[dropcap type=”1″]S[/dropcap]un-baked cobble-stoned streets, pastel-colored colonial houses, an the occasional clattering of horses’ hooves… Trinidad is a town that time passed by: it looks today very much as it did two centuries ago. With its authentic colonial charm and the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea at nearby Ancon Beach, Trinidad is one of Cuba’s most interesting towns.
Trinidad was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, a year before Havana. The place was selected for its proximity to a number of natives’ villages in the area, with a sizable population. Near the Plaza Mayor there is a jigüe tree (acacia) marking the spot where friar Bartolome de las Casas held mass to celebrate the foundation of the new settlement. The early colonial post played a role in the conquest of Mexico: Trinidad was the launching pad of Hernan Cortes’ expedition in 1518. He stayed in Trinidad in the house of Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva, who surveyed the Mexican coast years before, and met with the Aztec ruler Monctezuma’s envoys. Cortes recruited his men and assembled 11 ships in Trinidad, and after a fall-out with Governor Velazquez, he ignored the orders to recall the expedition and departed anyways.
Nested between the Caribbean sea to the South, and the Sierra del Escambray mountains to the North, for centuries the only connection with the rest of the island was by boat. Its heyday came in the early 1800’s: the nearby Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) with its fertile land quickly became an economic engine for turning Trinidad into a major hub for sugar exports, and slaves’ trade. Those vast sugar cane plantations demanded a large number of slaves, laboring from dawn to dusk in the fields and the processing plants. The streets were paved with New England stones: the ballast of the ships left behind at the port when loading sugar and other products, and sailing to North America. Wealthy plantation owners built their mansions around the Plaza Mayor, but the economic bonanza was short lived. The 1840’s marked the beginning of the decline of Trinidad, when the prices of sugar plummeted in the world markets; the landowners started moving their operations to Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, and Puerto Principe.
Development and construction stopped for almost a century, and the original layout of the historic center around Plaza Mayor was left untouched. After Trinidad was declared World Heritage site in 1988, extensive renovations started on the former mansions of landowners and other houses of architectural and historic value. Today, Trinidad is a remarkable example of a colonial town; it has maintained its historic core, featuring a high percentage of surviving antique buildings and public squares.
This is the best spot to begin exploring Trinidad. The former mansions of landowners and other buildings surrounding the square now house museums and exhibitions. The vetust Santisima Trinidad church overlooks the peaceful plaza from its prominent location. The square is on a gentle slope, the streets leading to it paved with ‘chinas pelonas’ (river cobblestones) and in the center, four small gardens separated by white-painted cast-iron fences, adorned by fountains and a small statue of the muse of dance Terpsichore.
Church of Santisima Trinidad
The Parrish church of the Most Holy Trinity as we see it today was completed in 1892, at the place where a previous church from the 17th. century was badly damaged by a hurricane. The church boasts a neoclassical facade towering at the highest point of the square. The interior is austere, with whitewashed ceilings and columns, and the focal point is the fine wood carved altar. Notable in this church is a 18th. century wooden statue of Christ on the cross in one of the side chapels: el Señor de la Vera Cruz (the Lord of the True Cross). The statue has special religious significance for the locals; it was made in Spain for a church in Veracruz, Mexico, but the ship transporting it was forced by bad weather to take refuge in the port of Casilda several times. At the end, the chest containing the statue was left in port and the ship was finally able to sail. The statue is revered by the Trinidadians, and carried in procession every year on Maundy Thursday.
Facing the church from the square, to the left is the porticoed façade of the
Palacio Brunet – Romantic Museum
Dating back to the 1740’s, this building is representative of the homes built by the wealthy landowners of the time. The mansion has a nice Andalusian-style courtyard, the first floor is clearly mudejar (period Spanish architecture with strong Moorish influence). The second floor was added in 1808, and it reflects the neoclassical taste of the era.
Today the Romantic Museum, it hosts a colonial ambiance exhibit: decorated with collection of what would be the household items of a fine Trinidad home of the period. Furniture, porcelains, vintage etched crystal by Limoges, Murano, and Bacarat….worth noting the mural paintings, and some furniture pieces made by local artisans with fine Cuban woods. These are made in the English Empire style but featuring pajilla instead of upholstery, to allow for better ventilation in the tropical climate.
