Trinidad Travel Guide

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Plenty of other Cuban towns are filled with beautiful old buildings, but there is a completeness about Trinidad’s cobbled, traffic-free centre and its jumble of pastel-coloured mansions and houses, with their red-tiled rooftops and shuttered porticoes, that puts it in a league of its own. Its pedestrianized colonial district has a distinct village feel, where people walk at a subdued pace over the uneven ground and neighbours chat from their doorsteps. With tourism continuously on the rise, however, you’re as likely to see a foreign face as a local one on walks around the centre.

In general, if you’re walking on cobblestones you’re in the UNESCO-protected part of the city, the old town, at the heart of which is beautiful Plaza Mayor. All of Trinidad’s prominent museums, including the standout Museo Romántico, are either on the square or within a few blocks of it, so you can enjoy a full day of sightseeing without walking too far. That said, wandering around the old town’s jumble of steep streets, shadowed by colonial houses and enlivened here and there by arts and crafts markets, is one of Trinidad’s highlights and at least as stimulating as visiting the museums. North of the Plaza Mayor you soon reach the northern limits of the city, where some of the streets are little more than mud tracks. One of these leads to the top of the Loma de la Vigía, an easily climbable hill overlooking Trinidad, marked at its base by a ruined church, the Ermita de la Popa, and one of the town’s newest hotels.

Heading downhill from Plaza Mayor will lead you south, out of the historic centre towards Parque Céspedes, the centre of town for locals and a sociable hub of activity. Beyond this square and the historic centre there are very few specific sights; you’ll get far more out of a visit if you take advantage of the nearby valley, beach and mountains.

Brief history of Trinidad

A Spanish settlement was first established in Trinidad in 1514, but interest in the area was short-lived. The gold mined in the area soon ran out and news spread of the riches to be found in Central America, contributing to a flow of emigration that left the town all but empty by the mid-1540s. It wasn’t until the 1580s that the Spanish population rose again and local agriculture began to take off. By the 1750s the region possessed over a hundred tobacco plantations and at least as many farms and sugar mills, as well as a population of almost six thousand.

The mid-eighteenth century marked the start of the sugar boom, a roughly hundred-year period during which Trinidad became one of the country’s most prosperous cities. Thousands of African slaves were imported to cope with the increasing demands of the sugar industry. Trinidad’s prosperity peaked when the economic tide began to turn in the 1830s and 1840s. Slave revolts, the exhaustion of cultivable land and the rising challenge of European sugar beet sent the town into a downward spiral, accelerated by the Wars of Independence. In the early twentieth century local land fell increasingly into foreign – and especially US – hands, and unemployment shot up. Trinidad’s fortunes turned again in the 1950s as tourism increased, encouraging the construction of a small airport and the Hotel Las Cuevas, both still standing today. This brief period of prosperity was cut short by the revolutionary war that ended in January 1959.

It was in the Sierra del Escambray around Trinidad that, for five years following the rebel triumph, US-backed counter-revolutionaries fought in a guerrilla conflict during which significant numbers of local men were killed. Celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2014, Trinidad began the rise to its current prominence after its historic centre and the nearby Valle de los Ingenios were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1988.

Places to visit in Trinidad

Plaza Mayor

The beautiful Plaza Mayor is the heart of Trinidad’s colonial old town. Comprising four simple fenced-in gardens, each with a palm tree or two and dotted with various statuettes and other ornamental touches, it’s surrounded by painted colonial mansions, which are adorned with arches and balconies and home to several museums and an art gallery.

The fabulous Museo Romántico is an essential part of Trinidad’s delve into the past. With one of the country’s finest and most valuable collections of colonial furniture packed into its fourteen rooms, there is no better place to go for a picture of aristocratic lifestyle and tastes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cuba. Dating from 1808, the house itself – built for the very wealthy Brunet family – is a magnificent example of elegant nineteenth-century domestic Cuban architecture. Though the museum’s contents have been gathered together from various buildings all over town, there is a wonderful consistency and completeness to the collection, befitting the perfectly preserved and restored rooms.

Looking down on Plaza Mayor is the city’s main church, Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad, also known as the Parroquial Mayor. Though there has been a church on this site since 1620, the structure now standing was officially finished in 1892. Among the pictures and paintings inside are a disproportionate number of impressively crafted altars, especially the neo-Gothic structure in the central nave, with its mass of pointed spires. Most of them were created by Amadeo Fiogere. A Dominican friar assigned to the church in 1912, he set about livening up the interior, drawing on his own personal fortune to donate many of the images on display today.

