You hear it said that the Cuban capital of Havana is a metropolis stuck in the 1950s. If that excites you then the Caribbean coastal town of Trinidad in Cuba will be an added thrill. The 500-year old settlement of cobblestone streets at the base of Sierra Escambray was founded by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéller and still feels to have its feet planted firmly in the 18th Century.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trinidad’s brightly painted colonial architecture, palm-lined plazas, outdoor music scene, breezy beaches and growing art scene make the little town the perfect place to get a sense of where Cuba came from and where it may be headed.

Day One: Trinidad in Cuba

It was mid-May and I sat with Yonelkis in a cool, compact bar of stained mahogany benches slurping a cold Bucanero and getting a handle on the origins of Yonelkis’ name. Outside a horse pulling a cart loaded with plumbing supplies passed down the street. The plumber called out to the driver of a blue 1950-something Ford.

Just as Yonelkis got to the point (which had something to do with Russians and an attempt to create new international communist names) a group of young men wearing Gay Pride colors walked into the bar and ordered a round of beers. Then they toasted each other and congratulated themselves for being farmers. They roared with laughter. They polished off the cans of beer in less than a minute, ordered another round and walked back out into the hot sun. A few minutes later three large, sweaty men who obviously were farmers walked into the bar. They ordered shots of rum, made a toast and congratulated each other for being homosexual.  They all cackled and snorted like little boys, downed the rum and they too walked out into the sun.

Trinidad in Cuba

If allowed just one word to describe Cubans it would “Resourceful”. Cubans appear able to build anything with next to nothing and they’ve been quick to figure out and build businesses around what tourists want. This old boy and his flowered donkey rode through the old town offering himself to tourists for pictures. In the time I was near him he made what for most Cubans is a small fortune.

It was 11:00am and I admit it was a bit too early for a beer but I swear, I’d only had one and that was after plenty of coffee. Was it just that my Spanish wasn’t up to Cuban colloquialisms? Maybe I just needed another beer.

Yonelkis is a guide for Espiritu Travel, the New Hampshire-based travel company that specializes in tours to Cuba. Espiritu works exclusively with small, privately owned businesses:  paladares and casa particulars, growing in tandem with Cuba’s emergent tourism industry. I’d joined Yonelkis and two of Espiritu’s clients, Alfons and Renate, a fantastically energetic and well-travelled 70-something couple from New Jersey, on a walking tour of Trinidad in Cuba.

“Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela,  is gay,” said Yonelkis. “She had the government declare this day to be one of national unity with homosexual people and to fight for their rights.”

“OK… And…” I pointed out the window at the farmers moving up the street toward the cathedral.  trinidad in cuba

“And today is also the national day to celebrate farmers. Someone is having a bit of fun.”

The morning began with a breakfast of fruit, eggs and coffee on the roof of the Casa Media Luna, a somewhat architecturally inconsistent refurbished colonial house in the historic district. Typical of older Trinidad constructions, the home is put together around a large, square room that looks out onto the street through wrought-iron, grilled, glassless windows. That main room serves as a sort of public space. Bedrooms and the kitchen radiate from the main room. In the back is a courtyard centered on a fountain with various Escher-esque stairways, patios, plazas and rooftop terraces overlooking the other similarly Escher-esque constructions ascending and descending throughout the historic district. From the roof, sipping my coffee, I could watch other people at breakfast in one flower-filled courtyard or another, a woman hanging laundry three roofs over, a waiter at a restaurant setting a table, a musician picking at his tres under a shallow eve, and shirtless men filling storage tanks with water. All this against the backdrop of the towering Santísima Trinidad Cathedral and Convento de San Francisco. Below, horse hooves clacked along the cobblestones and a little girl yelled for her brother to wait. The whole historic center was at my finger tips and yet from the rooftops I couldn’t quite figure out which alley or staircase one would use to access these hidden patios and terraces.

trinidad in cuba

Trinidad has a maze-like quality thanks to the various stages of construction through its 500- year history. Twice the port city was looted and burned by English and Dutch pirates. From the rooftops, hidden shaded patios and terraces appear in the most surprising places.

Yonelkis helped solve that. While leading Alfons, Renate and myself through the narrow streets, cool, flowered-filled courtyards and alleyways of Trinidad, he explained that it was sugar-cane that made the town what it is. “For almost two-hundred years El Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), which is just northeast of here, generated a huge amount of money,” he said. At one time there were around sixty sugar mills operated by 14,000 slaves.  “Trinidad grew fast, like a town in the middle of a gold rush. That prosperity is written in the architecture.”

