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Go snorkelling in Cayo Santa Maria
Cayo Santa Maria is a year-round snorkelling paradise with pristine coral reefs, clear warm waters and lots of marine life. The reef runs parallel to shore about 100 metres from the main resort beaches. Most resorts have water sport facilities where you can get snorkelling gear. Or if you have room in your suitcase, pack your own snorkel and mask.
Another option is to book a catamaran snorkel trip to the more sheltered inner cays. The catamarans are big and since they sail the inside lagoon waters, you won’t have to worry about rough water.
One tour visits two snorkelling sites where you can explore a shipwreck. It also takes you to a deserted beach on one of the neighbouring cays for a lobster lunch and a swim. After lunch, you’ll sail around the lagoon before heading back to the marina. The tour also offers unlimited drinks.
Explore great scuba diving sites in the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve
The waters around Cayo Santa Maria are part of the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve. All fishing and marine harvesting are highly regulated here and as a result, the shallow reefs and deep drop-offs around the islands make up one of Cuba’s healthiest marine ecosystems.
The island’s structure and clear protected water means there are mild currents and thriving marine life. Year-round water temperatures average 27 C and visibility easily reaches 30 metres! With almost 500 species of fish and 200 varieties of coral and sponges, there’s also plenty to see.
The 24 established dive sites range in depth from 20 to 30 metres. They feature coralline gardens, caves, vertical walls, tunnels and shipwreck remains. Some of the top dive sites include Fragoso, Cobo, Frances Frenchman’s, Las Brujas "Witches," Borracho Drunkard’s, Espanol de Afuera, Los Diablillos "Little Devils" Ensenachos and Santa Maria Cay.
Go saltwater sport fishing in Cayo Santa Maria
The chance of hooking something big when you’re fishing in a highly regulated and healthy reserve is more likely than usual. Cayo Santa Maria’s charter boat operators offer two sport-fishing options. You can fish the deep waters aboard a comfortable 15 metre powerboat for mahi mahi, wahoo, amberjack, grouper and barracuda. Or, you can fly fish in the shallow waters from a flat-bottomed skiff for horse-eye jacks, mutton snapper, tarpon and bonefish.
The causeway linking the island to the mainland has 46 bridges. Twice a day, the tide rushes in and out under them and they’re a favourite hunting spot for the lagoon’s big predators. Cruising the edges of these fast-flowing waters, hungry 30-kg tarpons, Cubera snappers and crevalle jacks wait to strip the line from your reel. If you hire a government-licensed guide, you can also fish from the bridges, but you must bring your own tackle.
Boat charters are four to eight hours long and usually require a minimum number of anglers. Most include bait and tackle, an open bar and snacks.
Head to the forest in Guanayara National Park
Guanayara National Park is located deep in the Escambray Mountains in southern Villa Clara province. It’s part of the larger Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve. The tour bus drops you at the park entrance where you board an authentic Russian army truck for an exciting road trip into the heart of the park. The road winds through lush rainforest and the guide points out the flora and fauna along the way. If you’re lucky, you might spot the national bird, the Cuban trogon.
An hour later, you disembark and hike the short Centinelas del Rio Melodioso (Guards of Melodic River) trail to the picturesque El Rocio waterfalls. After a short break, you split into two groups. Hikers who are fit should head down the river while others are best to continue along the trail. On the river walk, you can slide down some moderate cascades and rapids.
The two groups meet at a natural river pool called The Deer’s Puddle for a refreshing swim. After drying off, it’s back on the trail for a short walk to La Gallega restaurant for a Creole lunch of rice and beans and your choice of meat, chicken or fish. Depending on the time, you may stop at a coffee plantation on the way back to the hotel.
Cruise at sunset in Cayo Santa Maria
After returning from their snorkelling day-trips, the crews of the large catamarans at Las Brujas Marina prepare their boats for the popular sunset cruise and dinner.
Besides the spectacular sunset, you’ll enjoy a wonderful Creole lobster or chicken dinner prepared on board, and an open bar and dancing on the deck to wonderful Cuban-Latin music. The always entertaining crew also gives free salsa lessons.
