We met her at night, amongst the crowds of people thrown together over bottles of Bucanero and a sea of skeptical, watchful eyes. “Meet me in the square tomorrow, and I will show you.”
The next day, after a long hike in the Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, we stood trepidatiously in Plaza Mayor waiting to see if she even showed. She did.
Dressed in a brightly colored tee shirt and equally florescent spandex shorts, she lead us away from the familiar square through a circuit of brightly painted, if slightly shabby, bungalows. Turning the corner, she opens the door to a cottage and leads us into a bare, hollow room; The scarce, thin furniture pushed up against the border of the walls and the faint echo of emptiness in the air.
“This is how it ends” flits across my mind.
“Shall we begin?” she says in Spanish as she flips on radio and bouncing salsa music fills the space.
Trinidad, Cuba sits on the south-central coast of Cuba and has done since the 15th century when it was a settlement by the Spanish on their way to conquer Mexico. After the first war of Spanish independence in the 1600s, Trinidad was isolated from Havana leaving the local Taino farmers and the occasional pirate to fend for themselves. It was an influx of Haiti refuges in the late 1800s that provided the workforce for the sugar production. Sugarcane built Cuba in the 19th to 20th century with a third of all sugar produced around Trinidad before the economic collapse in the 1920s. Relics of the 70+ factories still stand on the outskirts of town as if to serve as a reminder of bygone fortunes when Cuba played an import role in the US economy of chocolate and rum.
Over & over friends and colleagues mentioned Trinidad as their favorite spot in Cuba. Situated discreetly between the verdant mountain range of the Sierra del Escambray and the slip of the Playa Ancon, Trinidad has maintained its cheerful demeanor. Far from the crumbling buildings of Havana and the sheltered resorts of the eastern coast, Trinidad’s colonial-era buildings are well preserved maintaining it’s optimistic, colonial-era ambiance. You can understand why it was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
Like any great town, it is the indelible imprint of multiple cultures coming together that gives Trinidad its personality. The smile of sweet success in the cheerfully colored cottages and Plaza Mayor buildings are mixed with the joie de vivre of Caribbean music and dance. The independent spirit of the Taino locals is still palpable in the population today. While the casco histrico is small, the streets are peppered with independent businesses, local craftsmen, and tiny food stalls. The locals are more welcoming to visitors than I found in Havana. More open to chat, share, and to wave back to you when you see them on the other side of the street. That is if they don’t wave to you first. Trinidad is a town full of characters, like our dance instructor, that embraces the inquisitive but shy soul when it appears on the salsa dance floor hoping to sharing the goodwill of Trinidad with the outside world.
I spotted a gallery tucked in a side alley between graffiti that aspires to be street art. Tucked inside were block prints and silk-screened images of gorillas in red star jerseys and X-rays of two hands shaking each other. “This is very dangerous art,” the artist tells me as I buy a communist gorilla to take home with me to London. “Luckily, Havana will never come here.”
FEATURED IN THE ARTICLE:
PLAZA MAYOR – Historical Center of Trinidad. The square is flanked by the Casa Cantero, Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, and a host of other colonial mansions turned museums.
CASA DE LA MUSICA – Located adjacent to the Plaza Mayor, there is open air salsa dancing every night. Drinks and beer are served.
PLAYA ANCON – Reputed to be the most idyllic strip of beach on the south coast, the playa sits to the west of Trinidad past a town called La Boca
TOPES DE COLLANTES – a Natural park located within the Sierra del Escambray. Guided tours take you through Parque Guanayara to visit an “authentic.” Tiano farm and on to waterfall-fed swimming wholes.
VALLES DE LOS INGENIOS – Area North of Trinidad which most of the discontinued sugar plantations still stand.