Ancon Beach, Trinidad

Ancon Beach, Trinidad; (c) Mazel Purnell

Trinidad, Cuba

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Trinidad has lots of museums – second only to the Cuba capital city of Havana. And they’re all dedicated to telling the story of Cuba’s third-oldest settlement. However, I found that the best way to appreciate the 500-year-old city is to walk through the streets of the old town area — Mazell Purnell

Framed against the natural beauty of the Sierra del Escambray mountains, pitched against the blue sky, and laid out on cobblestone streets, the sites you see and the people you meet tell a compelling story. That story is of a city that has withstood the test of time and continues to hold steady to those values that make it a unique and interesting place to visit.

During my brief stay in the city known as Cuba’s colonial crown jewel, I wandered through the maze of narrow streets and admired the well-preserved pastel-colored buildings that house shops, restaurants, and private residences. According to legends, pastel colors were chosen because white was considered too harsh on people’s eyes in the strong tropical sun. I can certainly believe the legend since the sun was pretty strong during my late October 2009 visit.

Cienfuegos Plaza Mayor

Trinidad Plaza Mayor

As I wended my way through the oldest part of the colonial city, I passed grand 18th and 19th-century mansions built with pre-War of Independence riches from sugar mills in nearby Valle de Ingenios – mills that once produced up to a third of Cuba’s sugar. Restored wrought iron grilles, detailed architectural plaster molding, and a fresh coat of paint obliterate decades of neglect that occurred after the sugar plantations were devastated by fire and fighting during Cuba’s two Wars of Independence.

At the heart of this outdoor museum are Plaza Mayor, the city’s main square and the center of activity in the heyday of the 18th century. Surrounding the plaza and on adjacent streets are grandiose homes formerly the residence of well-to-do residents, but today house most of the city’s museums and shops. Guarding the street that cuts through the plaza are statues of two bronze English greyhounds resting on their perch in the shade of tall palm trees.

In the center of the plaza is the statue of Terpsichore, the Muse of Music and Dance, two art forms crucial to the life of Cuba’s most popular tourist destination after Havana. White wrought iron fences, benches and lamp posts, and large, lovely pottery finials are situated throughout the small, peaceful square.

Although automobiles are restricted on the streets surrounding Plaza Mayor, Trinidad has its fair share of 1950s variety Fords and Chevrolets used as taxis to transport tourists or as personal transportation for locals. Throughout the old town area, street names are displayed on bronze plaques attached to the walls of corner buildings and show both their colonial and modern-day name.

1953 Chevy in Trinidad

1953 Chevy in Trinidad; (c) Soul Of America

Grass hugs the soil between cobblestones in the streets that slope toward a center gutter to facilitate rainwater runoff. Slow-walking mules share the streets with automobiles and pull wagons loaded with fresh produce. The wagons roll along on rubber wheels that make a thumping sound on the centuries-old stones (chinas pelonas), some of which were transported across the Atlantic from Spain more than 400 years ago as ballast to stabilize the ships.

Under the hot mid-day sun, merchants shifted their chairs, stool, or another seat of choice as they chased the shadow cast by umbrellas and buildings. They chatted lazily with each other as they kept an eye on tourists who examined their goods – goods that included fine linen, crocheted purses, carved masks, and whimsical trinkets made with beer and soda cans.

Some merchants seemed to take special delight in tourists’ reactions when they demonstrated the two-headed topsy-turvy dolls. When held vertically, the full-skirted doll has a white face. But when the doll is flipped over to reveal the other end, it has a black face that was hidden by the full skirt.

In the weather-beaten faces of local men, I saw years of struggling to succeed despite limited resources and perhaps, ultimate resignation to their station in life. In the sparkling eyes and smooth brown skin of young children in school uniforms, I saw carefree exuberance for a future full of hopes and dreams.

Even as I roamed about absorbing the story of Trinidad, I felt the constant pull of Afro-Cuban percussions being played somewhere down the street and around the corner. Wow! With all this history, who needs a traditional museum?