Cruises depart at 6 p.m. and return at 9 p.m. For this trip, you’ll sail around Cayo Tio Pepe and Cayo Frances and make a quick stop at the San Pasqual shipwreck.
All the resorts in Cayo Santa Maria have well stocked duty-free shops, but tend to carry similar brand name perfumes, jewelry, knick knacks and the like. If you prefer a more authentic shopping experience, head for the shops in Santa Clara.
Make sure to buy some rum during your shopping excursions. Cuba’s more than 70 varieties of rum can be overwhelming to even the most serious rum connoisseurs but the best known brand is the world-famous Havana Club. It comes in a variety of ages and styles including the signature 15-year-old Club Gran Reserva amber. Bottle sizes range from 350 ml to 1 litre and carry an official seal. Buy rum from government or “tourist” shops to ensure its authenticity.
Cuban coffee doesn’t get much publicity but it’s really quite good. Of course, there are dozens of varieties including the better-known brands Cubita, Bustelo, Pilon and La Llave. If you are not a coffee drinker, another option for souvenirs is natural Cuban honey. The most popular brand is Apisun.
Cuba offers three types of shopping experiences: outdoor markets and vendor stalls, retail stores where Cubans shop with Cuban pesos, and stores specifically for travellers and the more well-off. These stores accept credit cards and CUCs and usually have air conditioning.
Pueblo El Estrella
The Cuban government recently opened this mall designed to look like a small town, complete with pastel-coloured storefronts. Shops include La Casa Del Habano cigar shop, El Corel sportswear, the El Yarey clothing store and the Casa De La Miel honey shop. There is also an open air artisan market with local artwork, batik and musical instruments at the far end. Two shuttle buses run hourly between the Pueblo and all resorts.
Fábrica de Tabacos
Two blocks north of Parque Vidal in downtown Santa Clara, you’ll find a variety of shops on the street known as The Boulevard. One of the highlights is the authentic cigar factory which is one of the best in Cuba. It occupies a full city block and produces high-quality Montecristo, Partagas and Romeo & Julieta cigars.
La Casa del Tabaco
This is a well-stocked store run by cigar aficionado Marilín Morales Bauta across the street from Fábrica de Tabacos. It’s a great place to buy and learn about cigars.
Since 2005, all cigar boxes feature an official holographic seal. Boxes purchased in some local shops and from jineteros (street hustlers) are much less expensive, but are usually low-quality, machine-made cigars without official seals. You can smoke them on the island but Cuban Customs will likely confiscate them at the airport if you try to bring them home with you. It’s best to buy from a reputable store like La Casa del Tabaco.
Cubans often joke that the three main failures of the revolution were breakfast, lunch and dinner. After the revolution, most top chefs left the island for greener pastures and Cuban cuisine languished for years. But that changed when four- and five-star resorts started popping up here.
Until recently, the main dining experience on this tiny island oasis revolved around the restaurants and beachside grills of the all-inclusive resorts. However, the opening of Pueblo El Estrella with its seven restaurants means you now have a few more options.
La Casona (Cuban & Creole, $$)
The first thing that grabs your attention in La Casona is the Cuban cowboy hat hanging on the corner of the chair that holds the open menu. After you enter through the stained-glass inner doors, you’ll also notice the elegant Spanish ceramic tiles and white starched tablecloths covering the dark mahogany tables.
If you’re adventurous, try the pork steak in white rum sauce, black beans and rice, cassava root with Creole sauce and a side order of fried plantain. Save some room for the honey banana fritters for dessert.
Vesubio (Italian, $$)
If you’re looking for some great Italian cuisine in an informal but elegant setting, this intimate dinner-only establishment is the place to go. The interior is filled with Roman columns and Italian renaissance artwork. The beef carpaccio with parmesan cheese and potato soup starters are especially tasty. Signature dishes include pasta with red wine and beef sauce, and filet of chicken stuffed with cheese.
Katzura (Japanese, $$$)
You enter this classy Japanese restaurant via a small bridge over a koi pond that wraps around the front entrance. The restful sound of the pond’s fountain complements a dimly lit dining room with low tables, Japanese lanterns and bamboo dividers. Lunch and dinner menus are similar here, with a sushi bar and very good teppanyaki lobster and chicken entrees.
