© Margo Pfeiff
The road to Trinidad
Cuba beyond Havana in the UNESCO city known for its casas particulares
Mint from my mojito mingled with the pleasant whiff of cigars. Horses’ hooves clattered along lantern-lit cobblestone lanes, barely audible above the salsa beat pulsing from restaurants and bars. There were no cars and not a single person was looking at a smartphone. This is the mind-messing time-travel that Cuba is famous for.
Even among the country’s many well-preserved, lived-in historic quarters, the small city of Trinidad is special. Perched overlooking the Caribbean on the south coast halfway across the island, it was one of the first cities founded in Cuba by the Spaniards in 1514, a colonial gem with an old town that completely immerses you into another century. An added bonus is a nearby uncrowded crescent of white beach, the best on this coast, with warm turquoise waters — and icy cocktails.
With all the recent news about Americans soon being able to visit Cuba, there’s a sense that this entire authentic, Starbucks-free country will change quickly. In fact, only a tiny fraction of Cuba’s 3-4 million annual visitors today venture outside Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, about 3½ hours north, with its string of all-inclusive behemoths.
Trinidad, with its sparse tourist traffic and low prices, has plenty of unique Cuban culture that isn’t as likely as the capital to change its nature as diplomatic relations normalize, making it worth travelling the 317 kilometres southeast, beyond Havana, to the province of Sancti Spíritus.
Our bus driver sang a mournful love song on the scenic three-hour drive to Trinidad from Santa Clara airport on a nearly-deserted, four-lane highway with only the occasional ‘50s-era vintage car, Russian Lada, or 1940s Russian motorcycles complete with a sidecar for the wife and chickens. Cars out of precious gasoline or undergoing repairs were tinkered with on the shoulders. The landscape was rolling hills and rural with Cuban cowboys herding goats and skinny cows, fields being readied for sugar cane planting by ox-drawn plough, a giant step backwards from the tractors that once worked this land until the Soviet Union’s fall.
My friend Michel and I were there for a week, booked into one of three government-owned, all-inclusive hotels occupying the long stretch of beach on the Ancon Peninsula just 13 kilometres from Trinidad. Ours was the three-star Hotel Ancon (Carretera Maria Aguiar, Playa Ancon; hotelancon-cuba.com), a sturdy relic of the concrete-loving Soviet-era, retro-cool 1985 angular architecture festooned with a rainbow of kitschy Latin colours. Yet it was a surprising and relaxing welcome from the band and dancers who greeted every bus to the cheery bow-tied bartender who unhurriedly mashed mint leaves into a fragrant pulp at the bottom of my mojito.
The quality of Cuba’s three- or four-star hotels would not live up to their North American counterparts in this country’s cash-strapped economy, but the rooms were clean and comfortable, and the buffet spread surprisingly good. And, after all, the largely European, South American and Canadian vacationers were here for sun and sand, snorkeling, tennis, cheesy nightly entertainment extravaganzas and the all-inclusive rum-drenched drinks… and for the crepe guy who serenaded with songs at breakfast.
Your own Cuban casa
After unwinding on the beach for three days, we tossed our overnight bags into a 1959 German Opel Kapitän taxi and headed out on the 15-minute drive into Trinidad for a couple of nights in a casa particular, a trip that would also make a nice bike ride. For the past 15 years or so, the government has allowed residents to rent rooms in their houses on a homestay/B&B basis. Trinidad, with its remarkable rows of colourful colonial buildings from the days when this region boomed with the sugar cane trade, allows you to sleep in the 18th or 19th century: more than 350 families in this town of 74,000 make Trinidad Cuba’s “casa capital.”
There was no car traffic in the hilly old town which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, just tricycle cabs, horse-drawn carts and the occasional horseback cowboy, Texas-style boots, hats ‘n all. The taxi dropped us outside the zone and we walked narrow cobblestone streets past the grand cathedral where a band was jamming on the sidewalk amid the aroma of roasting chicken.
