For some people, their holiday in Cuba begins and ends with Havana. There is arguably little wrong with this, since the Cuban capital is pretty darn awesome (to put it mildly). It allows visitors to tick off the boxes about what they want Cuba to be… There are clunkily beautiful vintage cars prowling up and down narrow streets, an abundance of salsa music, cheery characters smoking on cigars the size of a baby’s arm, and plentiful cocktails. But there is so much more to Cuba than its capital. About a four hour drive from the hustle and bustle of Havana, you will come to a town that is nothing short of a revelation. Trinidad isn’t what could be considered to be a secret of Cuba, since many tourist guides and travel blogs have been raving about its beauty and atmosphere for many years now. The town is relatively compact, although its small population is continually bolstered by visitors all year round.
It’s not some kitschy tourist village, and Trinidad offers a different slice of authentic Cuban life. Rich in history and culture, the town simply has to be experienced for yourself when you visit the island paradise that is Cuba.
1. The Achingly Beautiful Plaza Mayor
It’s important to remember that Trinidad was once an extremely wealthy town, although this wealth was obtained from fairly nefarious means. Like much of the new world, the back-breaking manual work needed to obtain prosperity was achieved using slave labour. In and around Trinidad, these slaves tended to the expansive sugar crops, so the town’s early weath could accurately be described as bittersweet. The former wealth of the town is reflected in the grand buildings that border its main square (Plaza Mayor). With now only around 73,000 inhabitants, Trinidad would have just been a small, impoverished outpost if it hadn’t been for the sugar trade. While most of the structures have been extensively restored, the collapse of the sugar trade left most of them in a dilapidated state for close to a century. There simply wasn’t enough money to pay for their upkeep. This changed as recently as 1988 when the area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning that funds were made available for restoration and ongoing maintenance. You will want to spend an afternoon strolling around the Plaza Mayor and its surrounding streets, marvelling at the beauty of these astonishing buildings.
2. When the Sun Goes Down
There’s one specific spot on the Plaza Mayor where you will want to spend an evening or two. The largely open air Casa de la Musica is the focal point of the town’s nightlife, with live music and dancing every night. Locals mix with visitors to sip a drink and watch the show. It’s a really vibrant and typically Cuban experience, and there are plenty of restaurants and bars around the Plaza as well, if you want to sit down and take a breather away from the sublimely elegant dancers (although you shouldn’t be afraid to emulate them… trust us, they have seen worse).
3. The Ghost Church of Trinidad
Also in the centre of town is the Iglesia de Santa Ana. If you think that this church has seen better days, you would be entirely correct. This church has been abandoned for a very long time, and the doors are sealed, giving it an undeniable ghostly quality. It’s on the Plaza Santa Ana, and there are regular markets here.
4. The Bittersweet History of Trinidad
On the outskirts of Trinidad is where that bittersweet sugar history truly took place. The Valley of the Sugar Mills (Valle de los Ingenios). There were once more than 50 sugar mills operating in the valley. Many of them were demolished or destroyed by time and neglect, but there are a number of them that are still intact, and again, their preservation is due to that UNESCO money. It’s an area of profound natural beauty, and it’s interesting to look over the lush green fields and wonder what it would have been like to watch some 30,000 slaves working the fields, as was the case when the sugar industry was at its peak here. You will also see the Manaca Iznaga Tower, which was used to actually surveil the fields, and also to watch for slaves who tried to escape.
5. Into the Mountains
The Escambray Mountains begin just beyond the Valley of the Sugar Mills, and you can certainly venture further into them (as long as you have a guide and transportation). The winds coming off the Atlantic meeting the humidity of Cuba make for a unique and useful ecosystem. There are even a number of small coffee plantations in the hills, which can be explored. If time is of the essence (and it generally is when you’re on holiday), take a guided hike to the Caburni Waterfalls to watch the clear waters cascade over a 62 metre drop. While it’s not all that far from Trinidad, you will still need to allocate at least a full day to explore the mountains around the Valley of the Sugar Mills. You could even venture further into the mountains, but this is a holiday unto itself since the mountains are vast (around 80 kilometres from end to end).
6. A Picture Perfect Day at the Beach
Though the town itself is located a short distance from the ocean, the edge of Trinidad is home to one of Cuba’s best-known beaches. Playa Ancon looks like a stereotype in the loveliest possible way. It’s like someone drew a picture of their dream beach, with white sands and gentle azure waves. There are other beaches too, which might be of interest in the peak summer months when Playa Ancon becomes a victim of its own popularity. The seaside village of Casilda is also a particular highlight. There are a number of all-inclusive resorts along the shore as well, so if you want to enjoy the rustic charms of Trinidad while staying in luxury, this is most definitely an option.
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