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21-25 February 2017. We’re flying down the bumpy rutted street, the bicycle taxi bouncing all over the place as it rockets down the steep hill. Down to metal on metal the brakes are shrieking a loud high-pitched ear-splitting squeal that drowns out all other neighbourhood sounds. Everyone on the street stares as we go by. Ricardo, the driver, is all but standing up, throwing his full weight onto the brakes, and I have a kind of stricture in my throat hoping against hope that the taxi will in fact stop before we go hurtling through the upcoming intersection at the bottom of the hill.

We do this ride from the town centre back to our casa particular (guest house) out in the ‘suburbs’ of Trinidad at least once or twice a day on each of our five days here. It doesn’t matter how many times we do it I still can’t believe we will actually stop in time at the bottom of that hill. And of course on the outward journey, Ricardo, fifty years old, must pedal up that hill, putting all his weight into each turn of the wheel.

We arrived in Trinidad after a long, all-day bus journey from Viñales. We left early, loaded with a packed lunch from our Viñales hosts, and spent the day reading, dozing, and gazing out the window. We passed by ramshackle farmhouses, fields of rice and other crops, and fairly dreary scenery. For a time we ran alongside the coast and I spied one lone sunbather on an otherwise empty beach. This part of Cuba, along the south central coast is not much populated, and not developed for tourists except around the towns of Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

Trinidad is one of Cuba’s foremost tourist destinations, mainly because the centre, a few square blocks of cobblestone streets, is a well-maintained Unesco World Heritage site showcasing a Spanish Colonial town of finest quality.

Trinidad was built on the backs of the slave trade and the sugar trade. People amassed huge fortunes and built expansive, and expensive, plazas, mansions, and churches. Plaza Mayor,

an open-air museum, is surrounded by impeccable examples of the architecture of the time: the Santísima Trinidad Cathedral

the San Francisco Convent, the Palacio Brunet now home to the Museo Romantico, the Iznaga mansion, and the Palacio Ortiz gallery. Close by is Trinidad’s main museum, the Cantero Mansion, now the Museo Histórico Municipal.

During our days in Trinidad we wander in and out of these various mansions and museums, half-heartedly admiring the frescoed walls, marble statues, Sèvres vases, furniture embedded with delicate mother-of-pearl, Baccarat crystal, Wedgewood china, French chandeliers, and exquisitely embroidered lace. Although now a little faded and dusty, it is still a testament to the staggering wealth of the time. In the early 1800’s, when sugar farming was at its peak, there were about sixty sugar mills in the area, and 30,000 slaves. In 1827 one of the sugar mills harvested just under one million kilos of the sweet white crystals, the biggest cane haul in the world. For a few it was a time of incredible affluence and the city centre remains as a testament to the vanity and arrogance of this unscrupulous era. Profit over people was never better exemplified.

We climb the watchtower of the Cantero Mansion

for views of the city dominated by the bell tower of the San Francisco Convent,

and on our first evening we wind up at the Plaza Mayor for sunset,

and some time hanging out with locals and tourists alike at the town’s best Wi Fi hotspot – the steps leading up to the Casa de la Musica.

The centre is all very pristine, but as you head out everything becomes gradually more dilapidated

until you are in the rough and gritty suburbs of Trinidad,

which are more authentically Cuban and for me more interesting.

We walk all over town, or ride in the back of Ricardo’s taxi, and catch glimpses of ordinary life:

people hanging out in the streets,

or roaming the suburbs with long strings of garlic and onions for sale draped around their necks, or buying eggs,

or working in the local fruit and vegetable stand.

We see kids in primary school,

kids in high school,

musicians and statues hoping to make some extra cash from the tourists,

and a funeral down by the railway station.

For lunch one day we score a table on the balcony of a nice restaurant overlooking the Plaza Mayor.

The rain comes during lunch, bucketing down as tropical rains do.

It’s a deluge that floods the streets.

We sit there for a long time watching the passing parade. The umbrellas are spectacular! My favourite is the one with a picture of a naked fairy.

And then as quickly as it began, the rain stops and things return to normal.

Public transport is by Cuba’s version of a bus: a converted Russian truck

or a converted Chinese truck.

Personal transport ranges from walking to bicycles to horse and cart to tractors to sixty-year-old classic cars.

This is the real Trinidad. It’s dilapidated, and rough, and grubby. Our first introduction to the town was to travel by bicycle taxi from the bus station to our casa particular in the ordinary suburbs of the town. This is our street:

Perhaps if we’d been staying in the fancy Iberostar hotel in the centre, where we frequently went for Wi Fi, we would have had a different experience of Trinidad, but what we got was the unvarnished version.

Frank and Yadira’s casa was clean and comfortable, and the food good enough by Cuban standards. I do remember a very good squash soup, and of course a lot of rice and beans. By Cuban standards Frank and Yadira and family are relatively wealthy since they can rent to tourists. Every dollar we pay them in tourist currency (CUCs) is worth 25 times the local currency. On the other hand fifty-year-old Ricardo, with his fifty-year-old bicycle taxi, who lives across the street, does not make enough money to replace the brakes on his bicycle taxi even though he gets business from Frank and Yadira’s guests.

We began by booking the taxi through Frank or Yadira. Each time one of them would walk out into the street and shout out Ricardo’s name. That was it. That’s how they let him know there was business for him. After a while we started doing it ourselves. We became part of life on the streets, though I’m not always sure Ricardo appreciated the familiarity. Sometimes we chatted on our rides in our limited Spanish, but sometimes the disparity between his circumstances and our own made things a little awkward. Ricardo took us into the centre, to the bank machine, to the Iberostar for the Internet, and to the tourist agency, and then waited to take us home again. We always paid more than he asked.

The main industry in Trinidad today is tobacco processing, and the main source of income is tourism. We were happy to contribute, though I suspect most tourist dollars go to the hotels, restaurants, and casas particulares in the centre. Income trickles out from there.

Trinidad is typically Cuban, with its Spanish Colonial heritage contrasted with the hardscrabble poverty that is Cuba today. We enjoyed the town, and also took advantage of the many excursions available. Coming up in future posts: a train trip to an abandoned sugar mill, a sailing trip to a beautiful white sand beach with a large population of iguanas, and a little hiking in a nearby national park.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.