Cuba is not known as a place filled with tourist attractions, but there is one attraction tourists flock to. It’s a historic town called Trinidad, and it’s a tourist site like none you’ve ever seen.
Founded in 1514, very close to the start of the Spanish conquest, Trinidad was one of the original seven villas envisioned by the Conquistador Diego Velázquez. And it became the centre of a thriving sugar industry: in 1790 there were 56 sugar plantations in the area, driven by the forced labour of 12,000 slaves.
The town’s heyday is long past, but the Cubans have managed to preserve it pretty much the way it was when it was first built. In fact, the town and the surrounding Valle de los Ingenios are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Of course, in a country like Cuba, where modern high-rises don’t spring up out of the ground the way they do in other countries, preserving Trinidad wasn’t as much of a feat as it might have been. As well, the decline of the sugar trade in the mid-1800s served to halt new construction. But the Cuban approach to protecting this piece of heritage has produced one of the more idiosyncratic places you’ll find.
If you’re used to historic cities like colonial Williamsburg or old Vienna, Trinidad could come as a bit of a shock. The grand, multi-storey buildings you might expect are scarce. Most of Trinidad is low-rise, a collection of dusty cobblestone streets lined with one-storey houses painted bright pastel colours, all leading to a centre studded with a few monumental buildings and churches that command the low rooftops.
Along the way, you pass a scattering of small art galleries and souvenir shops, and intriguing places that give you the urge to peek inside. Some are decayed, and some present classic Latin American scenes.
The centre of town is the Plaza Mayor, dominated by the huge Iglesia Parochial de la Santisima Trinidad (below) and ringed by the town’s important buildings, including several museums: the Museo Romantico is filled with pieces from the wealthy Conde de Brunet family, and there’s a museum of colonial architecture nearby.
The plaza itself is a unique space, surrounded by white wrought-iron fencing and studded with statues and ironwork. The centrepiece is a statue of Terpsichore, the muse of music and dance.
The whole scene has a feeling of being frozen in time, but that soon passes as you continue on and find a street market selling souvenirs of every description. With the chronic shortages of supplies, Cubans are very inventive, and you’ll see things like little cars made out of soda pop cans.
But it’s worth wandering through the streets to see life as it’s lived in Trinidad today. It’s a barrio within a tourist site, not something you see too many places, and it’s a sometimes gritty portrait of small-town life in this unique country.
The drive back to present-day Cuba runs through the scenic Valle de los Ingenios: there are spots where you can get a panoramic view of the valley. It’s also worth stopping at Sancti Spiritus, a charming city with a central district filled with beautifully maintained old buildings.
And along the way, you see scenes of today’s Cuba, including vintage cars amazingly maintained in near-new condition and an older form of transport — horse carts and Cuban cowboys just riding down the side of the highway. That’s Cuba, where the past and the present seem to live side by side..