuba to pass progressive policies.
El Mejunje is considered to be the most inclusive, gay-friendly club in Cuba. Each March it’s home to a drag beauty pageant.
Built in a former hotel, it is an artists house with a theatre and dance hall.
It also has senior dances a number of kid friendly events and even current President Diaz-Canal once visited with his children.
Biblioteca Marti (Jose Marti Library)
Another beautiful building thanks to Marta Abreu, this was once her palace.
It was originally used for provincial government and then became the local library named after Cuban hero Jose Marti.
Many tourists come to Cuba looking for Che and statues of Fidel, which don't exist as he asked not to have any artwork or statues in his honour.
But Jose Marti is the most important person in Cuban history.
A writer, academic and journalist he died during this war.
However, his words remained and many who fought in the revolution considered themselves followers of Marti, including Fidel Castro.
You can find his likeness all over Cuba, he's hard to miss with his signature moustache.
If you’re into comic books or street art you’ll love this series of murals by a collective of graphic artists called Melaito.
These caricaturists present a comical Cuban take on world events and include captions which explain their perspective in further depth.
Many are located around Parque Vidal and if you can find it, each month there is a newspaper supplement in the Vanguardia newspaper.
It's a great souvenir.
A pedestrian street in Santa Clara. This is the main shopping street in Santa Clara. Restaurants and cafes are slightly more expensive here.
It's good for strolling around and is rather quiet as it is pedestrian only.
This is the main commerce street in Santa Clara.
Locals shop here for everyday items with prices offered in CUP (moneda nacional). Confused by the two currencies? Read my guide to money in Cuba.
Loma del Capiro (Capiro Hill)
If you’re looking for a good hike, this hill overlooks the city and provides a fantastic view. It’s also great for a picnic if you can organize a packed lunch.
Not surprisingly, there’s another statue of Che Guevara here overlooking the city. The rebel forces set up camp here to plan their attack of Santa Clara.
Parque de los Mártires (Martyrs Park)
Although many outsiders see the most pivotal battle in Cuba as the revolution, Cubans have long been fighting to secure a better life.
This park is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Independence War against the Spanish. It includes a statue of Jose Marti, who is the considered the biggest hero in Cuba's history.
The park is in front of the Santa Clara railway station.
Constantino Perez Carrodegua Tobacco Factory
Santa Clara is also known for producing some of Cuba’s best cigars.
You can take a tour to see where they make the famous Montecristo, Partagas and Romeo and Juliet cigars.
Nuestra Señora del Carmen Church
Five blocks from Vidal Park, this church was built in 1748 and is the oldest in Santa Clara.
It’s a typical Catholic Church that also has several busts of important people in history in Santa Clara.
Need a day off to just laze around a pool all day? The great thing about Cuba is that many hotels and resorts sell a day pass.
Generally a large portion of it is "consumable."
So for example La Granjita has a 10 CUC fee per person, but 8 CUC goes toward your food and drinks that you buy there.
It's a great option if you just want a day to relax by the pool.
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Catedral de Santa Clara de Asis
Perhaps you’re like me and churches aren’t your thing.
But I was drawn in by the mystery of the statue of the Virgen de la Charca, which is not openly told - I had to go to the cathedral to find out.
Day Trips from Santa Clara
Most people use Santa Clara as a stop over rather than a base for travel in Cuba.
There aren't a lot of day trips from Santa Clara Cuba. But some of the best beaches are nearby if you don't want to stay in a pricey all-inclusive resort in the Cayos.
Cayos of Villa Clara
The beaches of Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Las Brujas are only 90 minutes from the Santa Clara Airport.
Okay this is a bit of a stretch, but I included it to say that Varadero is only 3 hours away. It is considered to have one of the best beaches in the world.
While the Cayos are only all-inclusive resorts (no casa particulares) Varadero has both, which is great for independent travelers.
And of course, I've checked out the best Varadero restaurants at both shoestring and splurge budgets.
If you're short on time I adore the Havana beaches. They aren't as clear as the Cayos or Varadero but likely one of the best beaches you'll ever visit.
Where to Eat in Santa Clara
There are plenty of restaurants in Santa Clara that cater to group tours, unfortunately that means they are often not that great.
Look for other Cubans in a restaurant before committing. And never eat in a hotel.
A simple spot offering pizza and Italian pastas. It's considered to have the best pizzas in the city.
60 Luis Estévez, Santa Clara, Cuba
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Bar La Marquesina
In a central location with outdoor dining it’s great for people watching.