Manuel Castillo swung open his house’s massive bright blue, ancient timber doors and welcomed us into Casa Colonial el Patio (274 Ciro Redondo Street; elpatio.trinidadhostales.com); doubles from $25; breakfast from $3, dinner from $7) where he and his wife, Lisbeth, rent three rooms. As we registered, he brought out the deed to the house his grandfather bought in 1910 for “400 pesos in Spanish gold.” He pointed out an old wooden plank on the wall with the date “1745” etched into it that he discovered when renovating. The ceilings were tall, the walls adorned with hand-painted frescoes. A breeze blew in from the high-walled patio out back that gives the inn its name, also home to a tropical garden with the occasional gecko and hummingbird. We made ourselves at home in hammocks with a cold cerveza Cristal.
One of the perks of staying at a casa is having access to a legendary Cuban home-cooked dinner, likely the best meal you’ll have in the country. Lisbeth created a classic langoustine (lobster) feast that we enjoyed with a cold bottle of Chilean wine beneath the twinkling lights, dangling mangoes and Tarzan-calibre vines of the patio.
Breakfast, too, was in the bird-chirping shade of the garden, a wonderful spread of high-octane Cuban coffee, homemade bread and jam, in-season papaya, and fresh eggs supplied by nearby chickens whose mate woke us up earlier that morning.
Art and automobiles
We spent the day prowling a hilly maze of streets where shops and colonial row houses in cotton-candy colours featured windows barred with wrought-iron grills, regas, instead of glass. Often, bird cages hung outside. We poked into rows of tiny art shops, most featuring paintings with the standard trio of themes: the Cuban flag, portraits of Che Guevara, old men puffing massive cigars. The layers of ornate old frescoes on the peeling walls of the Galeria de Arte were even more intriguing than the exhibits.
The main square, Plaza Mayor, has a towering cathedral and the town’s best museum, Museo Romantico, where aristocratic antique furnishings — including a 1.4-tonne marble bathtub — gathered from surrounding sugar estates are on display in the lavishly restored 1808 mansion of a former sugar baron.
Just down the cobbled road, a former convent is now the Museo de la Lucha Contra Bandidos honoring the heroic Cubans who fought off counter-revolutionary “bandits” in the surrounding Sierra del Escambray after Castro took power in 1959. Those mountains are now part of Topes de Collantes National Park, popular for hiking and horseback riding. The highlight of the museum visit, though, was the climb up 119 rickety wooden stairs to the top of the yellow and white bell tower that is Trinidad’s trademark for a stunning panorama all the way to the beaches.
Humming, strumming and drumming are everywhere. Trombones, trumpets, guitars and drums in the hands of small street bands belted out tunes on sidewalks, in squares and urban parks. Some of the best jamming took place outside the UNESCO zone in Parc Cépedes amid a no-frills, unrestored neighborhood with a cigar factory and tiny markets where Trinitarios hand over ration cards in exchange for meat and vegetables. It’s a great place to take a seat under a tree, chat with locals and people-watch with a salsa beat.
Transportation-watching too is a popular Cuban entertainment as legions of 1950s American cars streamed by. I chatted with a taxi driver alongside his red and white 1957 Ford Fairlane. “Original upholstery and original engine,” he pointed out proudly. “It has done over one million kilometres.”
When the dim, flickering lanterns switch on at sunset, the volume in this sleepy town cranks up. Many of the lively restaurants with dining patios along Simon Bolivar Street — colonial homes-turned-eateries — featured live music. But the epicentre was the alfresco Casa de la Musica at the top of a broad stone staircase alongside the cathedral where top bands had everyone sweating on a dance floor under the stars. (Live outdoor performances begin at about 10pm nightly).
Change is coming to Cuba, but very slowly, which is a good thing. As we checked out of our casa, I commented to Miguel how refreshing it is not to have cell phone or data access. He explained excitedly that the Cuban communications division had just announced a partnership with ATT to upgrade the island’s notoriously sluggish Internet. “But they are advocating smart Internet use for its citizens,” he said. Good luck with that.
Personally, I was happy to linger just a little longer in the past. I slipped into the back seat of a 1956 Ford Customline for the retro ride — pre-seatbelts — back to the beach.
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