Near Trinidad, Cuba
This hacienda under pretty hills tells the story of the sugar barons and sugar slaves of Cuba.
We did not plan to visit this hacienda; it just happened and we loved it. However, once you travel, you have to be prepared to absorb what you find. In this case it was the ghosts of the slaves.
We were on a three-day road trip from Havana (in January 2019), mainly to see the colonial cities of Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. We were a company of four: my husband, son and his friend. We hired a private taxi and our driver Noel simply drove us to this place, on the outskirts of Trinidad. He felt we should not miss it. And he was right.
We loved the countryside of Cuba. On the way, the roads were lined with forests of mahogany, cedar and ironwood trees and fruit trees bearing mango, guava, grapefruit, and avocado. It is said that Cuba has more than 70 million palm trees, this being the highest density in the world. And indeed, we did see palms everywhere. Here, in the Valley of the Sugar Mills, it is all about sugar cane. The landscape itself is pretty: green hills, low maize and sugar cane fields, and small patches of forest.
The Valley of the Sugar Mills
However, you come here for a close-up look at the story of the Cuban sugar industry, not just the scenery. This is where sugar was made from the slaves' blood. Valle de los Ingenios is a series of three interconnected valleys about 12km outside Trinidad town. The three valleys, San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer, were a centre for sugar production from the late 18th century until the late 19th century. During the boom of the sugar industry in 1827, Trinidad had 56 sugar mills, with 11,000 slaves, in a region that had a population of 28,700. During the period 1838–80 the Cuban sugar industry became the most mechanised in the world, utilizing steam-powered mills (ingenios) and narrow-gauge railroads. By 1860 Cuba produced nearly one-third of the world’s sugar.
We visited only one hacienda in this valley; Ingenio de Manaca Iznaga, with the icon of the valley, Torre Iznaga (Iznaga Tower). The hacienda is named after the owners, the Iznaga family. Manaca is the name of the sugar plantation owned by the same family.
The hacienda had a main house where the owners lived, a sugar factory, slave barracks and a watchtower. It was declared a National Monument, and the Valley of the Sugar Mills was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This tower was not the only one in the valley. A similar tower (smaller) was at the nearby hacienda of San Isidro de los Destiladeros, also worth a visit.
We headed first straight for the tower. It served as a watch-tower over the slaves and warned in the event of an escape or fire in nearby plantations. It is 45m tall; it has seven floors and is topped by a lookout platform. The bell on top of the tower was used to announce the beginning and end of work and prayers to the Holy Virgin in the morning, midday and afternoon. It is now outside the main house.
Well, the view of the hills at the background of the fields is nice but I stared off at the fields themselves, imagining the slaves' backs as they worked there, chopping cane. Maybe the slaves tried to escape to those hills? Did any succeed? And if they did, what happened to them afterwards? Once here, I couldn't avoid the question of slavery. I just hope that everybody who comes here will remember that sight and that as mankind we learn our history and won't repeat the cruelty of the past.
After climbing the tower and enjoying the view, I sat down in the shade of its base, to get some respite from the heat. There were two ladies already sitting there, sheltering from the sun. They were locals and we had a chat (I speak a bit of Spanish). Sadly, I did not take any photos of them although I wanted to do so very much. I did not dare to ask. One of them had the most beautiful face I have seen in Cuba. Isabella was 70 and had all the wisdom in her face, but also kindness. She lives in Trinidad and comes a few times a week to this valley to sell her embroidered white linen napkins. This linen from all the vendors hangs on lines along the path to the tower. It is actually the first thing that you notice, despite the height of the tower. This is because there are many stalls and the winds here are rather strong and the white linens flap in the air. I bought some of her work and listened to her life story. Linen is her only source of income and she has to keep going despite her age, as she can't buy the basic food from her pension. The government gives bread, rice and beans in the form of rations but everything else has to be bought at PanAmerican shops or a market for an expensive price (25 times more than it would cost in a state shop, except that the state shop does not have these products). For 'luxury' products such as milk, eggs, meat and soap she has to pay in CUC, the Cuban Convertible Peso (not CUP, the Cuban National Peso). Yes, Cuba has two currencies. And Isabella's adult son still lives with her, for economic reasons.
From Isabella I learnt that the locals call the Iznaga Tower the Cuban Tower of Pisa, because with time it has tilted a bit. She also told me the tower legend. It was apparently constructed as the result of a dispute between two Iznaga brothers, who were in love with the same woman, so they decided to build a structure whose height in metres would determine who the winner was. In the contest, Alejo built the 45m tall tower, while Pedro drilled a 28m deep well, which is still being used by local dwellers. In the end, despite Alejo’s decisive victory, neither brother got the girl. Another legend links the tower to the infidelity of Alejo's wife; he ordered the construction to lock her up. It seems Isabella believed this story…
The sugar barons
So what are the actual facts? I had to search for answers after we got back home. In 1750, Manuel José de Tellería got a licence to erect a mill to make honey and sugar in the land of the Manacú Corral. In 1795, it was bought by Pedro José Iznaga y Pérez de Vargas from Trinidad. Between the years 1815 and 1830 the tower was built by his son Alejo Iznaga y Borrel. The tower was built a year after Alejo's father Pedro died. But there was another Pedro in Alejo's life. He had 12 siblings altogether, and Pedro was his oldest brother. While Alejo inherited Hacienda Iznaga, his brother Pedro had Hacienda Maynicú and a palace in Trinidad. In the same valley, Pedro also had Hacienda Güinía de Soto (which he later gave to his brother Felix). Some sources claim that Pedro and Alejo shared the Iznaga plantation and hacienda. It is possible that Pedro owned it, as the eldest son in the family, and his brother Alejo administered it. After Alejo's death, the hacienda was inherited by two of his sons, Alejo and Teodoro. In 1862, Teodoro owned the then Ingenio Manacas with 231 slaves.
