Before I arrived in Cuba I did plenty of research regarding the practicalities of visiting the country, I educated myself about its socio-economic status and the issues faced by its residents, and I shopped online for enough cycling gear to see me through two weeks in the saddle.
But because I was booked on an organised tour (a rarity for me; I usually travel independently), there wasn’t a necessity to build an itinerary of interesting sights and activities, and so I spent very little time reading articles about the destinations I’d be travelling to and what there was to see and do there.
I know, that’s a totally shameful confession coming from a travel blogger. But sometimes I think it’s a good thing to arrive somewhere that you have zero expectations about beforehand. You learn about that place from ground level using only first-hand experience, rather than the kind that’s imagined through reading books.
Well that’s kinda what happened to me when I arrived in Trinidad.
I had no idea what to expect, so it’s unfair to say that my expectations were surpassed, but one thing’s for sure – it quickly became my absolute favourite place in Cuba.
Located in the southwestern corner of the province of Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad is a unique, perfectly-preserved Spanish colonial settlement where – aside from the tourists and the recently-introduced WiFi – you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just been transported back to 1850.
When we reached the end of a 40-kilometre cycle ride that culminated in a long and steady uphill climb in 37 degree heat, I found myself in a world where the only sounds were the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on the cobbled streets, and the echoes of children’s laughter.
History of Trinidad
Trinidad was founded on December 23, 1514 by conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, but it was more than 200 years later before the town started to see any significant growth. Between 1750 and 1825 Trinidad’s population doubled to 12,000, as thousands of slaves were brought in to work on sugar plantations in the nearby Los Ingenios Valley.
Sugar barons became ostentatiously rich and built mansions, lavishly decorating them with imported treasures. The industry flourished until the latter part of the 19th century when sugar prices began to fall, slavery ended and struggles for independence were rife.
It was from that point onwards that the town became frozen in time, its buildings neglected and its people impoverished. It wasn’t until 1988, when the town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, that the government began to work hard to restore the crumbling colonial architecture.
Nowadays Trinidad is justifiably the single most-visited destination in central Cuba, with tourists flocking to discover the delights of this living, breathing, outdoor museum.
However in spite of its popularity the town manages to retain an authentic, old world charm. As you wander through the rambling, cobbled streets there’s a quiet, almost soporific air around; the intense heat (Trinidad is one of the hottest places in Cuba) and high humidity dictates that life here is slow and unhurried.
Accommodation in Trinidad
If you’re feeling flush you can choose to live as the Sugar Barons once did and stay in one of Trinidad’s two luxury hotels – namely the Iberostar Grand Hotel and Hotel La Ronda. However in order to experience the real Trindad, do as we did and rent a room in a local person’s home. Casas Particulares are a lot cheaper than hotels and provide a more authentic and personal experience, and – if your Spanish is good enough – an opportunity to really get to know your hosts and to learn about and experience a bit of the Cuban lifestyle.
We stayed at Casa Jean Ariel at number 263A Calle Julio Antonia Mella (Guásimo), run by a Cuban lady and Italian gentleman. We had a spacious triple room (double and single bed) with private bathroom, air conditioning, and a fridge for just 25 CUC ($25) per night. Plus it was only 300 metres from the town’s Plaza Mayor.
Exploring the Town
Whilst there are plenty of notable sights in Trinidad (The Museo Histórico Municipal (plus view from the tower), Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad (you can’t miss it; it’s the imposing church at the back of the Plaza Mayor), Galería de Arte (for quality local art and crafts), and Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Badidos, to name but a few), in my opinion you’ll see a lot more by simply talking a walk around.
We followed Lonely Planet’s ‘Photogenic Trinidad City Walk’ (I couldn’t find it online, but it’s in their Cuba guidebook), which – although it’s only two kilometres long – takes you far from the well-preserved streets immediately surrounding the Plaza de Armas.
In the Barrio Los Tres Cruces you’ll see a part of town that’s completely untouched by tourism, and also rarely visited by other tourists. Immaculate two-storey colonial houses are replaced by humble one-storey homes with peeling paint facades. Children play on uneven cobbled streets and peer through decorative window grates. Tractors chug past you as you walk, and men ride primitive horse-drawn carts, raising their hands and flashing a smile as you greet them.
Trinidad’s well-preserved colonial buildings – with their colourful facades and grand, intricately-designed window grates – reminded me in so many ways of Trujillo and Arequipa in Peru. But at the same time there were elements of the town that took me straight back to the hilly San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco.
Considering how hard I fell for Cusco and how charmed I was by both Arequipa and Trujillo, these similarities only helped to enhance the sense of peace I felt as I wandered through Trinidad’s streets.
Exploring Trinidad’s Shops and Cafés
Trinidad has enough of a tourist infrastructure to make finding somewhere to eat and drink a relatively simple and painless task. In fact in some parts of town you’ll be spoilt for choice with inviting cafés and restaurants serving up fresh seafood and tasty tapas.
What makes Trinidad unique is the sheer number of local art and crafts for sale in its shops. Beautiful paintings adorn the walls, colourful items of pottery decorate the shelves, and quirky sculptures pique your curiosity and wonder.
Enjoying the Nightlife
It’s difficult to believe that as recently as January 2011 there were just three private restaurants in Trinidad, the same three that had existed for over a decade. Now there are in excess of 90; you are literally spoilt for choice with dining options.
Many of Trinidad’s restaurants offer seating on their roof terraces so you can watch the sun set behind a horizon of roof tops and palm trees, whilst sipping a mojito and deciding whether you should blow 12 CUC (£8.24) on a lobster feast (spoiler alert: you should).
Other restaurants are set in beautiful old colonial buildings with high ceilings where a house-band with serenade you with renditions of ‘Guantanamera’ and ‘Quizas’ while you you tuck into a steaming plate of gambas al ajillo.
Once you’ve eaten head down to the Plaza Mayor and grab a seat on the sweeping stone staircase beside the Iglesia Parroquial, where crowds of locals and tourists gather to enjoy a drink or two while they wait for the nightly 9pm salsa show at Casa de la Música.
And if a healthy dose of music and mojitos has left you wanting more, you can choose to take the night underground. Yes, in Trinidad you can party in a cave. An actual cave. Which, in my opinion, is possibly the coolest thing. EVER.
Also pretty cool is the fact that, on your amble up the twisting cobbled streets towards said cave, you’ll pass countless little pop-up bars. These are literally street stalls that serve alcohol rather than food (although usually only beers (Crystal or Boquenero) or mojitos and the local cocktail, Canchanchara), and each one is staffed by a charming and exuberant bartender who will do his best to convince you that his cocktails, music and flashing neon lights are infinitely better than the next person’s. There’s certainly no danger of getting thirsty on your 10-minute walk to La Cueva.
The odd thing about the cave is that you can barely hear the music, even when you’re stood right outside. It’s only when you walk through the gated entrance and descend down several flights of stairs and along a tunnel that you’ll be met with bright lights and a thumping base line.
It’s also impossible to tell from the outside just how enormous the cave is inside. And believe me, it’s huge! The giant underground rabbit warren has a capacity of 3000-4000 people.
The cave closes at 3am, but the pop-up bars stay open until dawn breaks. There’s even a 24-hour taverna, La Botija, that will serve you pizza at 4:30am. Take it from me, their pizza is AMAZING.
For me Trinidad was a perfect mix of everything I love. Its network of ancient, cobbled streets and colourful colonial architecture satisfied my curiosity, whilst its music, tasty food, and that infectious Cuban spirit provided nourishment for my soul.
Have you visited Trinidad before? Did you love it as much as I did? Would love to hear how our experiences compare!
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