Trinidad Convent with Bell Tower
Province of Sancti Spíritus, Cuba
The bell tower of the convent offers great panoramic views of Trinidad. There is also a museum inside.
I came here in January 2019 with my family and we stayed only one night in Trinidad, as part of our three-day road trip from Havana. We dashed straight away to the convent, to climb the bell tower and get the views of the city. Well, the view was great, as the town is surrounded by hills and that always makes a pretty panorama.
However, the convent museum was less good. I normally follow the same structure in my posts about museums (the People, The Focus, The Mystery and Don't Miss) but I am going to make an exception this time. I found the convent museum badly curated and I could not possibly construct a narrative that was not there.
So let me just attempt a brief description. It is still a great place to go, but you go for the panoramic view of the city, not for the information. In the convent, it is pleasant to stroll for a few minutes, particularly under the arches of the yard.
The Church and the Convent of St Francis were built in 1813 by Spanish colonial Franciscan monks. The Franciscans are a group of religious orders within the Catholic Church, founded in 1209 by Saint Francis of Assisi. Catholicism came to Cuba with the Spanish colonisation. The church’s agenda on the island initially was to convert the native Taínos. The Franciscan and Dominican orders arrived first, followed by Jesuits and Augustinians. The natives were drafted into unpaid labour and subjected to forced conversions, resulting in their near extinction (mind you, it was smallpox that killed most of them).
The building became a parish church in 1848, and in 1895 it was converted into a garrison for Spanish troops. This was the year when the War of Independence of Cuba started, against the domination of Spanish, so I presume that the two events are connected.
The church fell into disrepair during the war and in 1920 it was demolished. It was not the only thing destroyed by the war. Outside the city there were many sugar plantations and sugar mills, which produced a third of Cuba's sugar (in the Valley of the Sugar Mills). They were also devastated by fire and fighting and the industry never fully recovered (the sugar trade shifted to Cienfuegos and Matanzas Provinces afterwards). Some of those rich slave and sugar traders, such as the Iznaga family, supported the fight for independence. They owned a number of sugar plantations and mills and it is fascinating to see that their desire for independence from Spain killed off their wealth.
The bell tower and the convent survived the war. The convent now houses the Museum of the Fight against Bandits (Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos). The bandits in question were rebels who opposed the Cuban government led by Fidel Castro. It is often referred to as the Escambray rebellion (1959-1965), because the rebels gathered in the Escambray mountains around Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
I found it very hard to follow the explanations of the artefacts and photographs at the Museum, so often I had no idea what I was looking at. There are hundreds of portrait photos but I could not tell if they were the revolutionaries on Fidel's side, or the 'bandits' who fought them. That shows how badly the museum is curated. It was not a language problem, as I do understand Spanish.
I can only presume that a socialist country would focus on the communist heroes and that the photos and artefacts portrayed them, while the museum is devoted to the 'bandits'.
Back at home I did some research and found out that the rebelling group was a mix of former Batista soldiers and local farmers, guajiros, who were disappointed by the Communist government's expropriation of their farmlands. The CIA provided some aid to the insurgents, but withdrew all support after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Castro employed overwhelming force, at times sending in as many as 250,000 government troops to the Escambray, and won. So the museum photos, alas, must be of the winners. Wouldn’t you say?
The convent is just one of the museums in the city. While most people will not do a number of museums in one city, Trinidad calls for an exception. The other museums are former palace residences of the sugar barons, which provide a glimpse into the real life of rich colonists.
How to get there:
There are buses to Trinidad, the itinerary of 2019:
- Havana to Trinidad: ($25USD/CUC) at 7:00, 10:45, 14:15 (it takes nearly seven hours)
- Viñales to Trinidad: ($37USD) at 6:45 (nearly ten hours)
- Varadero to Trinidad: ($20USD) at 7:00 (nearly seven hours)
- Cienfuegos to Trinidad: ($6USD) at 12:15, 14:40, 15:15, 18:00 (one hour and a half)
You can also come by private taxi; the cost is usually around 150USD per day. If there are four of you, the price is nearly the same per person as the bus fare. Ask any waiter in a restaurant, or your landlady at a casa particular (private house for rent) and they will arrange one for you. It is business for them, as they get a commission, so they are very helpful.