Service is typically Cuban, don't get offended that it's not what you'd get at home. At night there is live music.
La Casa del Gobernador
You’ll find both foreigners and locals here. It’s one of the more upscale restaurants in Santa Clara and therefore a bit more expensive and often has musicians playing.
They are more accustomed to tourists and understand international service standards.
Calle Independecia, Santa Clara, Cuba
This paladare was created for tourists but don't let that dissuade you as you can support Cuban entrepreneurs.
It is a small cafe with great Cuban coffee, along with a museum with lots of photos of Che and Fidel and antiques.
The food menu here is limited, there are some sandwiches and excellent cocktails.
Calle Independencia 313, 50100,, Cuba, Santa Clara, Cuba
Although many people praise El Alba for its generous portions of Cuban food I think Sabore Arte is slightly better.
You'll still find great prices and lots of locals eating here.
Where to Stay in Santa Clara
If mobility is an issue remember most Cuba hotels with colonial architecture will not have elevators and you will need to take stairs.
Santa Clara Libre
Cuban hotels tend to be quite basic but usually priced under $50.
This historic hotel has some of the best views in the city as it's the tallest building in the city.
Read reviews and/or Check room rates
Hotel Central Villa
One of the more expensive hotels in Santa Clara, it's in a newly restored colonial building right on the central plaza.
The furnishings remain true to its era and take you back in time.
Read reviews and/or Check room rates
Boutique hotels are relatively new but becoming more popular in Cuba.
Hotel Floreal is a stunning example of 20th century architecture in Cuba combined with modern room amenities (king size bed, flat screen tv, modern shower etc).
Read reviews and/or Check room rates
Casa Particulares in Santa Clara
If you're looking to "support the Cuban people" renting a casa particular is a great way to do it.
Similar to a bed and breakfast, you can rent an entire apartment or just a room in a home.
Home owners often offer breakfast at an additional fee, which you should take because breakfast spots are not common in Cuba. And are wonderful at providing recommendations, helping with taxis and tours.
But most of all you are directly helping Cubans. You can book casas directly, but by far the easiest way is through AirBNB.
I find it is very important to read between the lines with Airbnb reviews as no one wants to hurt a Cuban business.
So if you see a minor issue come up more than once you know it's a bigger issue.
Here are some great central options for casas particulares in Santa Clara:
- DT Hostal, Modern and Cozy: far from a hostel that we know of, these rooms are likely the most modern and sleek you'll find in Santa Clara.
- Apartamento del Hostal Familia Castillo: stay in a family home in Santa Clara. A fantastic rooftop, great reviews on hot water and wifi access from the home.
- La Union: If you're on a tight budget this is a great option. Just a couple blocks from the main square rooms are half the price of others but still have access to wifi.
How to Get to Santa Clara
As the centre of the country, Santa Clara is a major rest stop.
This is great news for independent travel in Cuba as there is no shortage of transportation options.
You can get to Santa Clara by airplane, train or bus.
By Viazul Bus to Santa Clara:
Cuba has one state owned bus company and it is the only way to travel by bus. You must arrive one hour in advance with a print out of your reservation.
If you don't book a month in advance the website will tell you the bus is full but that is never true.
They always keep a block of tickets and if you show up an hour before it leaves you can buy one.
That said, whenever I do this there is always a taxi colectivo offering to take me to my destination door for only a bit more so I always end up choosing that option.
- Havana to Santa Clara
- 6-7 Hours
- 25 CUC
- Camaguey to Santa Clara
- 10 Hours
- 37 CUC
- Sancti Spiritus to Santa Clara
- 90 minutes
- 6 CUC
- Santiago de Cuba to Santa Clara
- 12 hours
- 30 CUC
- Varadero to Santa Clara
- 3 hours
- 10 CUC
- Trinidad to Santa Clara
- 1 hour 25 minutes
- 6 CUC
More schedules from Viazul here
By Taxi Colectivo or Car to Santa Clara:
A colectivo is a taxi that drives from one point to another and you share the cab with strangers. Once a car or minibus is full it takes off.
Havana to Santa Clara: 80 kilometers or 4 hours
Varadero to Santa Clara: 200 kilometres or 3 hours
Trinidad to Santa Clara: 315 kilometers or 2-3 hours
Cienfuegos to Santa Clara: 420 kilometers or 1 hour
I prefer taxi colectivos because they’ll drop you off where you need to go instead of the Viazul bus, which drops you at the bus station. In Santa Clara the bus station is outside town and requires a taxi drive into the city.
