I’m reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday at the moment. The book describes how, for millennia, groups of humans – whether in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea or bucolic English villages – knew little or nothing of the world beyond their immediate area. Life in Trinidad, a once thriving colonial town that sank into obscurity for over a century, must once have been a bit like that.
Trinidad stands apart. A near-perfect Spanish colonial town that has made it almost untouched into the 21st Century. It wasn’t connected by road until the 1950s. Which goes some way to explaining how it survived five centuries without the intrusion of a single modern building. Given Cuba’s Soviet-era love affair with concrete that is somewhat miraculous.
Until the 19th Century, Trinidad was an important and spectacularly wealthy town that played a central role in Cuba’s colonial economy – an economy based largely on slavery. The collapse of the sugar industry saw Trinidad sink into isolation, becoming an economic backwater that might never have been revived but for the building of that road in the 1950s.
Castro’s government made Trinidad a national monument in the 1960s, but it was the Batista regime that passed a preservation law in the 1950s, securing Trinidad’s colonial charm from redevelopment. It also gave momentum to the current dominant economic force, tourism. Although tourism now is probably as far removed from the 1950s as it’s possible to get.
We’d been warned to expect touts and a fair degree of hassle in Trinidad, but we encountered very few of the former and very little of the latter. Perhaps there were just too many tourist for people to bother – there’s no point being a tout when every room in town is occupied. What we did discover instead was a lot of pig products on sale.
Everywhere we went there seemed to be bits of pig on sale, and no shortage of buyers. To the pigs of Cuba, New Year’s Eve is what Thanksgiving is to turkeys in the United States. A death sentence. It was only a couple of days before New Year’s Eve and, in a country where eating roast pig is something of a national sport, this was ‘Peak Pig’.
We found our way to La Bodeguita del Medio, a lovely bar-restaurant in a colonial building in the centre of the old town, to sample some porky delights for ourselves. We sat by the open window, ordered festive piña coladas and watched the world go by. There was a lot of the world passing by, so we ordered more piña coladas and bought a CD from the brilliant band that was performing.
Some time later we ventured back onto the streets and even managed a visit to the Museo Historico Municipal. The former home of Dr Justo Cantero, a sugar baron who owned one of the largest slave plantations in the Trinidad region. The mansion is very attractive and has lots of period furniture, but the views from the tower make the visit truly worthwhile. The vistas over Trinidad and the surrounding hills are magnificent.
We had planned to go to the nearby Playa Ancon and stay by the beach, but there wasn’t a single available room anywhere. So we spent our time wandering Trinidad’s colonial streets, and doing an increasingly random survey of who served the best piña colada in town. I’m sure there was a winner but I just can’t remember.