Standing on the spot where Ernesto "Che" Guevara won the Cuban revolution sixty years ago is an exhilarating moment for me – I was one of those students with the iconic image of Che plastered on my wall and a member of the Cuba Solidarity Society to boot. Che's people's coup was almost bloodless with the classic guerrilla tactics of derailing an arms supply train and launching an ambush. Say what you want about Castro's socialism, but it's hard not to admire the spirit of the Cuban revolution.
The hotbed of the Cuban revolution, Santa Clara sits right at the heart of the island both historically and geographically making it a vital stop for travellers interested in understanding and exploring Cuba. This is the place where 60 years ago the world's most famous freedom fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara famously fought the last battle of the war to seize power for Fidel Castro and the rebels. His legacy has been carefully preserved and the cult of personality still lives on – bold images of the icon are displayed like adverts alongside revolutionary slogans such as:
"Hasta la Victoria Siempre!"
Cuba has been diligent in preserving the memory of their national heroes. Che's epic memorial crowns a peaceful hillside in a central Santa Clara square, a glittering structure of pale grey concrete slabs and angular plinths rising in tiers and carpeted in greenery. Designed by Cuban architect Jorge Cao Campos and sculptor Jose de Lazaro Bencomo and declared a National Monument, a central column is topped by a statue of Che Guevara that wouldn't look out of place in Russia.
Below the statue another block features an image of the rebels carved in stone and a giant monolith is inscribed with a letter Che wrote to Castro when he decided to leave Cuba and carry on his rebel life elsewhere, adding a touchingly personal and heartfelt note to the monument.
Although it manages to be a fittingly robust and bleak reminder of the struggle, inside is a tranquil sanctuary divided into two rooms – a mausoleum and a museum – both of which are open to the public. To the left, neat rows of urns containing the recovered remains of Che Guevara and his rebel companions line the walls. In-between a rock garden ripples with the sound of trickling water echoing around the vault.
Through a door to the right is the museum full of delightful memorabilia that brings Che and the band of rebels back to life. The jungle-green jackets and berets emblazoned with the red star are worthy of a fashionista's vintage army surplus collection, and the black-and-white photos of the rebels in their hideout are full of comradery and purpose.
Among the odd but fascinating exhibits are Che's dentistry set – I learn he was a trained dentist as well as a doctor – and family photos from Che's youth that make his life seem more real and less mythologized. Walking around the museum there were a few comments on his looks – and it's true Che was ruggedly handsome. I can't help but wonder if that's one of the reasons for his poster-boy status. The other famous faces of the revolution – Castro and Camillo – could never have pulled that off.
Off the rails
After paying my respects at the memorial, I moved on to the site of a key moment in the Battle of Santa Clara – the "Armored Train". Here the train carry munitions and supplies to General Batista's troops was derailed by an enormous digger driven across the tracks. Che was certainly more than a handsome face, and it was a genius move engineered by him to weaken the opposition with no loss of life.
The scene has been carefully reconstructed beside the old train tracks in a paved square surrounded by grand old haciendas. The windowless train carriages marked "Logistica", rusted brown and painted with yellow stripes, contain fascinating exhibits from the Battle of Santa Clara. Starched rebel uniforms hang from the walls, and there are even a few vintage Molotov cocktails to showcase their classic make-do guerrilla tactics.
Artefacts from rebel life are all there too – camp beds, hammocks, medical supplies, a red cross flag and guns set on tripods. A panel marked with a despatch from Che reads:
"In a few hours the whole personnel surrendered with its anti-aircrafts, machine guns of the same kind, and all its fabulous quantity of munitions."
Sepia photos document the triumphant faces of the rebels.
Guerrillas in the midst
Founded in 1689 in the early days of the Spanish empire in America, evidence of the Santa Clara's roots still exist in the old European architecture. The city has long been an important cultural centre with a highly educated population of bohemian intellectuals, and a powerful creative and musical output.
It's little wonder that Che and the rebels found support among the local population. Aside from monuments to the revolution, today the town is well worth exploring for its grand plaza, pretty 17th century landscaped Parque Leoncio Vidal, old colonnaded buildings, Museum of the Decorative Arts and preserved neoclassical theatre dating back to 1885.
Just outside the city, visitors can climb wide stairs to Loma del Capiro, the hilltop lookout where the guerrillas positioned themselves in preparation for the final battle. A small monument now marks the summit, where panoramic views of the town and verdant countryside reveal the strategic reasons for the encampment.
To here and beyond
Santa Clara is now easier to reach than ever with brand new weekly flights being offered from Manchester to the international airport (SNU) just outside the Cuban city. With Cuba's desert island cays just a couple of hours' drive away, Santa Clara is becoming a gateway to the beaches too, and offers a pleasant cultural diversion for travellers looking to add a bit of culture to a classic Caribbean beach break. You can also hit the road or jump on a domestic flight from Havana and other major Cuban cities.
Sitting squarely in the centre of Cuba, Santa Clara also makes the perfect stop if you are touring the island, not far from the main cross-island highway and with a train station connecting it to towns nearby such as new heritage hotspot Sagua La Grande that's recently been given a makeover by the Cuban government . Stay in the locale at the beautiful rustic resort hotel Los Caneyes with a pretty rustic location and a swimming pool to keep you cool in the tropical heat.