Most tourists visit the city of Santa Clara for one thing, and we were no exception. Handily positioned right by the ring road is the resting place of the most famous guerrilla of them all, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, and it's a superb place to visit.
Che Guevara is an icon, and you'll see his picture everywhere in Cuba, alongside less famous revolutionary characters like José Martí and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes; in comparison you see almost no images of Fidel Castro, who prefers to avoid the cult of personality in favour of dead revolutionaries. The image that turned Che into the doyenne of student bedsits the world over was taken by the photographer Korda in 1960, at the funeral of the victims of an explosion on board a French freighter in Havana harbour. Widely regarded as a CIA-backed terrorist attack, the explosion infuriated and saddened Cuba, and the picture showing the emotions on Che's face as he surveys the crowd is a study in capturing the moment.
The monument to Che is equally moving. Centre stage is a huge bronze statue of Che carrying a machine gun, and he's flanked by rectangular plinths containing words of wisdom from the revolution, the text of the letter he sent to Castro when he left Cuba in 1965, and scenes from the fight for Santa Clara in 1959, in which Che took the town in what is regarded as the decisive victory of the revolution.
Below the monument, hidden away from the searing sun, is an excellent museum that tells the story of Che's life, along with a surprisingly large number of personal items, from an early drawing book and school reports through to guns, asthma inhalers and revolutionary uniforms. There are loads of photos, and the most striking thing is what a stunningly handsome man Che Guevara was. His eyes smile with a passion that's infectious, and he even manages to make the straggly beard he wore in the jungle look cool. Whether he's puffing on a cigar, sipping coffee or posing with a machine gun, Che Guevara looks the part, and you come out of the museum with the same feeling you get when you play the Beatles' back catalogue; deep down, everybody wants to be John Lennon or Che Guevara, and Santa Clara is Che's Strawberry Fields1.
Next to the museum is the mausoleum where the remains of Che are buried, along with a number of the men who were with him on that fateful day in Bolivia, when the CIA finally got their man. Che had been on their hit list ever since the 1959 revolution, where the young Argentinean led the guerrilla army's second column to victory. As a politician he fared less well; he was seen as the revolution's second leader, after Fidel, but his laudable championing of the underdog in his speeches didn't translate into being a good politician, and his stints as president of the National Bank and Minister of Industry proved fairly disastrous for the economy. Disillusioned by politics and the increasing reliance of Cuba on the USSR, Che left Cuba in 1965 and went to the Congo, where he joined a failed rebellion before moving to Bolivia in 1966 to set up his own guerrilla troop in the jungle. Unfortunately the US didn't take too kindly to him calling for 'two, three, many Vietnams' in the jungles of Central America, and on the Bolivian army captured him in an operation coordinated by the CIA. After consulting with military leaders in La Paz and Washington DC, the Bolivians shot Che in front of US advisors; his last words were reportedly, 'I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.' 30 years later his remains were sent back to Cuba, and were reburied in Santa Clara.
The mausoleum is tastefully done, with plaques of all those in Che's Bolivian guerrilla column (most of whom are also buried there) and an eternal flame lit by Castro in 1997. It doesn't matter what your political leanings are; this shrine is a fitting tribute to a man whose ideals were strong, and who remains an inspirational and enigmatic figure to this day. After visiting Santa Clara, it's easy to see why Cuba is crazy for Che. He's the closest thing to revolutionary royalty there is.
1 Interestingly, the Beatles and Cuba didn't get on at first; the Fab Four's music was banned throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and a whole generation had to get their rock 'n' roll fix from listening to foreign radio (the radio that got past the jamming technology employed by the government, that is). Things are different now; a taxi driver in Havana told us that when he becomes a millionaire, he's going to visit Liverpool, because that's where the Beatles came from. An American friend had sent him the entire Beatles CD collection, which was such a joy because he'd grown up adoring the Beatles, but hadn't been able to buy their music in Cuba. As if to emphasise this change of heart, in Castro inaugurated a new park in Havana, Parque John Lennon, which contains a bronze statue of the erstwhile Beatle and the following lyrics etched on the ground: Dirás que soy un soñador, pero no soy el único ('You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one'). It's clearly a considerable about-face, but even communist dictators can't hold back something as powerful as the Beatles.