Trinidad, Cuba Appears Frozen in Time. But Innovation Stirs Within

In this tiny port city to Havana’s east, the once-thriving sugarcane industry left behind marble-floored mansions and palm-studded historic plazas. Now, ambitious craftspeople and a new generation of hospitality makers are helping shape the future of Cuban travel from within them.

In Trinidad, Cuba, brightly lemon-curd and pistachio painted buildings spill down the wobbly cobblestone streets out toward the Caribbean ocean. Behind their heavy wooden doors and centuries-old facades, a new generation of local families set their spare bedrooms with crisp linens to welcome guests from all over the world. Amidst the growing number of homestays, artist studios rattle and buzz with the sounds of simple tools, the artists using traditional techniques to make uniquely contemporary treasures. It’s a place as equally frozen in time as it is one that is helping build and define Cuba as a place for a new age of visitors.

Founded by the Spanish in the 1500s, this petite port town in central Cuba is one of the most well-preserved colonial cities in all of the Caribbean. Where Havana has vintage cars, central Trinidad mainly has slow-striding men on horseback and pedestrian-only streets. And where much of Cuba has only faded, crumbling shells where former palaces may have once stood, in Trinidad these lofty buildings are still perfectly preserved, or in some cases newly restored, and being used for new businesses. Government reforms in the past ten years have allowed the number of private entrepreneurs to rise sharply since. Before 2010, Trinidad offered visitors just three private paladares or home restaurants. Today, there are more than 100.

Photographs by Eve North

The intimate city—with around one percent of the population of Havana—is only five kilometers away from Cuba’s once-thriving Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), the former epicenter of the country’s sugar cane industry. Trinidad’s small entrepôt, Casilda, was for decades buzzing with tradesmen, fortune seekers, and thousands of West African slaves at the time brought in to work plantations in the neighboring lush mountain valleys. In their heyday, the vainglorious plantation owners who ran the industry funneled their profits into tremendous buildings with whimsical architecture in the nearby city, and filled them with European furnishings and fashions and endless soirées.

That kind of money has long since left the area (the sugar industry collapsed in the 1860s), but residents of Trinidad have taken care to preserve what time—and their contentious history—once built. The result is a city that looks like it has largely been trapped in time, with parts are still almost exactly aesthetically the same as they were during the 19th century. The streets are lined with clock towers facing into the valley, mansions with Mudéjar ceilings, and colorful dwellings with red terra cotta roofs, and most are still stuffed with relics and treasures from the sugar-producing era. But the residents today focus—instead of on the tumultuous past—on creating burgeoning contemporary businesses, from nightlife venues, to ceramic shops, to warm and eclectic bed and breakfasts.

Photographs by Eve North

As it sits between the turquoise Caribbean and the cool air of the Escambray Mountains, a few days excursion to Trinidad from Havana also allows for visits to the beach and mountains—for sun and sea one day, and the birdlife, coffee, orchids and waterfalls another. Stay in one of the town’s mansion-turned-homestays with jasmine-perfumed courtyards, dividing archways, and tiled floors, and spend time peeking into wilds of the past and the Cuba of the future in this vibrant cultural enclave.

See Traditional Arts in New Context

Trinidad is the only place in Cuba declared a World Craft City, and was just recently given the title in 2018. Portions of the city’s cobblestone streets are whitewashed sidewalk to sidewalk with crocheted clothing, handmade tablecloths, and delicate embroidered linens draped in rows by local—mostly female—makers. Some of the finest are made by women who also work in the city’s cultural museums, such as the Palacio Cantero, who will politely show you their pieces as you wander around. Other findings are tucked away, like the reverse wood sculptures of resident Lázaro Niebla, whose intricate wall carvings immortalize the elderly citizens of Trinidad. He collects discarded colonial window panels and meticulously whittles portraits into their fibers, accenting his designs subtly with paint. Knock and push open the door at Calle Real 11 to see and shop his wares.

Photographs by Eve North

Learn History Inside Sugar Baron Palaces

Steps outside the city, the 56 defunct sugar mills of Trinidad’s Agabama Valley—at one time worked by more than 11,000 slaves—produced over 8 million kilos of white gold per year during the height of the country’s production. You can still view the original lands by way of restored properties like the Manaca Iznaga estate’s hacienda, which houses a 7-story-high watchtower erected in 1750 that was formerly used to observe and manage the workers. It was declared a Cuban national monument in 1978, is UNESCO-protected, and is now once again climbable today. For a closer view of what life was like for the plantation owners, look within the city walls. José Mariano Borrell y Padrón invested in an opulent palace in Trinidad’s center with a look-out tower of its own. He paved the floors with Carrara marble, filled rooms with mahogany furniture, and decorated high walls with ostentatious frescoes by Italian painter Daniel Dall’Aglio. Later bought by Justo Germán Cantero and named Palacio Cantero or Cantero Palace, the building is now one of the city’s best cultural museums where you can learn about the struggles for independence and the rise and fall of the sugarcane industry.

Photographs by Eve North

Celebrate Regional Music

Locals know Trinidad as one of the unofficial music capitals of Cuba. By day, you’ll pass by passionate musicians right out on the streets. When the sun goes down, you can roam in and out of venues like the alfresco Escalinata in Plaza Mayor, next to one of the largest churches in Cuba, for widespread salsa dancing; Palenque de los Congos Reales for rumba; or Casa de la Trova for live son Cubano, a blend of Spanish and African styles (bongo, maracas) that originated in the country in the 19th century.

Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer, photographer and editor, and a Cuba travel expert.

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