The Museo de Arquitectura Colonial exhibits the components that make up a typical colonial-era house in Trinidad, but the small collection of fixtures and fittings won’t keep you for long. The former residence of the Sánchez-Iznaga family – local aristocrats who made their fortune from sugar – the building was constructed in 1738 and then extended to its current size in 1785. Don’t leave before taking a look at the quirky-looking US-made Art Nouveau shower, dating from 1912. It’s in a block out the back, off a courtyard vibrantly bedecked with plants.

Museo Romántico

The fabulous Museo Romántico is an essential part of Trinidad’s delve into the past. With one of the country’s finest and most valuable collections of colonial furniture packed into its fourteen rooms, there is no better place to go for a picture of aristocratic lifestyle and tastes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cuba. Dating from 1808, the house itself – built for the very wealthy Brunet family – is a magnificent example of elegant nineteenth-century domestic Cuban architecture. Though the museum’s contents have been gathered together from various buildings all over town, there is a wonderful consistency and completeness to the collection, befitting the perfectly preserved and restored rooms.

Loma de la Vigía

Looking down on the colonial centre, beyond the end of Simón Bolívar, in a more run-down part of town, stand a dilapidated church, the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de la Popa del Barco – known locally as La Popa – and a brand-new five-star hotel, the Pansea Trinidad. This is the last line of buildings before the town dissolves into the countryside and marks the start of a rewarding, fifteen-minute walk up the Loma de la Vigía, the hill against which Trinidad is set. A dirt track takes you to the summit where, within the grounds of a radio station, the lush landscape of the Valle de los Ingenios on the other side of the hill is revealed, as well as views back across the town and down to the coast. Back down at La Popa you can cut across to the Las Cuevas hotel complex on the adjoining hillside, where non-guests can use the only publicly accessible swimming pool in the town.

Ancon beach, Trinidad, Cuba © Delpixel/Shutterstock

Península de Ancón

A narrow 8km finger of land curling like a twisted root out into the placid waters of the Caribbean, set against a backdrop of rugged green mountains, the Península de Ancón enjoys a truly fantastic setting. Covered predominantly in low-lying scrub, the peninsula itself is unspoilt yet unenchanting once you get away from the coastline, but it does boast several enticing beaches, including Playa Ancón, and an idyllic stretch of mostly undisturbed seashore.

The 7km journey from Trinidad is a glorious ride along the coast, with the turquoise blue of the Caribbean just a few metres away and the lofty mountains of the Sierra del Escambray rarely out of sight.

Diving, snorkelling and fishing around Ancón

Marina Trinidad, opposite Hotel Ancón, offers diving excursions and diving courses, including beginners’ classes. Fishing excursions include deep-sea fishing, trolling for big game, and bottom fishing.

One of the most popular snorkelling excursions is to Cayo Blanco, a narrow islet 8km from the peninsula with its own coral reef, where the waters teem with parrotfish, trumpetfish and moray eels. Trips on catamarans last six hours, and usually include a lobster lunch. The area is known for its easy diving with good visibility, minimal currents and an abundance of vertical coral walls. You’ll need your passport for any trip leaving from the marina.

Playa Ancón

A gentle curve of beach at the far end of the peninsula, Playa Ancón has put the area on the tourist map and has an encouragingly natural feel, with shrubs and trees creeping down to the shoreline. As one of the largest and longest beaches on the south coast of Cuba, there’s more than enough fine-grained golden sand here to keep a small army of holidaymakers happy. There’s also decent snorkelling and diving in the waters and reefs around these shores.

Valle de los Ingenios

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 functioning refinery remains, but the remnants and ruins of the manor houses and mills that occupied the estates remain dotted throughout the valley, the most intact example at Manaca-Iznaga. You can get there on a sporadically functioning steam train from Trinidad, dating from the early twentieth century, which pulls rickety wooden carriages on an hour-long ride to the estate through rich layers of rural countryside, rattling and puffing between thick bush and small forests, then into open, lush grazing land and maize fields, with green hills and low mountains forming the backdrop. When the steam engine is in disrepair they use a diesel engine instead.

Manaca-Iznaga estate

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.

Sierra del Escambray

Rising up to the northwest of Trinidad are the steep, pine-coated slopes of the Guamuhaya mountains, more popularly known as the Sierra del Escambray. This area is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Cuba, though its highest peak – the Pico San Juan – is a modest 1140m high. A large proportion of this mountain range sits within the borders of the neighbouring provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara but the heart of the visitor park and hiking area, the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, is in Sancti Spíritus province.

