I think it is safe to say that in the last year, visiting Cuba has become somewhat of a trend: the first ferry services have started up from Miami, Americans are able to come and go largely as they please, and the stars and stripes is once again flying proudly above the long-defunct embassy.
The reason why? Yes, the red-tape might be gone, but the magical allure of this incredible country remains and its pull is as strong as ever. I visited last September, shortly before the tide of change began. When I landed, I was immediately drawn in. The terminal building was sweltering, the female airport employees tottered around in fishnets and the most staggering heels in a way British health and safety in the workplace would never allow, and outside there was row upon row of the famed 50’s cars lined up waiting to whisk recent arrivals to their final destination.
This was just my first taste. For me though the hands-down highlight of Cuba, the place that seemed to bring together everything I loved about the country, was three days spent in Trinidad (the town, not the country as so many people first jump to!)
Imagine waking up and stepping out not only of the door, but back in time by 50 or even 100 years. Welcome to Trinidad in Cuba everyone, a truly one-off place. In researching where to go in Cuba, Trinidad came up time and time again in the recommendations. Having long had a fascination with Cuba and having read about the colonial time warp that is Trinidad, I just knew I had to go. It really didn’t disappoint, delivering the Cuba I had always dreamt of: old men smoking cigars, brightly coloured houses, cobbled streets echoing with horses’ hooves, the odd vintage car and plenty of rum and sultry live salsa pulsating through the night.
UNESCO heritage listed, Trinidad is located in the Sancti Spíritus province on Cuba’s south coast, about a five hour bus journey from Havana. Founded in the early 16th century, it prospered thanks to income from the sugar trade, which, with its decline, saw time stop seemingly in this city. It has resulted in making Trinidad an unusual and fascinating place.
As someone that tends to religiously plan out an itinerary for each trip (much to the delight of my ‘go with the flow’ partner), the beauty of Trinidad is that there aren’t ‘big sights’ that need to be ticked off: it’s about exploring in your own time, taking the next random turn, smiling at people outside their houses, capturing scenes of typical Cuban life and relaxing with a cold cocktail! The pace of life is just so much more relaxed that it makes a welcome change.
Saying that, the Plaza Mayor sits at the heart of city and makes an attractive point from which to fan out and explore the streets running off of it. The attractive church, Iglesia Parroquial, and surroundings buildings are lovely to just sit and gaze at for a while in the shade of a park tree.
A definite must see is the Municipal History Museum (Museo de Historia Municipal) situated in a grand home just off the Plaza Mayor. Originally built in 1828 by one of the richest men in Trinidad, it still makes a magnificent impression with high ceilings and ornate frescoes. Its highlight however: the amazing views over the city, the sea and the surrounding mountains from the tower – just make sure you are happy climbing steep stairs! There are quite a few, one person wide staircases you do need to watch when climbing.
One of my favourite highlights was to following the walking route for Trinidad in my guidebook (thanks Lonely Planet!). A little wary at first, this took my friend and I out past where we had ventured before, but in doing so we witnessed families laughing and playing dominoes, bananas being sold on plastic chairs, horses tied up outside front doors – even a pig being taken for a walk on a lead. It felt like a real snapshot of authentic Cuban life.
If you want to escape the heat of the town and experiencing a Caribbean beach is on your must-do list, then head out to Playa Ancon, a stretch of sand only a few kilometres down the road. Quieter than many of the more famous beaches in the north, it offers white sand, a warm and clear blue sea, and plenty of offers of fresh fruit to keep you going for the day. A return taxi from Trinidad should only cost around £10. We were lucky enough that our taxi driver offered to come back and pick us up at the time we wanted – and didn’t want paying until then!
When the sun goes down however, Trinidad seems to come alive with music, drawing you in and making you want to move. The Casa de la Musica is one of the country’s classic music venues. Every night, the staircase beside the Iglesia Parroquial off Plaza Mayor becomes jam-packed with tourists and locals alike tapping their feet, dancing the night away to live salsa and enjoying, as the Cubans seem to, a bottle of neat rum. Even if you think you can’t dance, there is sure to be a partner happy to show you the ropes (I politely declined when I realised how good they are!) The atmosphere is infectious.
More than just a beautiful and captivating place to visit though, Trinidad seemed to sum up Cuba for me. It felt real in a way I had never experienced before. It was chance to discover the country’s culture, to witness an average Cuban’s everyday life, and then party with them long into the night. Now how can that not appeal?
How to get there: If you are starting in Havana, then catch a Transtur bus which most hotels can help you book. Costing 25 CUC (approximately each way) and taking roughly 5 hours, it isn’t an unpleasant ride thanks to the air conditioning, and there is a stop in the middle for a bathroom break and chance to have something to eat.
Where to stay: If you want the comforts of a hotel, and are happy to splash out for something special, then the Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad was fantastic. One of the larger and more upmarket hotels in Trinidad, the service was second to none and the cocktails even better. It is a beautiful classical building, set in one of the town’s main squares. If you can secure it, then ask for room 101: definitely not like the TV show where you throw all the things you dislike, this huge room has an amazing terrace from which you can observe daily life going on in the square below. Each evening started for us with cocktails and tapas on our terrace, watching the sunset over the surrounding mountains.
Where to eat: While in years gone by Cuba might not have been known for its culinary scene, things have changed rapidly. No longer limited to government run institutions, family run ‘paladares’ are warm welcoming places with great variety. The seafood in Cuba is definitely something to shout about, and when you can get a whole fresh lobster for around £6, you can’t go wrong! We had an amazing and bountiful dinner of croquettes, lobster and shrimp at Restaurante San Jose in central Trinidad which was enough to feed a family of four.