Cuba has its share of quirky museums.
There’s the Pharmaceutical Museum in Matanzas, with its porcelain jars and potions; the Parrandas Museum in Remedios, presenting such proud and faithful re-creations of the floats and finery used in that town’s December celebration, it’s a wonder visitors don’t walk out with sequins on their soles and feathers in their hair; and the Museum of Piracy – a surprisingly interesting and well-curated space in Santiago de Cuba’s Morro Castle.
Havana, meanwhile, is packed with collections of the odd and inspiring, from the Museum of Chocolate and the Coche Mambí (a wonderfully restored, turn-of-the-century train car used by Cuban presidents until 1959), to the Literacy Museum with its moving, first-person accounts of the campaign that taught 700,000 Cubans to read, and the Museo Napoleónico, a grandiose Vedado mansion housing the diminutive emperor’s ephemera.
And then there’s the Tren Blindado in Santa Clara. While far from a household name, anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Cuban Revolution has heard of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Indeed, you need know nothing about the 1959 triumph to have seen his image reproduced on everything from mugs to mud flaps. For those wondering: Santa Clara is inextricably linked to Che’s legacy and Cuban history since this is where the definitive battle was fought, led, and won by Guevara and his column in 1958.
If Santa Clara is on your travel program, you’ll certainly be visiting the Che Guevara Mausoleum and Monument – a moving tribute to the Argentinean doctor/guerilla and where his remains were finally laid to rest. While there, consider taking a quick side trip to the Tren Blindado (Armored Train), the capture of which laid the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista to its final rest.
Batista’s forces were in deep trouble by the time the armored train huffed towards Santa Clara from Havana on December 23, 1958 carrying over 370 armed soldiers, ammunition and two months worth of provisions. Perhaps hearing the death knell to his dictatorship, Batista aimed to halt the advance of the guerillas to the east, areas already brought under control by rebel forces led by revolutionary commanders including Camilo Cienfuegos and Ramiro Valdés. Meanwhile, the battle in Santa Clara proper was about to launch in earnest, the strategy of which was designed by Guevara and implemented by his Column #8, “Ciro Redondo”.
Under the cloak of secrecy and with no small measure of stealth, Guevara’s troops entered the outlying areas of Santa Clara and then the city itself, closing off access roads and blowing up bridges. The assault took Batista’s forces by surprise, with rebels securing strategic sites including the police headquarters, the seat of provincial government, and the Gran Hotel. The victory of Guevara’s troops in Santa Clara on December 28th laid the groundwork for the final blow to Batista – the derailing and sequestering of the armored train on December 29th; in fact, the battle was so decisive, the dictator fled the country two days later.
Today, the Tren Blindado is a museum and a monument to the efforts of the 18 soldiers led by Che to secure victory for the rebel forces. Considered one of the major sites in Cuban revolutionary history, it sits precisely where it derailed, on the train line running from Santa Clara to Remedios, beside the Cubanicay River. The first thing to come into sight approaching the monument is the obelisk (dedicated to Guevara) detailing the events of the battle. This is flanked by a sculpture by Cuban artist José Delarra representing the defense of Cuba by the rebel forces and importantly, the bulldozer driven by Che to displace the rail line.
Behind these monuments are four, original derailed train cars which have been converted into a museum. Visitors can enter the cars to peruse the maps, photographs and a variety of arms used in the actual battle of Santa Clara. It has a wonderfully peaceful interior, watched over by a large, iconic portrait of Guevara, and the open doors provide some excellent photo opportunities, with revolutionary artifacts in the foreground and the city landscape behind.
The Tren Blindado is open Tues-Sat 8am-6pm, until noon on Sunday.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012. Conner is also the brainchild of Cuba Libro, the island’s first English-language café and bookstore.