Along the maze-like, ankle-twisting streets punctuated by sweet, shaded squares and plazas, the pastel array of historic domestic structures flows delightfully into official buildings, stores, cafes and two-hundred year old mansions. And then  back to homes again. The earliest buildings are clearly influenced by Andalusian and North African styles while the 19th Century constructions are more complex, mixing neo-classical styles imported from Europe.  The sugar boom lasted into the 1940s but there was no road to Trinidad until the 1950s. That isolation helped preserve the taste of the old days.

trinidad in cuba

At the Casa Templo de Santeria Yemaya, Israel, the head priest explained the Santeria religion and its roots in the natural world. The African influence in Trinidad is strong, there were once over 11,000 slaves in the area. Santeria is a syncretic religion birthed from the combination of Catholicism and Yoruba spirituality from what are today Nigeria and Benin.

The rich plantation owners generally didn’t live in the Valle de los Ingenios, Yonelkis explained. They preferred to be in town where they decorated their multi-level homes in marble brought as ballast from Italy, spiral staircases, elaborate wrought ironwork gates and fences, and wooden balconies. They ate from Limoges porcelain dishes and sipped French wine from glasses of Bohemian crystal. According to accounts from the 1830s, the family Cantero, one of the richest on the island, built a marble Roman bath in his Trinidad mansion. In the bath were two cherub heads. One distributed gin and the other eau de cologne. Cantero owned over 6,000 slaves.

We were graciously welcomed into the home of one of the older families in the area.  The interior was dark and cool. The walls had recently received a fresh coat of pink paint. A rocking chair sat next to one of the tall windows facing the street. There were vases and busts on pedestals and a Soviet radio sat on top of a lace doily on a table in one corner. A brand new Chinese television flashed silently from another corner. You could smell the old and you wouldn’t have been surprised to find cobwebs in every corner but the entire home was impeccably clean.

The family matriarch explained that, at one time, her ancestors had owned nearly a dozen buildings and houses in that particular barrio. In the 1960s, after the revolution, much of that was nationalized. Her family was left with just the one large house we visited. The home they had owned just next door was turned into a public library. The building across the street they had owned was now a food distribution center. She bemoaned the family loss but I had a hard time feeling too terrible for her.

I’m not one who is in anyway favorable to removing someone’s personal property from their possession, but no doubt most of the wealthy families in Trinidad in Cuba gained their grand positions on the forced labor of Africans, and indentured poverty-stricken Europeans. When wealth is so unjustly gained and so unevenly distributed it leaves open the door for a forced redistribution.  And that is just what happened after the revolution.

trinidad in cuba

Just after sunset from the bell tower of La Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, smoke from evening cooking fires fills the air. Trinidad was built on the back of slaves who worked the dozens of sugar mills in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios. The earliest architecture was influenced by North African styles. Later, European neo-classical styles dominated the town’s construction.

By evening there was a cool breeze blowing across the rooftops. I was honestly too tired to eat. But after a full day walking I wasn’t going to turn down dinner. At the Vista Gourmet I met Bolo, a wine expert and owner of the expansive rooftop paladar. The restaurant felt a bit like what one might find at a resort but the evening view over Trinidad’s old section and the waiter full of card tricks made it hard not to like. A grinning crooner, himself older than the revolution, made his way from table to table diving deep into Cuban history for some sugary covers of Isidro Camara, the legendary singer.

Oh. And yes. The food. Bolo explained that over the past five years nearly fifty new paladares had opened in Trinidad in Cuba and the competition was on to come up with the best menu in town. It’s tough now, he said, everyone is improving. But his wide smile told me he didn’t mind the competition.

With a loaded belly I just couldn’t go anymore. I made my way to the Media Luna, took a cold shower and fell into a deep, satisfying sleep.

Trinidad in Cuba – Day Two

Trinidad in Cuba – Day Three Trinidad in Cuba

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This article about Trinidad in Cuba origionally appeared in the Summer 2016 Travel issue of Vrai Magazine

1 comment

  1. Comment by Mark

    Mark Reply April 3, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Hey Jim,

    I’ve always been interested in visiting Cuba. The food, the dancing, the drinking, the beaches. I imagine it’s a great place to check out in the nearer future given the changes that I’m sure will start happening given it’s been open up a bit more. Trinidad seems like this could be a place I’d visit as we tend to enjoy places a bit off the tourist trail. Yonelkis sounds very interesting and looks like a great recommendation. Once I’m back in the States, I’ll have a look.

    Thanks again,

    Mark

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