Varadero was an excellent getaway to relax a bit enjoy the best of Cuba’s white shores, but the truth is that we were excited about getting to know the real Cuba. To live its daring spirit, feel its joyful rhythm in our bodies, hear its stories first-hand.
Since we didn’t have much time (we were only able to spend a week in Cuba) we decided to participate in an organized tour that would take us through three of the country’s most iconic cities: Trinidad, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos. Below, we tell you some of our first impressions of these places that are an absolute must for anyone who wants to get to know the different sides of Cuban culture.
AUTHENTIC CUBA IN TRINIDAD
Founded in the 16th century by a Spanish conquistador by the name of Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Trinidad grew and expanded much in thanks to the vast fortunes amassed by the sugar industry that blossomed nearby in Valle de los Igenios.
But Trinidad is special because something very peculiar happened here: in 1850, time stopped. Or so it seems, at least. With its perfectly preserved buildings from colonial times, Trinidad is a living portrait of what Cuba was in the 19th century. Of course, today, we see this colonial fabric intertwined and embellished by the distinctly Cuban character. But the essence of a lost time is still there.
A World Heritage Site since the 1980s, Trinidad is a true open-air museum. Everything in the city is worth being photographed: the cobbled streets, the pastel-colored houses, the clay rooftops, and even the typical Cuban cars! All of this historic urban landscape is accompanied by Cuban sounds of people meeting and playing together in the streets music and rhythms that can be heard and echo throughout the city.
The most touristic spot here is Plaza Mayor (and it’s not hard to find it because the city was built so that every street would lead here). Around it, we can find Trinidad’s most iconic buildings. Since we were short on time, we only got to visit Palacio Cantero where we had one of the most typical Cuban experiences: while going up the narrow and steep stairs to get to the top of the palace’s bell tower to get a stunning view of the city, we found ourselves almost bumping into the people who were coming down. It was here that we could attest to the local saying: “Cuba is for the Cubans”! It was a funny moment that made our visit even more special.
The time we spent in Trinidad was too short. We left the city wanting to stay and explore each nook, see the sun rise on the city, and enter into that true Cuban rhythm. But our adventure was only beginning and our next destination was set: Santa Clara.
REVOLUTIONARY CUBA IN SANTA CLARA
More than its landscape and tourist hotspots, Santa Clara is a mandatory stop for anyone who wants to get to know and live the history of the Cuban Revolution. This small city represents all the Cuban people’s strength, resilience and daring spirit. Here, you can really feel Cuban patriotism, you feel that Cuba is for the Cubans and that that’s why they fight and they want to stay original and authentic in everything they do.
During our visit in the city, we had the opportunity of getting to know in depth the history of this revolution, of the fundamental role of some of its leaders (like Ernesto Guevara, or Che as he’s best known) and of the importance of Santa Clara for the Cuban Revolution.
In 1958, it was here, in Santa Clara, that the last battle of the revolution that would set Cuba free. With a last-minute change to their military strategy, two columns of revolutionary troops (one led by Che Guevara and the other by Camilo Cienfuegos) invaded the city through the mountains, taking over the radios, schools, fire departments until the local population, which had until then been enslaved, joined this movement to really take back the city. Once inside the city, the ingenuity of Che’s soldiers created the final strike: with a backhoe, they destroyed the railway tracks thus stopping an armored train loaded with weapons and soldiers from deterring the revolutionary spirit that was taking over Santa Clara.
Today, there are many monuments in memory of this battle that liberated Santa Clara and successfully ended the Cuban Revolution. In honor of the destroyed train, the Tren Blindado was constructed: a park, national monument and memorial that can be visited today. The park includes a sculpture garden, an obelisk in honor of Che Guevara and a number of train cars that can be visited inside. There is also the Che Guevara Mausoleum where there lie the mortal remains of the argentine revolutionary and some of the soldiers that accompanied him and where you’ll find a statue sculpted to represent exactly the way he entered the city to set Cuba free – with a rifle in one hand and the other hand on his chest. Next to his mortal remains, there is also an extensive biography of Ernesto Guevara that teaches us about the life of this doctor, journalist, politician, guerilla fighter and revolutionary. We know that there are many mixed feelings about Che Guevara but it was really interesting to know him and, in doing that, being able to understand why and how he became one of the most important figures of the 20th century.
If we think about Santa Clara, we can’t really think about its architecture and atmosphere because what we really lived there, and what we associate with this city, it really this revolutionary and resilient spirit that you feel here. Here, you breathe the spirit of Ernesto Guevara, of Fidel Castro and of everything that was the Cuban Revolution. It’s still really interesting for visitors to come to this city because it allows us to fully understand the Cuban people and what made them become so different and unique in everything.
To visit Santa Clara is to live a part of Cuba’s history and to feel the reason why Cuban people are so resilient.
EUROPEAN CUBA IN CIENFUEGOS
After visiting authentic Cuba and revolutionary Cuba, what could be left? European Cuba – because even though Cuba is absolutely original and different in everything it does and everything that it is, it’s impossible to deny the European influence that was felt here during colonial times. And there is no better example of how that European past and Cuban present mix than Cienfuegos.
Originally founded by some 26 French families, Cienfuegos still reflects this European influence in many ways. From the names of its streets (Bouy’on, Griffo, D’Cluoet…) to the countless and elegant domes that dot its skyline, to its very own arco de triunfo (which, while it pales in comparison to the original in Paris, is still impressive in its architecture and magnificence) – Cienfuegos is a one-of-a-kind city in Cuba.
Considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the exquisite beauty and excellent conservation of its architecture, the truth is there are many points of interests to explore in the city. You can start at Parque José Martí where you’ll also find most of the important buildings of Cienfuegos. Since we were short on time, we didn’t visit any of them inside but admiring their magnificent design already amazed us.
To go for a nice walk, Calle 37 (or Paseo del Prado) is the best place: this street, which is also the city’s main artery, is the largest and widest in Cuba at approximately 1km wide.
And let’s not forget Punta Gorda, where we can also find a malecón (albeit less impressive than Havana’s) where you can admire a wonderful view of the bay with its clear blue waters and with colorful houses (and mansions) in the horizon. Here, it’s not hard to understand how the city became known as the Pearl of the South.
Visiting these three cities was really interesting for us and gave us a very complete view of what is Cuban culture. From the immortalized Cuba in Trinidad where everything is original because nothing has changed since the 19th century, to the revolutionary Cuba with its unbeatable resilience in Santa Clara and finally to the splendor of Cienfuegos that greets us with a European breeze that you won’t find anywhere else in Cuba. This was an unforgettable experience that we can’t help but recommend!