Topes de Collantes

The mountain resort of Topes de Collantes is a kind of hotel village, its unsubtle architecture completely out of keeping with the beauty of its surroundings – as is the road clumsily blasted down the middle of the resort. Though there are a couple of likeable museums around the village, and one or two modest venues for eating and drinking, the main reason to make the trip up here is to use the resort as a base for hiking along designated trails, which you can follow as part of an organized excursion from Trinidad or independently by first visiting the park’s information centre.

At the heart of Topes de Collantes is its founding building, the monstrous Sanatorio Topes de Collantes, commissioned in 1936 by Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator overthrown by Fidel Castro and his rebels. Originally a huge tuberculosis clinic and once referred to as the Sanatorio General Batista, it represented Batista’s Mussolini-esque desire to leave a lasting legacy, a monument to his own power and influence. It wasn’t completed until 1957 and today operates as the Kurhotel, an anti-stress centre and hotel.

This mountainous area has its own microclimate and is always a couple of degrees cooler than Trinidad. It’s also far more likely to rain here than down by the coast, and as the heavens open almost every afternoon for much of the year, it’s a good idea to get up here early if you’re visiting on a day-trip.

During the 1980s the hotels of Topes de Collantes were filled with hundreds of artworks by Cuban artists of national renown. Scores of these are now installed in the rooms of the engaging Museo de Arte Cubano Contemporaneo, opened in 2008 on the main road through Topes de Collantes, 350m before the information centre on the approach from Trinidad. In all there are some sixty paintings by artists such as Rubén Torres Llorca, Zaida del Río and Tomás Sánchez, as well as some sculptures and prints. The pretty museum building, with its colourful stained-glass windows, dates from 1944, and was owned by a Cuban senator before the Revolution and its subsequent appropriation by the State.

Hiking at Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes

If you want to go hiking around Topes de Collantes, the best way to do so is to book an organized excursion in Trinidad. If you arrive independently you won’t be permitted access to all areas of this protected park, but at the park’s information centre you can get advice on the trails you can visit without a guide.

Typically, trails here are well marked and shady, cutting through dense woodlands, smothered in every kind of vegetation – from needle-straight conifers to bushy fern and grassy matted floors – opening out here and there for breathtaking views of the landscape.

Parque Altiplano

As well as being the location of all the local hotels, Parque Altiplano also contains the area’s most popular target for hikers, the fantastically situated 62m-high Caburní waterfall, surrounded by pines and eucalyptus trees at the end of a 2.5-km trek down steep inclines and through dense forest. Independent access is at the northernmost point of Topes de Collantes. There are several other relatively easy trails within this park, including the Vegas Grandes, which also finishes at a waterfall.

Parque Guanayara

Fifteen kilometres north of the hotels, Parque Guanayara is host to one of the area’s most scenic hiking routes. The gentler hike here follows the Guanayara River for a couple of kilometres up to the Salto El Rocío, a beautiful waterfall, and the Poza del Venado, a natural pool; along the way it incorporates some memorable views of Pico San Juan.

Parque Codina

The focal point of Parque Codina is Hacienda Codina, an old Spanish coffee-growing ranch where you can eat and drink. From the ranch there are easily manageable walks, some no more than 1km, into the forest. Several trails lead to La Batata, a subterranean river at the foot of a lush green valley where you can bathe in the cool waters of the cave. You access this area independently from the southwestern corner of Topes de Collantes.

Parque El Cubano

Just 5km from Trinidad, Parque El Cubano is the most popular location for horseriding. The route here, which can also be followed on foot, takes in a campesino house and the remains of a colonial sugar ranch, as well as rivers, brooks and waterfalls.

Sancti Spíritus

The provincial capital, also called Sancti Spíritus, sits in the dead centre of the island, 30km inland and around 70km east of Trinidad by road. There’s less to do and see here than in neighbouring provincial capitals, but it nonetheless makes a good stopover if you’re making the journey between Havana and Santiago – few visitors stay for more than a night or two, but as one of Cuba’s original seven villas founded by Diego Velázquez in the early 1500s, it has plenty of historic character and holds some appeal as one of the country’s least touristy original cities.

Top image: Church of the Holy Trinity overlooking Plaza Mayor, Trinidad, Cuba © Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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