Mint from my mojito mingles with the pleasant whiff of cigars. Horses’ hooves clatter along lantern-lit cobblestone lanes, barely audible above the salsa beat pulsing from restaurants and bars. There are no cars, and not a single person is 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 immerses you in 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.
At the moment, Americans can visit Cuba only with a People-to-People group, but that’s set to change soon. Though there’s a sense that this entire authentic, Starbucks-free country will change quickly, in fact only a tiny fraction of Cuba’s 3 million to 4 million annual visitors today venture outside Havana and the nearby beach resort of Varadero, with its string of all-inclusive behemoths.
Trinidad, with its sparse tourist traffic and cheap 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 traveling the 197 miles southeast, beyond Havana, to the province of Sancti Spiritus.
Our bus driver sings 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 motorcycle complete with a sidecar for the wife and chickens. Cars out of precious gasoline or undergoing repairs are tinkered with on the shoulders.
The landscape is rolling hills and rural, with Cuban cowboys herding goats and skinny cows, and fields being readied for sugarcane planting by ox-drawn plow, a giant step backward from the tractors that worked this land until the Soviet Union’s fall.
My friend Michel and I are here for a week, booked into one of three all-inclusive government-owned hotels occupying the long stretch of beach on the Ancon Peninsula just 8 miles from Trinidad. Ours is the Hotel Ancon, a sturdy relic of the concrete-loving Soviet-era, retro-cool 1985 angular architecture festooned with a rainbow of kitschy Latin colors. Yet it’s surprisingly welcoming and relaxed, from the band and dancers who greet every bus to the cheery bow-tied bartender who unhurriedly mashes 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 that of their American counterparts in this country’s strapped economy, but the rooms are clean and comfortable and the buffet spread surprisingly good. And, after all, the largely European, South American and Canadian vacationers are here for sun and sand, snorkeling, tennis, cheesy nightly entertainment extravaganzas, and the all-inclusive rum-drenched drinks … and for the crepe guy who serenades us with songs at breakfast.
After unwinding on the beach for three days, we toss our overnight bags into a 1959 German Opel Kapitän taxi and head on the 15-minute drive into Trinidad for a couple of nights in a casa particular, a trip that also makes a nice bike ride. For the past 15 years or so, the government has allowed residents to rent rooms in their houses on a home-stay/B&B basis.
Trinidad, with its remarkable rows of colorful colonial buildings from the days when this region boomed with the sugarcane 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 is 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 drops us outside the zone, and we walk narrow cobblestone streets past the grand cathedral, where a band is jamming on the sidewalk amid the aroma of roasting chicken.
Manuel Castillo swings opens his house’s massive, ancient, bright-blue timber doors and welcomes us into Casa Colonial el Patio, where he and his wife, Lisbeth, rent three rooms. As we register, he brings out the deed to the house his grandfather bought in 1910 for “400 pesos in Spanish gold.” He points out an old wooden plank on the wall with the date “1745” etched into it that he discovered when renovating.
The ceilings are tall, the walls adorned with hand-painted frescoes. A breeze blows in from the high-walled patio out back that gives the inn its name, a tropical garden with the occasional gecko and hummingbird, where we make 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 creates a classic langoustine — lobster — feast that we enjoy with a cold bottle of Chilean wine beneath the twinkling lights, dangling mangos and Tarzan-caliber vines of the patio.
Breakfast, too, is 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.
We spend the day prowling a hilly maze of streets where shops and colonial row houses in cotton-candy colors feature windows barred with wrought-iron grilles, regas, instead of glass. Often, birdcages hang outside.