As for the love story, Alejo was married twice. He had three children with his first wife Angela, but she died giving birth to their third child. He then married again and had five children with his second wife. Pedro had three wives and ten children altogether. However, according to another legend, Pedro died mysteriously, as he was poisoned by doctor Justo Germán Cantero, who married his widow María and thus inherited his Palace Iznaga in Trinidad. It is now known as Palace Cantero and it houses the Historical Museum of Trinidad. Moreover, the hacienda Güinía de Soto (owned originally by Pedro and then his brother Felix) also ended up in his hands…
Well, sugar barons made big bucks; no wonder there were so many intrigues involved. And yes, a lot of properties were gained through marriage. We checked out the hacienda's main house, where Alejo lived with his family. It serves as a restaurant and a souvenir shop. On the walls we could see portraits of Pedro with his wife (it is not clear which one of the three wives). Pedro is dressed in aristocratic fashion, black jacket, white shirt and sleek black hair. This would indeed indicate that Pedro owned the hacienda.
Behind the hacienda house, there is the ingenio, the device that used to extract sugar cane juice. It tells a different story, that of the slaves. There was a complex division of labour needed to operate a sugar plantation. The field workers worked long hours planting, maintaining, and harvesting the sugarcane, in hot tropical conditions. They had to cut down acres of sugarcane and transport it to the mill. Here it was animal-driven; later (after Alejo's death) replaced by a steam-powered mill. Factory slaves converted the sugarcane into sugar and rum. Skilled men, such as carpenters, maintained the factory and equipment. Other labourers produced foodstuffs to feed the owner and slaves. Yet others tended to the cattle and horses needed to operate some of the heavy equipment and transport the products. Slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886.
In front of the hacienda there are small houses; perhaps they served as slave barracks. Today they form the village of Manaca Iznaga. Small but equipped with a train station. Here we had a nice surprise; we spotted a sugarcane juice stall. A local lady and her daughter crushed the peeled sugar cane using a traditional machine, powered manually. The rollers on the pressing extractor squeezed sugar cane juice out of the shredded stalks. The result was an opaque drink of light green colour, rather sweet (not suitable for people with diabetes).
Here they call it guarapo and the freshly squeezed juice has to be drunk instantly because it tends to ferment rather quickly (well, it would be better to add rum to it, rather than drink it fermented that way). I felt that the juice gave us plenty of calories to fuel our walking in the sweltering tropical heat. The high calorie content (and low price) made this drink popular among the low-earners and it is at the top of the list of drinks preferred by Cubans, no matter what their social origins are. However, the sugarcane juice stalls disappeared during the second half of the 20th century. They are now slowly reappearing, as private businesses have been allowed in Cuba since 2011. I must admit, we expected to see them everywhere. In reality, this hacienda was the only place on our travels where we found freshly squeezed guarapo.
At the entrance to the hacienda there are some stalls where you can buy handmade souvenirs, mainly hats, jewellery and handmade tablecloths. They take over the scenery of the place, but this is to be expected. The locals earn their income from tourism. Climbing the tower cost 1 CUC (1USD), as did the sugarcane juice. Yes, you will pay for everything in CUC currency and yes, this is not very expensive.
However, Cuba is an expensive destination for tourists, particularly travel and food. Don't think they are trying to scam you everywhere (although it does happen). There are reasons for the expensive prices: the US embargo, the abandonment by the socialist camp that once used to supply them (well, the socialist camp has collapsed), the lack of local production, high import costs to the island. If you are travelling on a budget, one way is to travel independently and not with organised tours. It is doable and safe to go to all the places by yourself, including this valley of the sugar barons.
How to get there:
There is a train that takes you to Manaca Iznaga from Trinidad (for about 10 CUC). The train leaves at 9:30am and returns at 2:00pm from the main train station, walking distance south of town. Buy tickets at about 9am on the same day (no reservations are needed).
Another option is to take a private taxi. Your hotel or landlady at a casa particular will be able to arrange one for you (they get commission so they are happy to do it).
We came by private taxi from Havana. Our driver Noel drove us in his 1952 Chevrolet. His service cost 150US per day. From that he covered petrol, his own accommodation and food. By a private car it is much faster. To give one example: it takes four hours by car to get from Havana to Trinidad, but by bus it is seven hours. Also, Viazul bus station in Havana is far from the city centre, so that was another reason why we decided against the bus option.
There are also some organised tours to the valley, to both Hacienda Ignaza and San Isidro de los Destiladeros.
Mix & Match:
We combined the hacienda with a visit to the town of Trinidad.