La Goleta (Seafood, $$)
The modern but elegant soft blue decor and large purple hanging lamps are the perfect complement to this restaurant’s international seafood cuisine. The menu is full of surprises, like the French red snapper consommé starter and the calamar a la romana (stuffed squid Roma style) entrée. The Cuban-style lobster in coffee sauce is a definite must-try.
Steak House (Steak House, $$$)
There’s no better place to slice into a thick, tender 12-ounce T-bone or pork chop than at this unpretentious steak house. There is a black and white cow motif in the dining room and the food is delicious. The restaurant also serves fish, so try the tangy pickled snapper starter with a tasty beef or chicken brochette.
Trattoria (Italian, $-$$)
This is a delightful lunch venue for the entire family to enjoy a quick plate of pasta or thin-crust pizza. It’s a casual eatery with simple wooden tables without tablecloths and the outdoor patio is ideal for people-watching. The kids can eat four-cheese or pepperoni pizzas while you indulge your taste buds with the lobster pizza or seafood cannelloni. The decadent crepe in chocolate sauce is also a favourite.
Beer & Burgers (Barbecue, $)
This patio-style eatery is probably the closest thing to fast food available on the island. Tucked away in an open-air courtyard, complete with a three-tiered Roman fountain and cozy bar, it’s the perfect choice for picky eaters.
Golf and spa
Renacer Spa ($$$)
Part Roman bathhouse, part Spanish hacienda, this oasis boasts an intimate central courtyard with a large swimming pool. Several lounge booths with privacy curtains and comfortable pool chairs flank the area.
By the pool, you can relax next to a peaceful flower garden with ponds and fountains. Several outdoor treatment rooms and showers are tastefully located around the garden. There are additional treatment rooms, a sauna, gym and other spa amenities in the main building.
Besides back, neck and full-body massages, you can indulge in a selection of reflexology, Swedish and Shiatsu treatments. For the ultimate in relaxation, try the amazing “four hands” massage.
If you book one of the main treatments, you’ll be able to hang out at the spa all day, with full access to the sauna, gym and pool. And don’t worry if you get hungry – snacks and fruit drinks are included in the treatment price. The spa also has a hair and beauty centre offering a full range of hair care, pedicure, manicure and waxing options.
Cayo Santa Maria resorts typically have guest-only spas, but the roomy Renacer Spa in Pueblo El Estrella is one spa on the island that welcomes non-guests.
Elguea Spa ($$)
On Villa Clara’s north coast, about a three-hour drive from Cayo Santa Maria, is one of Cuba’s oldest thermal hot springs. Since Don Francisco Elguea Goiniena discovered the springs in 1870, Cubans have touted their beneficial healing powers. Apparently, the exfoliating properties of the therapeutic waters and mud provide the perfect base for a long-lasting tan!
Besides a 130-room hotel, the spa also boasts four swimming pools, eight thermal baths and plenty of treatment rooms offering remedies for everything from respiratory problems to arthritis.
If the spectacular beaches and shallow clear waters aren’t enough to keep the kids busy, the resorts have programs designed to occupy them while you relax. They also have game centres with foosball and pool tables, tennis courts and swimming pools designed for kids of all ages. Most resorts also have well-stocked water sports facilities with everything from hobie cat sailboats and kayaks to air mattresses and snorkel equipment. Many also offer programs that teach kids to sail, windsurf and kayak.
Go bowling at the Bolera bowling alley (age 6 and up)
The new Bolera bowling alley in Pueblo El Estrella has six lanes (both five and 10 pin), pool tables and a snack bar. It’s an inexpensive option and a fun family activity. Afterward, cap off your evening with a delicious treat at the 1950s-style Meladera ice cream shop next door.
Take a bike ride to the beach (age 6 and up)
Cayo Santa Maria’s flat geography and good roads make it an easy place to explore by bike. Branching off the main road, there are a number of dirt trails snaking through the mangroves to deserted snorkelling beaches, such as Playa Perla Blanca and Playa Salinas. The trails are simple to navigate and provide plenty of off-road fun.
