Province of Sancti Spíritus, Cuba
Cuba's best restored colonial town with cobbled streets, frozen in time.
I came to Trinidad on a three-day road trip from Havana, with my husband Rhod, son Rhodri and his friend Daniela. We were driven by Noel, the Cuban owner of a 1952 Chevrolet (his service cost 150USD per day, including petrol and his accommodation). Daniela is a journalist and was writing a travel review about Cuba and the anniversary of its revolution. The rest of us just went with the flow and went wherever her itinerary took us. So we came to Trinidad.
So what is Trinidad like? I found the city charming and cute. It looks like it got frozen in time. I felt like walking in slow motion, expecting to get frozen in time with it. The rainbow colours of the colonial houses just make the town look like a fairy-tale. They have been restored (unlike so many in Havana, where my heart was bleeding) and the cobbled streets just speak of the old times. It is a World Heritage Site because it is one of the best-preserved colonial cities in the Americas.
The city was founded in 1514 by Diego Velazquez. The native Taino people were soon killed off by the smallpox that the Spanish brought with them, and harsh enslavement. Diego started importing slaves from Africa, to replenish the lost local labour. The city of Trinidad was built on such labour at sugar plantations.
So what to do in such a cute little town? Stroll around Plaza Mayor and get lost in the cobbled streets. Also, just sit in the beautiful park at Plaza Mayor and observe the place. It was the playground for the rich. The park is surrounded by the colonial houses of sugar barons who made their fortunes from the slave and sugar trades, from the nearby Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). When the trade in sugar diminished and the slave trade ended in the mid-19th century, nothing else happened in the city. It just stayed as it once was. Well, something new did happen, and very recently. The park has public Wi-Fi connection, like most of the parks in Cuba. This can't be guaranteed even in hotels.
In fact, the whole Plaza Mayor was owned at some point by Don José Mariano Borrell y Padron, the Marquis of Guaimaro, and his son (also Mariano). Yes, the ghosts of Cuba's past, when rich sugar barons built elaborate mansions, are lingering in the air here. The Borrell family are also behind the construction of Palacio Brunet and Palacio Cantero, south of the plaza.
While in the park, try to spot the wrought-iron lamp-posts and statues of English greyhounds, red terracotta tiled roofs and the glassless windows. Many windows were then open and had barrotes (see the photo on the letf), bars constructed of small wooden columns, which allowed the air to circulate without allowing entrance to the house. See if you can spot any of those still around. In the 19th century they were replaced by grilles with ornamental motifs or by wooden shutters.
The main church is also on this plaza, (Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo). We did not go in. The Brunet Palace (Palacio Brunet) where Count Brunet lived with his family, is to the left of the church. Count Brunet inherited the house through his marriage to Angela Borrell (yes, from that rich Borrell family of Don José Mariano). Today it serves as the Romantic Museum and when you walk through the 14 rooms of the house, you will get the feel of the atmosphere of Trinitarian colonial daily life. Count Nicholas Brunet had sugar mills outside the city and he built the first railway to the port of Casilda Trinidad, to get to the sugar mills of the Valley of San Luis he owned. Casilda is now a seaside resort. He also built Brunet Theatre (in 40 days), in which the ladies and gentlemen sat in their chairs carried by slaves. Such were the time of the rich.
The same rich Borrell family owned until 1830 the Palacio Cantero (now the Historical Museum), with a tower for the views of the town. Later, in 1842, it passed to a doctor of medicine, Justo Germán Cantero, for whom it's now named. Reputedly, Dr Cantero acquired vast sugar estates by poisoning a slave trader from Trinidad, Don Pedro Iznaga (see my separate post Hacienda Iznaga for more details). He married his widow María de Monserrate Fernández de Lara y Borrell. Yes, you can see from her surname that she was from that same Borrell family, the niece of Don Jose Mariano Borrell (she apparently bought the palace from Don Mariano junior). Dr Cantero was also a pianist, composer, poet and writer but he did live off his sugar mills. In fact, he acquired a steam engine in 1843 for his sugar mill Ingenio de Güinía de Soto, becoming the first to use steam in Trinidad.
Apart from Plaza Mayor and its colonial palaces that now serve as museums, I do recommend the Convent of San Francisco. The church itself fell into disrepair and was demolished but you can climb its bell tower for great panoramas of the city. Downstairs, in the former convent, there is a Museum of the Fight against Bandits. I laughed when I saw its name. The bandits in question were the counter-revolution forces that fought against Fidel Castro. The exhibition is pretty run-down, as if nobody cared about those bandits any more. Maybe they were pardoned? I somehow doubt it.