Admission: 2.00 CUC Hours: 9.00 AM – 5:00 PM Closed on Mondays
Archaeology Museum ‘Guamuhaya’
Facing the square from the northwest side is the house #457, now the Archaeology Museum with 8 rooms of exhibits about archaeological findings and works in the area, from pre-Columbian times: human bones from the native Cubans, tools, pottery, as well as documents and illustrations to complement the information. The house is known for hosting a lecture by Alexander von Humboldt, famous 19th. Century naturalist who stopped by in Trinidad during his scientific research voyages in the New World.
Art Gallery – Aldeman Ortiz House
Also facing the square at the corner of Simon Bolivar and Martinez Villena streets, is the house of Aldeman Ortiz, now an art gallery with an interesting collection of paintings and handicrafts by local artists. The house itself is a great example of typical 19th. century colonial architecture.
Walking down street one block from the square you will find on Bolivar #423 the
Palacio Cantero – Municipal Museum
A prime example of a wealthy landowner’s mansion in colonial Cuba, the Palacio Cantero was built in the early 19th. century and takes a whole city block. Marble floors, walls and columns covered with frescoes, the house is built around a large central courtyard, with porticoes on all four sides and a strong Renaissance flavor. The mansion belonged to several Cantero family members along the years, in 1920 a cigar manufacturing company purchased it and became a tobacco warehouse, and in the 1940’s it was transformed into the Arts and Crafts School. When the renovations of the historic center in Trinidad began in the 1980’s, the Palacio Cantero underwent a complete restoration and opened as the Municipal Historical Museum. It is worth visiting for the house alone, and the exhibits on colonial ambiance with period furniture and art; there are also rooms with information about the history of the city from the dangerous times of attacks by corsairs and pirates, the works done to beef up the defenses, the sugar cane industry and slavery in the region, and more.
The mansion has a tower where the visitor can go up from the courtyard and enjoy a great panoramic view of the city, the nearby mountains, and the Caribbean sea.
Admission: 2.00 CUC Hours: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM Closed on Fridays.
Museo Nacional de Lucha Contra Bandidos
The bell tower you see on those panoramic views of Trinidad belongs to this building: the former convent and church of San Francisco de Asis. Built in the 17th Century, by the 1800’s there were so few Franciscan monks left that the Spanish colonial government took it over and turned it into their military headquarters and barracks. After the Independence of Cuba, for a decade the convent became a tobacco processing plant, stables, even a cock-fighting arena in the courtyard…in the 1930’s it was rebuilt after being badly damaged by a hurricane, and the building re-opened as a public school.
In the 1980’s the revolutionary government opened here a museum dedicated to document the struggle against counter-revolutionary guerrillas labeled “bandidos” (bandits) by the government, in the nearby Sierra del Escambray during the 1960’s. The exhibits include weapons, military uniforms, plans, scale models, as well as maps and photographs documenting this turbulent period in the area. Worth noting a boat captured during a weapons supply run to the insurgents from Florida, and a fragment of the American U2 spy plane downed in 1962 during the Missile Crisis.
Admission: 1.00 CUC Hours: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM Closed on Mondays
Palenque de los Congos Reales
A venue for a real taste of Afro-Cuban and Rumba music, during the day there is a live band and dancers performing for those stopping by in their walks around the old center. At night they have performances of Afro Cuban drums, dance, and songs in the style of the yoruba rituals, the core of Cuban Santeria. Cheap drinks and energetic music and dancing, this is a must if you enjoy Afro culture. Admission: Free during the day, at night 1.00 CUC. Cristo and Alameda streets.
Casa de la Musica
The main party place in Trinidad for tourists and locals alike, an open air venue with live music and salsa concerts. From the afternoon there are tables going up the steps by the church from the square. Listen to Salsa-bands either at a table, enjoying beer or cocktails, watch dancing couples or join in: chances are someone there is willing to teach you the Salsa moves.
At night the large patio behind the Casa becomes a club with live Cuban music, dance, and a show. Admission: 2.00 CUC at night, entrance from Juan Marquez street in the back. Next to the church, up the steps.
Tavern La Botija
Great live music, cold drinks, and excellent tapas: convivial atmosphere in this street corner bar restaurant decorated with vintage weapons and artifacts from the Cuban wars of independence, share your table and experiences with other costumers. Open 24 hours. Corner of Amargura and Boca streets.