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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Trinidad: Colourful Colonial Cuba

Live music echoes across cobbled laneways paving the way towards the multicoloured colonial buildings and former palaces. Here you can find quirky art galleries, vibrant restaurants and artisan markets set to the backdrop of the impressive Escambray Mountains.



Trinidad was one of the first towns in Cuba established by the Spanish in the early 1500s. It sits in a valley enveloped by the leafy Escambray mountains in the province of Sancti Spíritus and is now a UNESCO’s World Heritage site. The burgeoning slave trade in sugar cane and tobacco production meant that there was huge colonial wealth in and around the town. This extravagance is evidence in the cobbled pathways edging alongside grand colonial buildings, and former palaces. Live music can be heard echoing along the winding streets, and the quality of restaurants is definitely better than both Vinales and some places in Havana. Trinidad’s main industry is still tobacco processing, yet tourism is now a major source of income. The houses along the old town are well preserved and painted in fun, bright colours. In contrast, parts outside the touristy areas near where we stayed are much more run down, especially in the centre but the colonial presence still lingers in the overhanging balconies and intricate aging detailing on the houses. Up until 2014, Cubans were forbidden from purchasing new cars. Prior to that, they had to get a government permit to buy new vehicles. The state has a monopoly on new car sales now and is marking up prices by 400% or more, so few people can afford them. This means that the streets are dotted with the familiar vintage cars, rattling along with their new paint jobs and makeshift repairs.




As beautiful as the old colourful vintage cars are, they are quite polluting and not always the most road worthy. Whilst staying in Trinidad, we took a trip up into the mountains to get to the stunning Javira waterfall, which I would highly recommend. We were told by the women who owned the casa where we stayed to expect a brightly coloured, *functioning Cadillac. Instead, we were presented with a beaming Jose standing beside his rusted red lada that was on the verge of combustion. So, we set off on our journey through the forest covered mountains, twisting through winding roads, shuddering along in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Cuban cousin. The higher we climbed, the slower the car became and each time we turned a corner it shook like a washing machine. After five minutes, we tucked our feet up onto the seats as the bottom of the car had become so hot it was burning through the souls of our flipflops. Halfway through the ascent, the front of the car began to smoke, and the fumes poured into the back via the undercarriage. Getting rather worried we were about to meet our end in a lada-induced explosion, we offered to get out and push. Jose wouldn’t hear of it as he turned to shout over the sound of sputtering and exhaust fumes “Lada es fuerte! Russo!” while making strongman gestures with his biceps. We hung our heads out the car windows like dogs for the remainder of the journey as there was no air conditioning and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning became increasingly likely. Jose certainly seemed mad enough to have been drinking the Kool-Aid coming from the engine.


It is stories like this that make the whole experience in Cuba so unforgettable. I wish we had been able to spend more time in Trinidad with its vibrant art scene, never-ending music and dancing, and beautiful meandering streets to get lost in. Below are a few tips I have taken from various great guides like Getting Stamped and Where's the Gringo? As well as some tips we discovered along the way!


Get a good bird’s-eye view of town- suggestions here from ‘Where’s the Gringo’.

Trinidad travel is a really good local agency (two guys) who do hikes etc.


Things to do:


Wander!


  • Take a jaunt around the old town. You can snoop in the windows at some of the wacky throwback furniture in the homes. Some of them are open to tourists and for a small fee you can check out the antiquities inside. The handicrafts sold at the markets are fabulous from cotton tablecloths and bed linen to antique ornamental picture frames and artwork. I loved it here and bought a sunny painting in one of the beautiful art galleries dotted along the streets.


  • Walk through the Tres Cruces neighbourhood near to the centre but without the tourist trappings and jineteros (street sellers).

  • Take a small hike up to Cerro de la Vigía for a view of the town.


Visit the Topes de Collantes National Park!

Topes de Collantes was a little far for us but the national park is just outside the town with stunning viewpoints, hiking trails, waterfalls and rivers. The closest park area is El Cubano you can walk here (4-5km one way). You can take a taxi (30 to 40 CUC for the car to drive there including pick up to take you back). The local bus service doesn’t run to the park. Get information from the Visitors centre inside the park.