The bike shop near the Melia Cayo Santa Maria hotel has a wide variety of bikes to choose from. You can also book guided bike tours along the causeway and to nearby towns.
Head out on the water on a Jet Ski at Cayo Las Brujas (age 8 and up)
If you want to explore the mangroves and quiet lagoons, the marina at nearby Cayo Las Brujas rents Jet Skis. The area is rich in wildlife, and the Jet Skis allow you to explore deep into the mangrove forests and get to those deserted beaches. Organized family tours depart the marina each day.
Nightlife in laid back Cayo Santa Maria revolves around the hotels – but that doesn’t mean things shut down after sunset. Salsa and karaoke evenings are a staple at hotel clubs and piano bars here and many resorts hold nightly stage shows with Cuban music and dancers. Most evenings, hotel beach bars crank up their stereo systems and serve an endless flow of Cuban-style cocktails while you dance the night away barefoot under the stars.
Amanecer (Pueblo El Estrella) (Dance club, $$)
Every Wednesday, it is feathers and fandango night at the Pueblo’s disco/cabaret. Colourful Tropicana-style stage shows feature the Aché dance troop and rhythmic Latin music. After the show, the performers fan out into the audience and pull guests up to the dance floor.
Mondays are the club’s official dance-till-you-drop nights and feature some of the best salsa bands from neighbouring Remedios. And don’t worry if your salsa needs some work. Instructors at the club offer daily dance lessons.
The Jazz Club (Pueblo El Estrella) (Latin jazz, $$)
A few tables surround a large oval bar dominating this modern, intimate sit-and-sip venue where you can enjoy live jazz music three nights a week. Although they serve a variety of wine and cocktails, most drinks revolve around local rum, with Hemingway mojitos topping the list.
La Casa Del Cabano (Pueblo El Estrella) (Cigar bar, $$)
After dinner, catch a local baseball or football game on one of the big flat-screens as you enjoy a Cuban cigar and a glass of smooth, dark rum on the rocks. This is also a good place to buy Cuban cigars.
El Parrandero Palmares (Remedios) (Bar, $)
Named after its signature drink, the Parrandero, this quaint Remedios sidewalk Cantina sits on the west side of Plaza Mayor. It’s a favourite evening spot for locals and travellers. The bartenders here serve up parranderos (honey, lemon juice, white rum and ice) in clay pottery cups. But the eight tables here fill up quickly, so be sure to come early.
Bar La Marquesina (Santa Clara) (Bar, $)
In the shadow of Santa Clara’s Teatro La Caridad on the north side of Plaza Vidal, this 24-hour artsy bohemian enclave attracts a mix of college students, locals and travellers. There's often a small group playing live most nights. Wednesday is poetry night and Saturday is promoted as “gay night”. Cover is CUC$2.
Guided tours are a good way to see the region around Cayo Santa Maria and Villa Clara province but a rental car is the best way to explore the region. Cuba’s well-maintained roads are usually deserted, so getting around is easy. Most resorts have on-site rental agencies and supply road maps.
Discover architectural gems in Remedios
Many of the buildings in Cuba’s eighth oldest town date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Each weekend you can enjoy free, lively, open-air jazz concerts around the plaza’s central gazebo.
Buildings of note include the Parroquia Mayor and the Buen Viaje church. However, the town’s star attraction is the grand, colonial Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista church with 13 beautifully decorated gold altars and a controversial statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary.
Around 1570, Spanish nobleman San Juan de los Remedios de la Sabana del Cayo founded colonial Remedios. The government designated the 10 square blocks around the central square, Plaza Mayor, a national historic monument in 1980.
Many of town’s large fleet of taxis are old 1950s-era American cars. Treat yourself to a ride in one of these classics and get taken back in time. Tours are inexpensive and most of the drivers speak enough English to provide you with an entertaining personal view of the town.
Head outdoors to Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve
Outdoor enthusiasts should head south to Embalse Hanabanilla, one of Cuba’s largest man-made lakes. The 36-sq. km reservoir is nestled in the Escambray Mountains and powers Cuba’s largest hydroelectric generating station. Its main claim to fame is the world-class large-mouth bass fishing found here. Although most fish average 6 kg, it’s not uncommon to catch ones 12 kg and larger. The government also stocks the lake with trout.
