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.
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.