Playa Ancón

You can hit the beach at Playa Ancón (Ancón peninsula). It is one of the few places in Cuba where you can go to the beach without staying at a resort. A taxi took around 15 minutes and cost 10 CUC but the beach is within biking distance from Trinidad (though cycling in the hot sun isn’t something I would relish). Make sure you have sunscreen for daytime and mosquito repellent for the evening. The beach is free and a beach chair 2 CUC. You can buy lovely coconuts to sip at on the beach. We were slightly disappointed by Playa Ancon as it doesn’t quite have the beautiful white sandy beaches we had envisaged like Veradero, but it’s very secluded so it is perfect to go and read a book on the beach and chill out.

Valle de Los Ingenios

We wanted to take the steam train to the Valle de Los Ingenios but we didn’t have time. For more information on this see Wiki travel.


Horse riding

You can also go horseback riding to a forest and then hike to a waterfall. Behind the waterfall is a cave you can swim into. In the summer, go for a swim in the waterfall, afterwards, the horseback ride will take you through muddy roads hiking back to the town of Trinidad. See more info here.

Waterfalls:

Within an hour drive of Trinidad, there are hundreds of waterfalls ready to be explored. We took to Javira waterfall. After quite an arduous walk, you are rewarded by a sparkling green swim hole surrounded by jutting rocks to jump off of and you can swim through caves that flow behind the waterfall. Your casa can organise a car to take you there and drop you off. As mentioned above, we had the pleasure of being driven in a Russian-built Lada from circa 1970 that had seen better days and we thought we might actually have to push it up the hill. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can do proper tours. Ask at the Tourist info desk or at your Casa. Make sure you wear proper trainers and hiking boots as it can be muddy in places too! I wore ballet pumps. Most unpractical and also unwearable ever since. Beautiful clear water pools once you get through the drudgery of the walk though, which makes it worth it! Our taxi driver organised by our Casa also took us to a coffee plantation near the waterfall. It was amazing and we tasted the delights of rum coffee!

Eat:


Many casa particulars offer dinner for around 10 CUC per person. Trinidad has a really good collection of restaurants but you may have to queue for a seat. We did a few times!


There are several ‘peso pizza’ (also called “paladares”) hole-in-the-wall takeaways in the town which allow tourists to get a decent pizza for a few pesos (5-10CUC). This is a great for travellers on a budget, if you're feeling lazy and just want to wander around without having to stop and eat, plus the pizzas were pretty good. One of the well known places in Trinidad is situated on the corner of Frank Pais and Francisco Javier. The pizza is tasty and you can sit on the street chatting to other peso pizza chompers.


  • La Botija: An old colonial tavern with a fun atmosphere serving tapas and pizza on plates made from beer bottles for around 1-3 CUC. They have live jazz music in the evenings. Get there early as again, you will have to queue.

  • Paladar San José: This place is great craic. Lots of atmosphere and quirky decor with exposed brick holding up lovely paintings and photos of Cuba. It's busy so go early as you can't book!

  • Palador Sol y Son: we really wanted to get here but didn't have time. It's set inside a beautiful colonial house and you dine in the courtyard.

  • Sapori Italiani: This has rave reviews, we didn't make it here but worth a trip!

  • Full list of top restaurants here.



Drink

  • Where else to start but the infamous Casa de la Música! Dance & party the night away at this little square at the bottom of a cobbled staircase serving as an amphitheatre above Plaza Mayor. Sip cocktails while taking in the salsa musicians and dancers who take to the stage every evening from 7pm onwards. You can take salsa lessons at Casa de la musica too!

  • Disco Ayala (In a cave at the northern end of city) This club is located within an actual cave and it is fairly famous. Apparently the cave is huge with stalagmites and stalactites, tunnels and smaller caves. We didn't make it there but it is where young Cubans go to party to reggaeton and techno.

  • There are also places where the locals hang-out - usually smaller hole-in-the-wall pubs serving decent beer on a budget. As we discovered, they stay open all night until we found ourselves wandering the cobbled streets back to our casa at 6am.

We stayed here in Trinidad.

Tip: In Trinidad, they have a wifi hotspot in Plaza Mayor. The wifi even reaches a few restaurants in the square, so you can surf the internet and grab a drink/meal. Wifi cards can be purchased at a shop right by the square and also throughout town but the best prices were at the ETSCA booths or from the tourist info centre, they were $2 an hour. Most hotels have internet cards for purchase also but will charge as much as $6 per hour card.



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