The lake and surrounding forests are part of the expansive Topes de Collantes nature reserve. One of the last places on the island to spot flocks of Cuba’s Amazon parrots and the guatani, or Cuban trogon (the national bird) is on a network of walking trails criss-crossing the thick, forested slopes above the lake. White-tailed deer, wild boars, hutia and two-metre-long iguanas are also commonly spotted here.
On the far side of the lake, opposite the Hanabanilla Hotel, you’ll find a beautiful hiking trail with stunning panoramic views that leads to the Arroyo Trinitario waterfall. Below the 15 metre falls is a deep pool where you can cool off from your hike. A local boat operator can shuttle you across the lake from the hotel and pick you up after your hike.
Visit the Marcelo Salado sugar museum and steam trains
Step back in time to the beginning of sugar production in Cuba at this old sugar-factory-turned-museum. Situated on the outskirts of Caibarien, the museum has exhibits tracing the history of sugar.
On the grounds of the museum, you’ll see more than a dozen antique steam locomotives dating back to the early 1900s. It is one of largest single collections of antique steam engines in Latin America. And at the end of the tour, you can hop on one of these antiques for a 30-minute ride into Remedios.
After the revolution, Russia purchased most of Cuba’s sugar at a set price. When communism fell in Russia, Cuba lost its largest customer and the sugar industry here crashed. Less than half of the factories remain operational today and the sugar and molasses they produce is mainly for domestic use. The Marcelo Salada mill closed in the late 1990s and later reopened as a museum.
Discover Trinidad – Cuba’s Colonial Crown Jewel
Founded in 1514, Trinidad is Cuba’s fourth-oldest city. It sits at the head of a great bay about 80 km south of Santa Clara. The narrow, unmarked cobbled streets are paved with ballast stones shipped across the Atlantic. There are exquisite pastel-coloured neoclassical and baroque buildings here fronted by mahogany balustrades and massive wooden doors.
Mule-drawn carts and cowboys on horseback share the streets with classic 1950s automobiles and travellers. Birds in ornate bamboo cages serenade locals who like to spend most of their time on rocking chairs beneath shady verandas. You’ll also find more than a dozen 17th- and 18th-century buildings lining the streets around the town’s compact Plaza Mayor.
Although all the city clocks stopped working in 1850, no other city in Cuba is so well preserved or charming. Not only is the entire city a National Monument, but in 1998, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage of Humanity Site.
To most visitors, Cuba seems synonymous with the revolution and cigar industry. In fact, even locals celebrate these two aspects of Cuban life. No visit to Che’s province is complete without experiencing Cuba’s revolutionary capital or a cigar factory, and luckily, you can do both in Santa Clara.
Discover landmarks of the Cuban Revolution in Santa Clara
There is a little-known connection between Santa Clara, the country of Canada and the Cuban revolution. On December 31, 1958, Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s rebel army derailed a government weapons train near the town using a Canadian bulldozer. Needless to say, Cubans have a deep affection for Canadians.
Armed with their new weapons, Che’s army captured the city two days later, forcing Fulgencio Batista to flee the country - ending the revolution and allowing Fidel Castro to step in as the new leader. The derailed boxcars are now part of the small Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado museum.
Scattered around town are dozens of revolutionary monuments and buildings that still bear bullet holes from the battles. On a hill overlooking the city, you’ll find Revolution Plaza with a 7-metre-tall bronze statue of Che holding his rifle. You can also visit the small museum dedicated to his life, a mausoleum containing his remains, and the remains of the 37 comrades who died with him in his attempt to stir up revolts in Bolivia.
On the north side of the compound, you will find the Garden Of The Tombs, with an eternal flame surrounded by 220 marble tombs to mark the number of Che’s fighters who captured the town.
Next, head to Parque Vidal in the centre of town. It’s named after hero Leoncio Vidal - one of the rebels killed in the assault on the main Batista troop position in the Santa Clara Hilton (the tallest building in town). Look for the Hotel Santa Clara Libre here as well. The mint-green, bullet-ridden art deco hotel stands on the west side of the square.