It’s much easier to just get a colectivo to go point to point.
The easiest way is to get a taxi colectivo is to ask your casa particular owner. They will arrange pick up and can also explain where you need to go.
Unfortunately hotels often charge a large mark up so I don’t recommend going through the concierge.
By Plane to Santa Clara
International Airport Abel Santamaria is the Santa Clara Airport. It is 11 kilometres from the Santa Clara.
Santa Clara Cuba has flights from the United States, Canada, several locations in Latin America and Europe.
It is most often used to take tourists all-inclusive resorts on the beaches of Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Las Brujas.
By Train to Santa Clara
For the record, any time I mention taking the train anywhere Cubans think I’m crazy. Tourists who take the train say it was for the adventure but often admit it was slow and uncomfortable.
So I haven’t taken the train to Santa Clara yet, but it is possible. There are a few trains a day that run Havana to Santa Clara.
As Sanct Spiritus and Cienfuegos are very close, there are sometimes early morning trains. But it’s best to go and ask because the train is notoriously unreliable.
Both Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba have an overnight train that runs twice a week.
Note: China has recently helped Cuba launch a new train with modern-ish cars. If you want this option you'll need to book at least a week in advance.
Locals traveling long distances often book it up but there are a few tourists cars are a bit more expensive but still quite cheap.
How to Get Around Santa Clara
If you come in by bus or plane you can take a horse, bicitaxi/pedicab or regular taxi.
But once you get into town everything is walkable so it’s unlikely you’ll need a taxi.
Internet and Wifi in Santa Clara
In the last couple years the country has heavily invested in infrastructure and even partnered with google to bring more reliable internet for Cubans.
Internet service in Santa Clara isn’t going to be as prevalent as Havana, Trinidad or Varadero but it will still be great.
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The most popular spot for wifi is in Parque Vidal. But if you find a group of Cubans sitting down staring at their phones anywhere it’s a good sign you’re in a wifi spot.
Wifi from an official ETESCA booth is $1/hour but you may need to wait in line for up to an hour.
If the line is long the hotel Santa Clara Libre is on the same square.
It will cost more to buy a wifi card there and you’ll need to buy a drink but you’ll save time waiting in line.
Is Santa Clara Cuba Safe?
I’m always asked about safety in Cuba. As a solo female traveler I have never had any issue with safety in Cuba.
Like much of Latin America, you do need to have a bit of a thicker skin. It’s normal for men to look and make comments varying from hello beautiful to more graphic Spanish slang I don’t understand.
But I’ve never had a Cuban man approach me or touch me in an inappropriate manner. I do as Cuban women do, say nothing and keep walking.
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While Cuban doesn’t release crime data it’s well known as the safest country in Latin America. But don’t let that fool you into thinking there’s no crime.
Violent crime is extremely rare amongst Cubans but unfortunately pretty theft is not.
As you would in any other country, do not leave your belongings unattended or your phone in your back pocket.
December isn't just the time to drink crema de vie. It is also the worst month for pickpocketing as Christmas in Cuba can be stressful for families.
Santa Claus and the commercial Christmas didn’t exist until recent years and many Cuban families can’t afford it.
It’s sad to say but Cubans know if they steal your iPhone it’s practically victimless as you’ll just buy another. And you can’t really argue with that.
But don’t feel like everyone is trying to steal from you, here are some feel good stories:
- I left credit card in the ATM and quickly stopped me so I wouldn’t lose it.
- I’ve dropped bluetooth earphones and had people run up to me afterwards.
- A teenage boy stopped me to remind me that I should not keep my phone in my back pocket.
Your chance of getting robbed is significantly less than in cities in North America but travel insurance is always a good idea.
Not only is it mandatory in Cuba but you could stumble on a pebble and break your arm.
Weather in Santa Clara Cuba
Santa Clara is a relatively hot city with temperatures ranging from 27C/81F in January to 33C/90F in July.
They say the best time to visit Cuba is November through March but I love summer in Cuba.
If you don't mind it a bit hotter I find everyone to be a bit more relaxed as the tourists are gone.
Prices are also lower and it's easier to get around without reservations.
While it is warmer, it is still considerably cooler than cities in eastern Cuba and the proximity to beaches make the heat bearable.
Have you been to Santa Clara Cuba before? Let me know your favourite things to do in Santa Clara in the comments below.
I love all the different colours throughout the island.
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