The Valle de los Ingenios, a sprawling, open valley bordered by the eastern slopes of the Sierra del Escambray, was once one of Cuba’s most productive agricultural areas. In its heyday it was crammed with dozens of the sugar estates and refineries on which Trinidad built its wealth during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today just one refinery remains, but the valley’s prestigious past can be partly appreciated at Manaca-Iznaga, one of the old colonial estates, best reached on the steam train from Trinidad, whose engines, dating from the early twentieth century, pull rickety wooden carriages on an hour-long ride to the estate through rich layers of rural countryside, rattling and puffing through thick bush and small forests, then open, lush grazing land and maize fields, with green hills and low mountains forming the backdrop.
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The tiny train station at Manaca-Iznaga is two minutes’ walk from the old house and tower, the main attractions at this former estate. Most people can’t resist heading straight for the 45m tower, built by one of the most successful sugar planters in Cuba, Alejo María del Carmen e Iznaga. You can climb the precarious wooden staircase to one of the tower’s seven levels for views of the entire valley, a patchwork of sugar-cane fields, wooded countryside and farmland dotted with palm trees and the odd house. This lofty perspective over the surrounding area would have been used by plantation overseers for surveillance of their slaves working in the fields below. The huge bell that once hung in the tower, used to ring out the start and finish of the working day, now sits near the front of the Casa Hacienda, the colonial mansion where the Iznaga family would have stayed, though they spent more of their time at their residences in Trinidad and Sancti Spíritus. The building’s main function is as a gift shop, bar and restaurant, the latter occupying a terrace overlooking a small garden. Over the road are the scattered dwellings of the old slave barracks, now converted into family homes.