Updated July, 2020
Santa Clara, Holguin and Gibara are three Cuban towns that time forgot but you will always remember. Here, time seems to have stopped, but it stopped in an enchanted period of interior patios, leafy central squares and 17th-century churches.
As secondary and even third-tier cities, these pretty Cuban towns are frequently overlooked. The interior provinces of Central Cuba are frequently too off the beaten track for most travelers to the island to explore. Most visitors with limited time will focus on the capital city of Havana with its striking colonial architecture, vibrant art scene and unparalleled nightlife.
Other well-known Cuban destinations that get plenty of press include Trinidad, Viñales, Cienfuegos and Santiago. But there are little-known provincial gems in central Cuba that thrive beneath the radar and are worth discovering.
THREE UNFORGETABLE CUBAN TOWNS
Similar to many other Cuban towns, Santa Clara has a graceful plaza surrounded by a park in the center of town. One late afternoon I sat on one of the benches and just observed the local citizens going about their daily business. Here is my little slice of Cuban life witnessed in this colonial plaza:
Three young women in brown and white office uniforms run through the plaza on the way to catch the bus upsetting a group of loud, wild parrots. The women all have on black fishnet stockings in a style you frequently see all over Cuba.
All around the plaza are classic, late 19th century and early 20th century buildings; the museum, the theatre, the town hall – all dripping beautiful, elaborately carved baroque style stonework. As is the case with most public buildings in Cuba, these too are in dire need of repair. Many have not seen a paintbrush since 1959. But whoever created these structures did so as a labor of love. The architecture is stunningly beautiful.
Schools out! A group of pre-teens crosses the plaza in clusters of four and five. Some stop at the little monument to a local patron to share snacks on the grass. Behind them is a burst of frangipani trees with their bright red flowers and the majestic, and absurdly tall, Cuban palm trees native to the area.
As evening falls the screeching of the wild parrots gets louder and louder. Boys and girls on roller blades whizz by executing daring stunts backward. A man and his kid toss a ball to each other, lovers hold hands and everyone else is glued to their phones. It occurs to me that I can’t remember when I experienced more perfect weather than in Santa Clara’s central square.
As the day grows dark, the plaza lights come on casting a yellow glow. Soon musicians will be out in force playing amazingly good music in the plaza’s brightly colored central gazebo. This lively plaza is the highlight of Santa Clara.
People really seem to enjoy their plazas, parks and seawalls in Cuban towns. Many Cuban apartments can be small, cramped and hot – like in many European and Asian countries – so the outdoor spaces are a welcome respite.
The other attraction in Santa Clara is the Che Guevara monument about 15 minutes outside the city.
You can get there from the central plaza by horse-drawn collective taxi for one Cuban peso, about 4 US cents. The monument is impressive but, unless you have a particular interest in revolutionary history, is probably is not worth a side trip.
Another unique Santa Clara location is Club Mejunje, next to the Hotel Santa Clara, site of Cuba’s first established drag show. There are other such shows throughout Cuba but Santa Clara’s is the most well known. The event takes place on Saturday nights in a surreal, abandoned-looking building and is very popular and well attended.
The city of Holguin is the capital of Cuba’s western province of the same name and the fourth largest city on the island. Few travelers make it as deep into Cuba as Holguin proper. You see almost no tourists in the city. The tourism concentrations are in the nearby beach towns of Guardalavaca and Playa Pesquera.
The province was the site of Christopher Columbus’s first landing where legend has it, he said, “this is the most beautiful land human eyes have ever beheld.” Today, people in Holguin joke that they invented tourism because of their Columbus connection.
CITY OF PARKS, CHURCHES AND MUSIC
Known as the city of parks, Holguin is also considered the most religious town in Cuba.
The city has four pretty main parks all designed in the classic colonial style with the church in the center. It has a surprisingly extensive collection of good paladares, the nicest being Restaurante 1910 in a restored colonial mansion. The food in 1910 is very good and reasonably priced. A three-course meal will set you back about 12 CUC.
On the other end of the economic spectrum are the pizza restaurants on the plazas where an entire pie with beer goes for about 4 CUC. I see these Cuban pizza restaurants as the equivalent of a fast food joint anywhere else. The food is fast, reasonably priced, no surprises. Although I wouldn’t call the food there “delicious,” it efficiently and quickly solves the immediate issue of what to eat.
All Cuban towns, big or small, have outstanding music venues. Holguin is no exception. It has the standard music venues found in most larger Cuban cities; La Casa de La Trova, Casa de La Musica and others.
There was one nightclub, however, that stood out from the rest, Salon Benny More. Salon Benny, named after a famous Cuban performer, is an open-air venue with excellent musicians and performers, reasonably priced drinks, a large dance floor and jovial patrons. It is a great place to enjoy good music and get a feel for how typical Cubans enjoy themselves.
Holguin is a great anchor location from which to explore the seaside towns of Gibara and Guardalavaca, where, just like Columbus, I saw some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.
Gibara is a small coastal town bursting with colonial charm. It has one of the prettiest plazas of the Cuban towns.
THE POOR MAN’S CINEMA
For seven days every April the coastal town of Gibara hosts the International Festival of Poor Cinema; not “poor” as in not any good, but “poor” as in not rich. It is called this because the festival invites talented artists of limited means from all over the world, including the U.S., to exhibit their work here.
THE UNWANTED CROCODILE
Lately, cruise ships have started to stop in Gibara to enjoy the fresh seafood, colonial charm and nearby beaches. Local paladares have sprung up to cater to the visitors. One such enterprising paladar fashioned itself after a native Taino Indian village complete with thatched-roof restaurants, Indian-motif wall carvings and lots of coconuts. To appear even more authentic, the proprietors created an animal preserve of local fauna including parrots and a crocodile.
When the local police heard people were keeping crocodiles they came to tell the proprietors that this was illegal and they would return to remove the crocodile. The proprietor tells us the police never showed up again and the crocodile has been there ever since.
One can only imagine the conversations between the policemen as they contemplated whose job it would be to actually retrieve, transport and relocate the six-foot crocodile. I suppose they finally said, “Oh, the hell with it. Leave it there.”
As appealing as Gibara is, the main draw in the area is the nearby beaches of Guardalavaca and Playa Pesquero. The sand is creamy white with a tinge of light honey color and the water is crystalline and impossibly blue. You can rent a deck chair for the day and just lounge. Occasionally local people will appear offering plates of fresh fried fish and rice and beans for about US$2.00. There are little huts nearby selling the excellent local beer, Bucanero
The one drawback for this beach is that everyone else already knows about it and it is full of Canadian and European tourists. So the secret is very definitely out.
If you’re going to stay in one of these charming towns, I suggest Airbnb for your accommodation and here is a $55 credit for your first stay.
Which of these Cuban towns do you think would be YOUR favorite?
And don’t forget my new book, The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide, available on Amazon.
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