But like historic cities everywhere, Trinidad has its share of brick-and-mortar museums. They house displays that help bridge the gaps between what was and what is even though the difference in Trinidad is far less than in most cities.

My favorite museum was the Romantic Museum or Museo Romántico on the northwest corner of Plaza Mayor. It was constructed in the early 1800s as the home of Don Pedro Jose Iznaga Borrell, head of one of Cuba’s richest families. The second floor was added in 1808. Also known as Palacio Brunet, the palace takes its name from Count Nicholas de la Cruz y Brunet who married Borrell’s daughter, Maria, who inherited the house after Borrell’s death. The Burnet family lived in the 14-room mansion for many years with their 12 children and a number of slaves before returning to Spain after the fall of the sugar industry in the mid-19th century. I’d rate it as one of the most beautiful museums in Trinidad.

Museo Romantico courtyard, Cienfuegos

Museo Romantico courtyard, Cienfuegos; (c) Mazel Purnell

Converted to a museum in 1974, the bold yellow Museo Romántico was the first institution of its kind established in the city after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. With its display of 19th-century furniture, porcelain, silverware, and decorative art, it succeeds in showing today’s visitors a glimpse of the social environment of a period that coincides with the height of wealth among the Spanish nobility during the 1830 – 1860 colonial era. A few of the beautiful pieces such as the wrought-iron bed were originally owned by the Borrell family but most of the objects on display were collected from surrounding mansions.

Some of the more interesting features of the mansion include the central balustraded courtyard, original Italian marble flooring, soothing wall frescos that have survived all restoration phases, the 1770’s solid vaulted carved cedar ceilings with beautiful mediopunto (semi-circular) arches, and the huge kitchen with a wood-burning stove and walls covered with azuelejo (glazed ceramic tiles).

Trinidad basket-seller

Trinidad basket-seller; (c) Soul Of America

On the first floor in the rear of the palace is the museum that does a good job of tracing the growth and decline of the sugar industry, the socio-economic changes it generated and the introduction in the late 18th century of African slaves that accompanied and fueled the industry. On display are pictures and artifacts used in the industry as well as tools and weapons used to control the enslaved workforce. The exhibits, accompanied by English language descriptions, also include documents, pictures, and other symbolic pieces from the Wars of Independence.

For about two pesos, I climbed the steep, narrow stairway to the top of the tower to get a nice aerial view of the palace courtyard and a panoramic view of the city that includes terra-cotta tile-roofed houses, the surrounding mountain range, and the historic Plaza Mayor.

The most recognizable and photographed of Trinidad’s museums is the Bandit Museum or Museo de la Lucha Contra Los Bandidos, formerly the Church and Convent of Saint Francis. The museum displays tools and weapons used during the campaign against the counter-revolutionaries in the Sierra del Escambray in the years following the Revolution.

Displays include a 170-horsepower gunboat equipped with two machine guns and radar navigation that the CIA donated to the counter-Castro cause, powerful Russian trucks used to move armed forces through the rugged Escambray mountain range in pursuit of guerrillas, the fuselage of a U2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a CIA radio transmitter, small arms, and ammunitions as well as a wall with pictures of war heroes. I was a bit disappointed that, unlike the Museo Romántico, the display descriptions were in Spanish only.

A trip to the top of the tower of the former convent was well worth the one peso collected by the indifferent guard. At the top, I had another fantastic view of the city and the surrounding Sierra del Escambray.

Trinidad’s blessings don’t end with the city’s colorful houses and historic museums and buildings. In nearby El Cubano Park located 5 km (3 miles) outside the city, I took a relatively easy 3,600-meter (2.2-mile) trek along a shady path to one of the park’s main features, a waterfall that flows into a shallow swimming pool. The route to the waterfall was full of interest and diversity including swinging suspension and fixed bridges.

On the way, I ducked under stone arches and moved cautiously over stepping stones that jutted out of the water of gently flowing streams and passed a peasant cabin with a horse grazing in the yard.

