Trinidad's alluring combination of laidback charm, cobbled streets and pastel-coloured mansions is guaranteed to steal the heart of most visitors. You have been warned...
Think of Cuba and iconic Havana springs to mind. Bold, vibrant and hedonistic, it begs for attention. But if you can bear to tear yourself away, a comfortable six-hour bus journey from the capital will deposit you in Trinidad. Subtle, understated and remarkably laid-ack, it’s the antithesis to Havana but no less seductive. Havana may offer passion; but Trinidad will leave you smitten forever.
Wedged between the Sierra del Escambray mountains and the Caribbean Sea, Trinidad’s main draw is its UNESCO World Heritage status. You arrive expecting a town dotted with neatly signposted historical relics. In fact, it feels more like a village where almost every building is museum-worthy. Spend two or three days here and you’ll fast discover that this is not a place where you blithely tick off the must-sees. Quiet cobbled streets entreat you to explore, cafes invite you to linger and the shaded benches of the town’s squares are places to savour the simple passage of time.
One such spot is the Plaza Mayor in the old town. Spilling down steep cobbled streets and flanked by pretty 18th and 19th century colonial mansions – an artist’s palette of pastel blues, greens, pinks and yellows – the square harks back to the town’s halycon days when it was built on the riches of the sugar cane boom. Moorish, Neo-Classical and Baroque buildings offer an enchanting architectural pick'n'mix dominated by the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad church. Many of these mansions are now cafes, art galleries, souvenir shops and museums, attracting droves of day trippers from Havana and Varadero. (Avoid them by visiting in the late afternoon or early morning.)
Mooch around the square and it soon comes to life with a colourful assortment of characters – from walnut-coloured, cigar-toting men resting under the towering palm trees to an old, wizened cowboy advertising rides on his lone donkey for 50 centavos (less than a penny). However, wander through the tangle of streets fanning out from the square, peeking inside the elaborate wrought-iron grilles of local dwellings en route, and you’ll discover the real Cuba. A world of spartanly furnished homes, school children napping on foldaway beds during their afternoon siesta, heavily pregnant women fanning to keep cool in the maternity hospital, residents gossiping, snoozing, watching TV or rocking in chairs in their front doorways. Occasionally, a horse and cart clatters past or a vintage Cadillac crawls by. Life here is unhurried.
But it’s also harsh. Locals struggle to make ends meet. The average monthly wage in Cuba is about £10. The difference in salaries between farm workers and doctors is often the equivalent of a few US dollars. This is compounded by a dual currency economy. Locals earn Cuban Pesos (one peso is worth about two pence) but are desperate to acquire Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), which are worth 24 times as much, in order to increase their spending power. Not least, CUCs are needed to buy supermarket food to top up meagre monthly food rations covering just basic staples such as eggs, rice, beans, sugar and salt.
One legitimate way locals can obtain CUCs is by renting out rooms to tourists. There are 300 of these so-called casa particulares in Trinidad alone. They cost on average £18 per room per night. Highly recommended is Casa Julio Bastida (Julio Nelson Bastida Miranda Maceo 537), a pretty colonial house minutes from Plaza Mayor. A spacious ensuite twin room features two double beds. There are outdoor terraces to admire views of the mountains and the town’s yellow bell tower (a useful landmark if you’re ever lost). Simple but satisfying breakfasts of fresh fruit, bread, cheese and eggs are served in a courtyard garden every morning, and, on request, the friendly hosts will even prepare a divine lobster dinner (£6).
For more home-cooked Cuban food, visit a local paladare or privately-run restaurant. One of the best is Sol Y Son (Calle Simon Bolivar 283), an elegant al fresco restaurant where the fish dishes are a triumph. It’s so popular, expect to queue after 7pm. Another is Estela (Simón Bolívar no.557 e/ Juan Manuel Márquez y José Mendoza), located unobtrusively on a dark street. Here, in a courtyard surrounded by high walls and trees, you can tuck into a delicious three-course meal (£6) consisting of avocado salad (a welcome change from typically paltry affairs consisting of tomato, cabbage or cold vegetables), yellow sticky rice, tuna, sweet potatoes, marlin fish, pork, and crème caramel.
The only way to round off your evening is with some live music. For infectious atmosphere and dancing, the open-air Casa de la Musica, situated at the top of a broad flight of stairs to the right of Plaza Mayor, is sensational. You’ll be dazzled by the talents of the local band and salsa dancers – and if you’re asked to bop, go for it. You won’t regret it, no matter how bad you are. Other good night spots include the bar-like Casa de la Trova (Fernando H. Echerri 29), featuring funky live bands until the early hours.
A good way to placate next morning’s hangover is by taking a taxi or bus to Playa Ancon beach, 15 minutes away from town. It’s not the prettiest strip of sand in Cuba but the sea provides a refreshing respite from the heat. Alternatively, explore nearby Valle de los Ingenios on horseback. It’s a wide open valley dotted with sugar plantations where cattle graze and vultures swoop overhead. Local travel agency, Cubatur (Calle Maceo esq. Rosario) also runs day-long tours to Topes de Collantes, situated in the hills above Trinidad. A guided 6km descent along a slippery forest trail will take you to Salto del Caburni, a dramatic, 62m-high waterfall. The natural swimming pool below looks enticing but will numb your limbs within seconds.
On the return journey, the open-air truck trundles along steep hairpin bends before reaching a panoramic hilltop overlooking Trinidad. As you pause to soak up the views, be warned: this is the moment when you realise that you’ve well and truly fallen in love.