“Muchos recuerdan los viejos tiempos…” (Let’s recall the old good days) Trinidad is a town full of history, not revolutionary history but architectural. It is located in the province of Sanctis Spiritus in central Cuba from about 225 miles from Havana and was founded in 1514 by Spanish conquistadors ! Trinidad is renowned for its historic colonial center, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. With cobble-stone streets and pastel-colored houses Trinidad is the best-preserved town in the Caribbean, giving the impression that time stopped during the Colonial area when the sugar trade was the main activity of the region… Wandering through its streets, you want to hum a Cuban remix of a song by the French singer Johnny Hallyday : “Je préfère le bon temps des espagnols / C’est la seule époque qui soit folle / Depuis toujours entre nous et eux ça colle / Depuis le bon vieux temps des espagnols” (I prefer the good time of the Spaniards / It is the only time that was crazy / Since the dawn of time between us and them it matches / Since the good old days of the Spaniards.) In the historical and tourist heart of the Playa Mayor the buildings with red tiled roof and pastel colors were mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today these colonial-era structures are home to museums such as the Museo Romántico o Palacio Brunet, inaugurated in 1973. This colonial-style house with its flamboyant yellow walls was built in two stages: the ground floor in 1740 and the floor above with a balcony in 1808 – a balcony from which Juliette has a breathtaking view of Romeo… oh sorry… of the square! To the Northeast of the square is the parish church of the Holy Trinity, the Santísima Trinidad Cathedral built between 1814 and 1892, as a hurricane had destroyed an earlier structure on the site. This Cathedral has five naves and a trio of bells, responding to the sweet names of Santísima Trinidad, Mayor and Nuestra Señora de la Consolación, but it is best known as the only neo-Gothic religious building in Cuba. A short distance from the Plaza Mayor stands one of the most famous monuments of Trinidad: the Convento de San Francisco de Asis, a former monastery built in the 16th century that now houses the Museo de la Lucha Contra Banditos, displaying exhibits on the organized struggle against the counter-revolutionary bands of 1960 and 1965. The 138-foot tall bell-tower, which adorns many postcards of Trinidad, offer superb view over the rooftops of the city.
Even if the historical center should never be missed, it would be a shame to pass over other facets of the town: the constant animation that prevails in popular neighborhoods, with narrow cobblestone streets and small shops, wagons and horses, chickens wandering freely, and women sitting on the front steps of their house! It is very pleasant to get lost in the early morning discovering the colored low houses with large windows protected by wrought-iron grilles. These grilles serve to prevent the intrusion of unwanted visitors and allow residents to live and sleep with the open window so that air can pass through. Behind these large open windows, if you can get past Cerberus, the monstrous multi-headed dog in the Greek mythology, guarding the entrance, you can sometimes discover magnificent mansions. One can easily imagine the wealth of the landowners of the time, prosperous from the sugar and slave trade. Let’s continue our visit before Trinidad wakes up and plagiarize the French singer Jacques Dutronc, “Il est cinq heures / Trinidad s’éveille / Trinidad s’éveille / Les écoliers vont pédaler / Les cavaliers battent le pavé / Les magasins sont rationnés / C’est l’heure où je vais me balader” (It’s five o’clock / Trinidad wakes up / Trinidad wakes up / School children pedal / Horse riders beat the pavement / Stores are rationed / It’s time to go for a walk). It is true that in the morning we see queues in front of the state shops, also called “bodegas,” where the Cubans wait to get food with their ration book. In all of Cuba the shops have rather empty shelves, but Trinidad seems particularly poorly supplied. Moreover, at every delivery of consumer goods, it seems that the owners of the “Casas Particulares” (guesthouses) are often served first and that there is not much left for anyone else… Some essential consumer goods have been recently removed from the ration book such as soap, which must now be bought at a high price and often in CUC (the Cuban convertible peso or “tourist currency”). So do not be surprised to meet a kid or a mother at a street corner smiling and asking courteously for… some soap ! If so, do not get stuck in your soap bubble… Just share it, as Honoré de Balzac wrote, “Happiness is a bubble on a bar of soap that changes color like an iris does and bursts when you touch it” from “la Comédie Humaine”, beautiful, no ?