Other notable buildings around Parque Vidal include the Teatro La Caridaa (built in 1885), the Museo de Artes Decorativas, with its fine collection of colonial antiques, and the old neoclassical Palacio Provincial, which houses the city library.
If you venture five blocks north of Parque Vidal, you’ll come across the intimate Plaza del Carmen, where the impressive Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen church sits. In front of the church is a stone monument beside an old tamarind tree, marking the spot where the first mass celebrating Santa Clara’s founding took place in 1689.
The Cuban cigar industry in Santa Clara
When it comes to top-quality cigars, Cuba has few rivals. After all, the country has had over 300 years of practice! In the early 1900s, about 120 factories produced 1,000 brands of export-quality handmade cigars. Today, eight factories across Cuba make about 40 brands of hand-rolled cigars.
All cigar factories produce various brands. Some specialize in particular flavours, while others in certain sizes. The Fábrica de Tabacos factory in Santa Clara is one of Cuba’s best. It produces high-quality handmade Montecristo, Partagas and Romeo & Julieta cigars.
Cuban cigars come in various sizes, shapes and flavours. Each size has its own name, such as Cohiba Coronas (142 mm long) and Montecristo A’s (235 mm long). Fatter cigars are usually more flavourful, burn slower and taste smoother; darker cigars are typically sweeter and more full-bodied.
Like wine, the quality of cigars varies from year to year and with age. Look for the source and the year of production marked on the underside of the box. Cigar aficionados believe that aging cigars for six to eight years produces the best results. Cigars, when properly stored, continue to ferment and mature in their boxes.
If you don't plan on waiting several years, you should try to smoke the cigar either within three months of rolling or not until at least a year later. A cigar will go through a bitter phase between three and 12 months.
When you buy cigars in Cuba, make sure they are slightly soft when gently squeezed, have a fresh, robust smell, are tightly rolled and smooth and silky to the touch. They all should have roughly the same colour and shape. Hotels and dedicated Casas del Habano or Casas del Tabaco nationwide are the best places to purchase cigars.
Handmade Cuban cigars carry the Cubatabaco stamp plus a factory mark. Choose boxes labelled “Hecho en Cuba. Totalmente a Mano” (in English, “Made in Cuba. Completely by Hand”). If you see “Hecho a Mano,” the cigars are most likely hand-finished but not hand-rolled. Those labelled only “Hecho en Cuba” are machine-made.
Calendar of events
National Longina Trova Festival (January)
Held in Santa Clara each year, this festival honours the traditional Cuban music style, trova – and musician Manuel Corona and his immortal song Longina. Older troubadours share the stage with famous modern Cuban musicians. The event includes music, informal get-togethers and a traditional walk from Santa Clara to Caibarien, Corona’s hometown.
Trinidad Way of the Cross Procession (April)
Each year on Good Friday, villagers make their way to Trinidad’s narrow cobblestone streets for the Way of the Cross Procession. The traditional Easter ceremony dates back to the 16th century and its route is marked with wooden crosses.
May Day Celebrations (May)
May 1 is International Workers Day here – one of the most celebrated days on the Cuban calendar. In Santa Clara, thousands of workers march to the Plaza de la Revolution Square for cultural and musical events and political speeches.
26 July Celebrations (July)
July 26 is the most important date on Cuba’s revolutionary calendar. The date celebrates the anniversary of Fidel Castro’s ill-fated 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. It’s also the birthday of Cuba’s most famous writer and patriot, Jose Martí. Besides band music, expect speeches and gun salutes honouring heroes of the revolution.
It’s a day when communist banners, posters and official graffiti cover the streets and buildings. In Santa Clara, crowds of 100,000 people fill Revolution Square.
Las Parrandes de Remedios (December)
Cuba’s oldest festival and the most popular non-political event is the Christmas festival in Remedios. Celebrations include street parades with rumba percussion ensembles, music, Creole food and a parade of lavishly decorated floats. The celebration culminates in a dramatic fireworks competition between the town’s two main neighbourhoods, San Salvador and El Carmen.