We poke into rows of tiny art shops, most featuring paintings with the standard trio of themes — the Cuban flag, portraits of Che Guevara and old men puffing huge cigars. The layers of ornate old frescoes on the peeling walls of the Galeria de Arte are 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 gathered from surrounding sugar estates — including a 1.5-ton marble bathtub — 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 Cubans who fought off counterrevolutionary “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, is 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, drums and guitars belt out tunes in the hands of small street bands on sidewalks, in squares and urban parks. Some of the best jamming takes 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 popular Cuban entertainment, as legions of 1950s-vintage American cars stream by. I chat with a taxi driver alongside his red-and-white 1957 Ford Fairlane. “Original upholstery and original engine,” he points out proudly. “It has done 765,000 miles.”
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 — feature live music. But the epicenter is the alfresco Casa de la Música at the top of a broad stone staircase alongside the cathedral, where top bands have everyone sweating on a dance floor under the stars.
Change is coming to Cuba, but very slowly, which is a good thing. As we check out of our casa, I comment to Miguel how refreshing it is not to have cell phone or data access. He responds excitedly that the Cuban communications division has just announced a partnership with AT&T to upgrade the island’s notoriously sluggish Internet.
“But they are advocating smart Internet use for its citizens,” he says. Good luck with that.
Personally, I’m happy to linger just a little longer in the past. I slip into the backseat of a 1956 Ford Customline for the retro ride — pre-seat belts — back to the beach.
Margo Pfeiff is a freelance writer in Quebec. E-mail: [email protected]
If you go
There are regular flights from Havana to Trinidad’s nearest airports — Cienfuegos is about 1.5 hours away from Trinidad, and Santa Clara is a three-hour drive. There are regular bus connections, or you can easily hire a taxi. The airport shuttle is included if you book an all-inclusive hotel with a flight.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Many establishments have no websites, and Internet is very slow.
Vinales B&B,www.bbinnvinales.com, is an excellent, reliable, free booking site for casa particulares (homestay/B&Bs) throughout Cuba. Payment is made to the host after your stay, in convertible pesos (CUC).
Casa Colonial el Patio: 274 Ciro Redondo St., Trinidad, http://elpatio.trinidadhostales.com/index-en.html (but it’s best to book through Vinales), +53 53592371. Stunning 1745 colonial residence turned into a three-room casa with tranquil garden patio out back. Breakfast from $3, dinner from $7. Double accommodation from $25.
Hotel Ancon: Ancon Peninsula, Trinidad, www.hotelancon-cuba.com. Beachside, three-star typical Cuban government-owned hotel with all services. Most beach hotels are booked on an all-inclusive — flight, room, meals, alcoholic beverages — weekly basis through an airline or travel agent.
WHERE TO EAT
There are many restaurants throughout town, particularly around the Plaza Major, and along Simon Bolivar Street beside the cathedral, though likely your best meal will be at your own casa.
Quince Catorze (1514): 515 Simon Bolivar, Trinidad. http://trulycuba.com/restaurant-quince-catorce-1514. Like dining in an antique shop, this is a unique experience with plenty of atmosphere and good Cuban food. From $40 for two for dinner.
La Ceiba: 263 Pablo Pichs Giron, Trinidad. Dine on a lovely patio under a huge ceiba tree. Traditional Cuban chicken, pork, lobster. From $40 for two for dinner.
WHAT TO DO
Casa de la Música: 406 Francisco Javier Zerquera, Trinidad. Hub of the music scene — and a restaurant — at the top of the stairs on Plaza Mayor. Live outdoor performances of Cuban music every night, beginning about 10 p.m.
El Palenque de la Congo Reales: Corner of Echerri and Jesús Menéndez, Trinidad. Popular venue for Afro-Cubana and Haitian-influenced dance and music.
Museo Romantico: Plaza Mayor. Period furnishings gathered from sugar estates around Trinidad are displayed in a grand sugar baron’s manor on the town’s main square. Admission fee.
Hiking and horseback riding trips to the nearby Sierra del Escambray mountains can be arranged through hotels and casa particulares.
Currency can be exchanged at major hotels and banks to CUC, Cuban convertible pesos.
Margo Pfeiff, SFGate
May 28, 2015