Since the move to legalized “own-account” businesses (small businesses are allowed, and even encouraged by, the Castro regime) small sellers have flourished everywhere. In this new world of cuentapropistas, the self-employed, any location can become a place of business: mini-shops, hand carts and even just a case on the luggage rack of the bike… Cuban inventiveness is not to be underestimated ! Despite the daily difficulties and the daily “lucha” (struggle for change), Cubans always keep their spirits up, against all odds. They are very conscious and proud of belonging to a people, a land and a history as the Havana D’Primera band sings in their song « Me dicen Cuba » : Eres tú mí Cuba (You are my Cuba) / Como tú ninguna (Nothing is like you)! At the end of the day, another type of activity takes place. We sit on the front steps of a house and discuss the day and the problems encountered (“Resolviste ?”), but most of all, the last bit of gossip… “Hey, do you know that “fulano” (or some such) met a stranger and was going to go with her “pa’ la yuma “(abroad)?” Gossip or “chisme” is the privileged moment of the end of the day !
After this dive into the hectic life of “the City”, you probably want to relax and escape the noise and the crowd ? So let’s go together and discover mother nature in the surroundings of Trinidad. The region has plenty of opportunities for short hikes! About ten miles to the North of Trinidad is the Sierra del Escambray, a mountain range of 55 miles from East to West and 25 miles wide in South Central Cuba. The Sierra is characterized by its exuberant vegetation (Sisal, coffee trees, pines, orchids, bamboos, eucalyptus, etc.), deep valleys, caves, rivers, waterfalls and natural pools. Its highest peak, the Pico San Juan, rises to 3,740 feet above sea level. On the historical side, the Escambray range was a refuge for the anti-Batista rebels led by Che during the Revolution (starting in 1958), and then later the Escambray hid the anti-Castro rebels. But enough talk, let’s get going with our backpack. The birds sing, there is a lot of greenery, a powder-puff tree or Calliandra and the landscape is so relaxing… Suddenly our path crosses that of a Gray Kingbird (also known as pitirre, petchary, or white-breasted kingbird) and a thrush… Don’t panic; it is only two species of sparrows. High in a tree, the red-legged thrush welcomed us with a slow “weecha” and a fast “chu-wéek chu-wéek chu-wéek”. Indeed, its melody can seem monotonous ! Finally, after a short hike in the incredible scenery of Cuba’s Parque Natural el Cubano we arrive in front of the Salto del Caburní, at 70 feet the highest waterfall in Cuba. It falls between rocks into a crystal clear natural swimming pool. One or two “Plouf” to cool down before resuming our hike amidst lush vegetation: papyri, orchids, and trees that do not lack thorns… Wait, wait, is that not the holy tree Ceiba with its smooth trunk covered with big thorns? It looks like a giant rose bush! We walk along el Camino (path) crossing bridges and a river and sometimes getting our feet wet. We stop at several places to swim (El Ocuje, La Pomarrosa etc.) and pass honeycomb-like rock walls… until we reach the Salto de Javira… the place is beautiful. And then, everybody jumps into the fresh water !
In the late afternoon, it is pleasant to stroll in the Valle de Los Ingenios also named Valley of the Sugar Mills about 8 miles outside Trinidad. The Valle de Los Ingenios is a series of three interconnected valleys, San Luis, Santa Rosa and Meyer and stretches for 25 miles between Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus. The site offers splendid landscapes of cultivated fields, small hills, rich and ancient haciendas, planters’ houses, and slave-quarters. You plunge into a history book when visiting the valley. In chapter after chapter, you learn about slavery, large landowners, and the sugar economy. In Spanish, “Ingenios” means “sugar cane mills”. Until 1850 (the fall of the price of sugar), the valley was a sugar-rich economic center with more than sixty sugar cane mills and more than 11,000 slaves forced to work for the industry. In the center of the valley, the seven-floor Torre Manacas-Iznaga stands 147 feet high and is topped with a lookout and a bell. The magnificence of the tower symbolizes the power of the Iznaga family, its status in the sugar cane industry and its aristocratic lineage. The tower was built in 1816 by a slave named Alejo Maria del Carmen Iznaga, who later became a rich sugar-merchant (surely using his own slaves to make money !). According to Cuban (or urban) legend, the tower would have served as a lookout to watch slaves working in the fields… or perhaps to lock up a girl with long hair… There are several legends and I do not have the exact “answer”. Today, what it is certain, you will be able to take superb photos of the valley from the top. As for the bell that once announced the beginning and the end of the working day in the heart of the valley, it now rests at the foot of the tower.