I easily maintained a steady pace as I passed through the lush foliage of indigenous trees and plants, listened to chirping birds, and watched scores of tiny curious brown lizards scamper away when I approached. The park also offers camping, birdwatching, and horseback riding. The open-air, thatch-roofed restaurant at the beginning of the trail has clean restrooms and offers a house specialty of Pez Gato (catfish) caught in nearby Rio Guaurabo.

Also located about 8 km (5 miles) outside the city is Playa d’Anćon or Ancon Beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand beach kissed by the warm, clear water of the Caribbean Sea and dotted with shady palm-thatched shelters. Walking along the water’s edge and lazing in the shade of a nearby seagrape tree was the perfect way to spend part of the day.

I shared the sand with tiny baby crabs and quick brown lizards as I watched a small craft boat in the distance waiting for its passengers to complete their dive in the turquoise calm waters. The entire scene provided a perfect mental picture of Trinidad’s beach that I’ll never forget. Roundtrip to Ancon by minibus is around 2 pesos or 19 pesos by taxi.

A factory furniture craftsman, Trinidad

A factory furniture craftsman, Trinidad

With no less than 10 live music venues, music can be heard almost any time of the day in Trinidad. During a midday break from the heat, I stopped at the Casa de la Trova, a chain of clubs with at least one location in each large Cuban city where tourists go to listen to Cuban music and dance salsa with locals. In the evenings, Casa de la Trovas seems to attract more tourists than locals but it’s still worth the visit.

At the shady open-air venue, I enjoyed cold liquid refreshments and excellent music but worked up a sweat when I accepted the extended hand of a band member for a quick salsa. The Casa de la Trova is on Calle Cristo, one block from Plaza Mayor, and serves local favorites such as Mojitos or Canchanchara, a local drink made with lemon juice, honey, and Santero Cuban rum and served in a glazed ceramic pot.

Even though Trinidad is a leisurely, easy-going city, I found a nightlife that was plentiful and lively. The fun begins early on The Steps near the northeast end of Plaza Mayor. Sitting on The Steps under a nearly full moon and cooled by a gentle Caribbean breeze, I listened to a live band play Afro-Cuban music and watched some tourists working at their newly acquired salsa steps while others demonstrated their experience and took pride in showing their stuff.

The band plays at The Steps each night. Seating is also available at the few tables in front of the restaurant but if you’re with a group, your best option may be to just grab a spot on the steps.

Walking along the dimly lit streets on the way back to my casa particulares, privately owned bed & breakfast accommodations that provide room and food for tourists, I heard the sound of percussions and singing down one of the side streets that was too enticing to pass up. After paying a nominal fee, I took a seat near the stage and watched a delightfully energetic Afro-Cuban dance and musical performance at the Palenque de Los Congos Reales.

The dancers told stories through interpretative movements. In one of them, a woman used the restorative power of water to bring life to a dying young man. In another, a man shared his water with strangers he met along the road. Although not a scheduled stop for that day’s outing, the show turned out to be the highlight of my evening.

Trinidad was founded in 1514 by Spanish explorer Diego Velázquez and is one of the best-preserved cities in Cuba. The city has a strong sense of place and of a time when sugar, once called “white gold”, brought riches to many locals. But to say that the city is frozen in time is not quite right.

Yes, the original colonial buildings have been carefully maintained or were beautifully restored after UNESCO declared the city as a World Heritage Site in 1988. And for the most part, locals still go about their business without regard to tourists wandering through the streets.

Arts & Crafts market, Trinidad

Arts & Crafts market, Trinidad; (c) Mazel Purnell

However, as more tourists flock to Trinidad, the character of the city is likely to change. There’s already a growing number of small tour buses negotiating the narrow streets, internet cafes are readily available to tourists but a few locals get internet access in their homes, and satellite television offers United States programming to a few fortunate Cubans.

Even though so much of Trinidad is still purely Trinidad, in the not-too-distant future, locals will succumb to economic enticements driven by the almighty pesos brought by growing numbers of tourists. But for now, Trinidad is still a fascinating city and one of the must-see places to visit in Cuba.

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