In any case, walking the yard of the convent is pleasant, even though it would be nicer not to have the military vehicles on display there. They are like a fist in your face, completely out of context.
In the evening, we went to Casa de la Musica in Plaza Mayor, right next to the Church. Every evening they have a live salsa band on the Trinidad Terraces, as the large steps on the side of the church are called. Just sit on the steps, sip your mojito and enjoy the music (no charge if you sit on the steps). You can also have a meal or a drink at the restaurant Los Conspiradores, at the corner by the steps. It is a small place but they have a few tables on the wooden balcony overlooking the church and the Terraces. A perfect spot if you want to hear the music with more privacy. Talking of privacy, we were told it used to be a place for secret meetings of Cuban nationalists, called Mine of the Cuban Rose. Among the separatists was Alejo Iznaga, who owned Hacienda Iznaga in the Valley of the Sugar Mills (for more details see my post Hacienda Manaca Iznaga).
We went for a meal at a restaurant two doors down, as they had a larger outdoor terrace. We opted for seafood as we found that to be the best option in Cuba. (There is no culture of making meat here as beef is prohibited for consumption. Chicken is available here and there but cooked in a very basic way). Here the waiter helped us find a casa particular, owned by his cousin Eric.
It was nice to share Cuban family life, even though for a brief moment. We asked for a casa particular just for ourselves (as we needed two bedrooms), so the family moved out for the night. Eric and his wife told us proudly that they owned the house, as Cuban law has allowed private property since 2011. They logged our stay dutifully in the guest book (for tax purposes) and moved out to the neighbours' house.
But we managed to have a chat with them that evening and together we watched a torchlight parade of the children in their street, from our doorstep. It was run by a youth organisation and another parade was planned for the morning. Eric's daughters were excited about it as they would dress up in the morning for the parade.
I was surprised to hear that this was an annual march to celebrate the birthday of Jose Martí, the ‘father’ of Cuba (not Fidel Castro!) Through his writings and political activity, Jose Martí became a symbol of Cuba's fight for independence against Spain in the 19th century and died in combat. As a matter of fact, we saw buildings, sculptures and parks for Martí everywhere we went: in Havana, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos towns. Cubans regard him as their 'Apostle'.
The house of Eric's family was basic but we did get two bedrooms, and a bathroom to ourselves. Interestingly, their entrance door opens directly onto a living area, rather than having a vestibule or entrance hall. We were told this was a typical feature of the houses in Trinidad. It means when you sit in the living area, you are in direct contact with the street because the front door is always open. That keeps the community together, I would think.
Well, we came prepared but we did not count with breaking their coffee maker; we probably left it for too long and burnt it on the gas cooker so it melted. Our son and his friend Daniela went out in search of a new coffee maker, as we wanted to replace the burnt one. Eric advised us where to go, as you can't buy such commodities in the state shops. However, no luck, the PanAmerican shops did not have them either. In the end we just left the money for Eric to buy one in the future. He did not seem to be upset; he was of such a kind nature.
While we packed, Eric left for work. He is a painter and was at the time painting the Convent Museum, which was under renovation during our visit. The rest of the household and the whole street was getting ready for the José Martí parade and it was fun for us to watch them being excited and chatting with their neighbours about it. Although I doubt if the children considered it as a 'political' march; they just liked to put their fancy dresses on. In any case, I think such parades are compulsory, with repercussions if you don't attend. I grew up under socialism (in Czechoslovakia) and I remember that we 'had to' go to such parades (for example, 1st May parade was compulsory for everyone).
When the girls were just ready to step out, the neighbours announced that the parade had been cancelled. The previous night a tornado had hit Havana and four people were reported dead and about 200 injured. We felt the repercussions of that tornado two days later, as our hotel in Havana had the water source cut off, as a result of the tornado. In any case, it was time for us to leave Trinidad, a tornado or not.
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 commission, so they are very helpful.
Mix & Match:
Visit haciendas in the Valley of the Sugar Mills (Valle de los Ingenios), in particular Hacienda Iznaga. It is a nice day-trip to the countryside. This was the heart of the sugar industry in the 18th and 19th century in Cuba.
Or spend some time at the beach outside the city, Playa Ancón (about a 15-minute drive by taxi).