Trinidad, a world apart

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.

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

Views over Trinidad, Cuba

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.

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

Man walking pig, Trinidad, Cuba

Man walking pig, Trinidad, Cuba

Women talk at a window, Trinidad, Cuba

Women talk at a window, Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

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’.

Pig heads, Trinidad, Cuba

Pig heads, Trinidad, Cuba

Pig heads, Trinidad, Cuba

Pig heads, Trinidad, Cuba

Butchers, Trinidad, Cuba

Butchers, Trinidad, Cuba

Butchers, Trinidad, Cuba

Butchers, Trinidad, Cuba

Butchers, Trinidad, Cuba

Butchers, Trinidad, Cuba

Pig feet, Trinidad, Cuba

Pig feet, Trinidad, Cuba

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.

La Bodeguita del Medio, Trinidad, Cuba

La Bodeguita del Medio, Trinidad, Cuba

Band in Trinidad, Cuba

Band in Trinidad, Cuba

Bar in Trinidad, Cuba

Bar in Trinidad, Cuba

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.

Trinidad, Cuba’s colonial superstar

It was in Trinidad that I started to develop an allergy to Cuba’s most famous song, Guantanamera. If we heard one rendition of it during our trip, we heard it a thousand times. In Trinidad every bar and restaurant has live bands, which is wonderful, but each and every one seems compelled to play Guantanamera at least once. Does the government insist on its inclusion in every musical set?

Musicians, Trinidad, Cuba

Musicians, Trinidad, Cuba

Not that I should complain, it was a miracle that we were staying in Trinidad at all. We’d arranged our accommodation through the owners of the casa where we’d stayed in Cienfuegos and it hadn’t been easy. Trinidad, everyone said, was full. It had taken multiple phone calls and the help of friends of friends of friends to find a place at the Hostal Los Angeles.

When we arrived Zury, our friendly host, told us that a French couple had decided to stay an extra night in ‘our’ room. This happens a lot in Cuba. Not to worry, if we were happy to share the family’s bathroom we could stay in one of the family rooms. That seemed like the best deal we were going to get in Trinidad. While the room was cleaned we went to explore Trinidad’s time-warped cobbled streets.

Colonial quinceanera, Trinidad, Cuba

Colonial quinceanera, Trinidad, Cuba

Children play on the statues in Plaza Major, Trinidad, Cuba

Children play on the statues in Plaza Major, Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

Paintings, Trinidad, Cuba

Paintings, Trinidad, Cuba

Founded in 1514, Trinidad was one of the first colonial towns the Spanish built in Cuba, and despite the obvious modern additions of electric light and a few cars, not much seems to have changed since the 16th Century. It’s one of the best preserved colonial towns I’ve seen, with over a thousand colonial-era buildings still standing.

The maze of streets is filled with pastel-coloured houses with red-tiled roofs, grand mansions built from the vast fortunes made from the sugar trade and slavery, beautiful colonial churches and small plazas. Most of the streets are pedestrianised and you’re more likely to hear the sound of horses hooves on the cobbles than car engines.

1950s American car, Trinidad, Cuba

1950s American car, Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

A bird in a cage, Trinidad, Cuba

A bird in a cage, Trinidad, Cuba

Shop, Trinidad, Cuba

Shop, Trinidad, Cuba

In many ways, Trinidad is ahead of the curve in Cuba. Since the government legalised casas particulares and private restaurants they have sprung up everywhere in the country. For a small town, Trinidad has more that its fair share of both. There are at least 350 casas and numerous private restaurants offering interesting alternatives to Cuban standards. There are also plenty of rooftop bars to enjoy a sundowner.

Compared to many places we went, Trinidad offered a lot of eating choices. Since our casa only served breakfast (in a lovely garden), we had plenty of opportunities to sample what was on offer. Many restaurants are located inside fabulous colonial buildings or on roof terraces, which definitely adds to the ambience.

Tourist stall, Trinidad, Cuba

Tourist stall, Trinidad, Cuba

1950s American car, Trinidad, Cuba

1950s American car, Trinidad, Cuba

Horse and cart, Trinidad, Cuba

Horse and cart, Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

Barrio Tres Cruces, Trinidad, Cuba

Barrio Tres Cruces, Trinidad, Cuba

Despite the number of tourists staying in Trinidad, it doesn’t feel crowded. Until, that is, coach loads of all-inclusive, beach-dwelling, wrist band-wearing tour groups start arriving around midday. The colonial charm and peaceful atmosphere are shattered by the onslaught. Trinidad’s small centre suddenly feels swamped as guides recite anecdotes to groups in English, German, Russian, French, Spanish and Chinese.

1950s American car, Trinidad, Cuba

1950s American car, Trinidad, Cuba

Private restaurant, Trinidad, Cuba

Private restaurant, Trinidad, Cuba

Bits of pig for sale, Trinidad, Cuba

Bits of pig for sale, Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

The cobbled streets of Trinidad, Cuba

Plaza Major, Trinidad, Cuba

Plaza Major, Trinidad, Cuba

There is a breathlessness about tour groups, a hectic moment of madness dictated by an unforgiving schedule. For Cuba, this is a taste of things to come. Tour groups don’t stay long, just enough time for some sight-seeing, a mojito and souvenir shopping before being herded back onto air conditioned buses. The streets become the preserve of residents and residing tourists once again by 5pm.

Just in time to head to a rooftop bar for a much deserved sundowner…and to listen to another rendition of Guantanamera.

Where we stayed in Trinidad:
Hostal Los Angeles,
Camilo Cienfuegos no. 270
e/ Antonio Maceo y Francisco Cadahia.
Tel. (53) 41 99 2698 (international) or (0141) 992698 (nacional)
Email zuryrogelio@gmail.com