Five Days In Santa Maria, Cuba
FIVE DAYS IN SANTA MARIA: CUBA
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT:
Commemorate the nation’s hero, Che Guevara
Drink rum and dance the salsa in the vibrant town squares
Relax at some of Cuba’s top all-inclusive hotels
Enjoy white sandy beaches and turquoise waters
When visiting Cuba, Havana is normally top of the list for most travellers - with its vintage cars, Fidel Castro iconography and hauntingly beautiful decaying buildings.
But, there’s so much more to this Caribbean island. I headed to Santa Maria in the Villa Clara Keys, a picturesque coastal hideaway where you can enjoy many of Cuba’s traditions against a backdrop of beautiful beaches and five-star luxury.
Situated on the north-central coast, the province has dramatically transformed in recent years. Once a stretch of sleeping fishing spots, the keys were connected to the mainland in 1995 following the completion of an impressive 30 mile causeway and progress has been unstoppable since.
Over the last two decades, around 20 luxury hotels have sprung up, alongside shopping plazas where you can buy handmade crafts, drink fresh coconut cocktails (generously topped up with Havana Club rum) and dance in the streets as bands play traditional Cuban-style music, including lively renditions of Guantanamera, the unofficial national anthem.
With miles of sandy white beaches and crystal clear waters filled with colourful reefs, water sports are also popular and you can take your pick from diving, yachting, snorkelling and more.
Dotty Dishes was invited to Cuba, along with around 25 other journalists from the UK and Ireland, to FITCuba2018 – the International Tourism Fair of Cuba - to learn more about the area. We were lucky enough to stay at the Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria, a sprawling resort with more than a thousand rooms, incredible pools and several restaurants. And it was fully inclusive – what could possibly go wrong with non-stop alcohol and almost thirty journalists?!
Aside from the odd afternoon hopping between the pool and the bar, we spent an exhaustive but lovely few days touring this stunning part of the island, including some historic sites and charming towns. Here are some of the highlights…
HANGING WITH THE LOCALS:
Without a doubt, my favourite moments were spent wandering around the colourful town of Sagua La Grande, where locals had taken to the streets for a festival. They were celebrating plans to regenerate the area, to bring in more tourists and, of course, some much needed money. Cause for celebration indeed! Many had taken to the streets to join in with the music, dancing and rum drinking.
Away from the revellers in the main square, I wandered through the old streets, past countless old buildings and several incredible 1950s cars, including the vintage beauty above.
I also came across this stunningly colourful mural and it would have been rude not to pose for a picture against it.
As we left the town, alongside journalists from other countries around the globe, many people came out of their homes to wave at our convoy of coaches. It was very bizarre seeing them all lined up along the roads and some even photographing us with their smartphones.
It’s just a sign of how excited the locals are about the attention their town has received and the exciting plans for the future. Everyone always says ‘Go to Cuba before it changes too much’ but this town looks set to get even better.
THE CHE GUEVARA MAUSOLEUM:
Another highlight was visiting the memorial of the nation’s most celebrated revolutionist, Che Guevara, who famously fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution. Killed in Bolivia in 1967, his remains were exhumed three decades later and he was buried in Cuba with full military honours.
He was put to rest, alongside 29 of his fellow soldiers, under an impressive 22-foot-high bronze statue. Next to the mausoleum is a small museum, with some pretty interesting artefacts charting Che’s life – including a rickety looking wooden chair recovered from his grandmother’s home, his school reports and books, his dentistry kit (including some terrifying looking pliers), several guns and other weapons.
His army green uniform and famous beret were also on display. The staff were very strict about photographs - phone and camera were strictly forbidden – so, I couldn’t take any pictures but it’s a pretty iconic look. I’m sure you can imagine!
THE TREN BLINDADO:
Spanish for ‘Armoured Trains’, the Tren Blindado is another national monument to Che Guevara, cementing his final victory during the Cuban uprisings. In 1958, the carriages were sent by the government to attack the revolutionists, loaded with soldiers and ammunition. But they were ambushed before they reached their intended destination.
Che and his soldiers hijacked the train and smashed 30 feet of train track with a bulldozer they’d ‘borrowed’ from a local agricultural college. The battle is widely considered a tipping point in the revolution.
The compartments are now full of memorabilia and posters including old uniforms, weapons and newspaper cuttings. The celebrated bulldozer is also on display, alongside an obelisk commentating the victors.
SUGAR MUSEUM AND STREAM TRAIN:
Nowadays, Cuba is famous for its rum and tobacco. But for centuries the country’s economy relied on sugar exports. Plantations are still big business, yet have a long (and tragic) past on the island, as many slaves were brought over from Africa and beyond from the 1500s to work the fields.
We visited a museum dedicated to the trade’s history and sugar-making process. We weren’t given a tour, but English-speaking guides are available to talk you through it. There were also several sculptures and artworks, giving an indication of what life was like, in part, for the slaves. Although uncomfortable to see, they weren’t overly graphic. I would love to have found out more about this human side of the past, but the focus was very much on the process and the machinery to be honest, which was a bit of a shame.
Afterwards we boarded an old steam train for a brief tour around the nearby fields, which was a lot of fun. And, we also watched a man making chunky cigars from large tobacco leaves, famously considered the best in the world.
OUR FABULOUS HOTEL... AND THE FOOD:
Tucked away in the Santa Clara Keys, the Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria has everything you need for a relaxing and luxurious stay. Alongside the restaurants, there is a cabaret theatre with daily shows, a shop, gym, nightclub and half a mile of sandy white beach.
Like most all-inclusive resorts, the hotel offered an extensive all-you-eat buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a pool-side snack bar and a couple of other al la carte restaurants. There was certainly no chance of going hungry here – the food was unavoidable and irresistible!
Every morning at breakfast we were welcomed by a waiter offering champagne and fresh orange juice - my favourite way to start the day! As we were out every afternoon, I didn’t get a chance to check out the lunches, but the dinner was incredibly varied.
A sushi chef was on hand to make fresh rolls to order. You could also chose your own steaks and fish and watch as cooks prepared them just the way you like. I ordered the shrimp most nights and another favourite was the slow-cooked pork.
The rooms were bright and airy and stylishly decorated. The bed was so comfortable and I loved the huge walk-in shower.
You could totally relax here and some of my favourite moments were simply sitting by the pool at sunset drinking frozen margaritas and mojitos. Just perfect!
Dotty Dishes was a guest of the Cuba Tourist Board - but as ever, all reviews are our honest opinion!