22-25 February 2017. About twelve kilometres east of the town of Trinidad there are three long interconnected valleys. They are known collectively as Valle de los Ingenios, or Valley of the Sugar Mills. From the late 1700’s the area was one vast sea of sugar cane, and for over one hundred years it was a major centre of sugar production: at its peak there were more than sixty sugar mills. And 30,000 slaves.
Rapid transport was needed to get the sugar to the coast for export, and from the 1800’s railway lines were constructed through the valley connecting the mills with Trinidad and the nearby port of Casilda.
It was the train that attracted us. We took the train out into the valley to one of the many abandoned sugar mills. We were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a steam train as had been advertised but the carriages really could have come from the 19th century.
The journey was pleasantly slow. Happy to be out of the city we hung out the glass-free windows on a warm tropical day enjoying the scenery.
There’s not much sugar production these days though we did pass some fields of sugar cane from time to time. There were many ragged farmhouses of not much more than two or three rooms, small plots for vegetables,
goats, men on horseback, chickens, cattle, the occasional tractor, and one man walking behind a pair of oxen plowing a small holding. From time to time we passed the local “buses” as they trotted along the road parallel to the train.
There was a quite large banana plantation, more than one bumper crop of tomatoes,
and this man who seemed to be stewing tomatoes in an enormous vat. If you look closely you can see that those pink crates are also full of tomatoes.
We saw a couple of men with their machetes taking a break,
and people hanging out on their porches, or working the land, or coming out to watch the train. I wonder what they thought of us tourists as we went by getting a sneak peek into their lives.
Perhaps it was the wrong time of the year for crops, but we passed vast tracts of empty flat land, acres and acres that went on forever towards the distant mountains. They had obviously once been plowed and farmed but were now fallow and looked mostly unused. There was a poverty here. It felt like the pain of the past still lingered in the air, in the very soil, unlike in Viñales where the income from tourism blesses the entire valley.
Eventually we came to the abandoned sugar mill, all grimy pipes and silos, rusting metal, crumbling buildings, and smoke stacks reaching for the sky. Like any abandoned place it felt sad and forlorn. We wandered around, not understanding anything about how it all worked, only knowing that at one time it had been a vibrant enterprise. This particular mill never knew slavery.
At the mill we were entertained by a group of musicians and offered a chance to drink fresh squeezed cane juice. It’s something that’s readily available in India and we always refused it when we were there because of the threat of food poisoning. One of these days I’ll get up the courage to try it. The contraptions used to squeeze the cane always looked so unsterile, and the one at the sugar mill was no exception. I did note however that many of the people on the train tried the juice and didn’t immediately drop dead from it.
The valley is littered with ruins – sugar mills, the manor houses of the plantation owners, slaves quarters, warehouses, and milling machinery, all disintegrating back into the ground, though we did pass one manor house that has survived.
The owner’s house, some of the slaves’ quarters, and a tower still stand at the plantation of Manaca Iznaga. We stopped there on the way back. The slaves’ quarters, though in need of repair, are now used for housing. The mansion, which has been converted into a restaurant, and the tower, are in good condition.
An iconic landmark that can be seen for miles, the tower is seven stories high. At one point it was the tallest structure in Cuba. The owner of the plantation, Alejo Maria Iznaga y Borrell had it built in 1816. The bell at the top (which now lies on the ground nearby) was used to announce to the slaves the beginning and end of the workday, as a call to prayer, and as an alarm in the case of fire or a slave trying to escape. The tower was also unquestionably a symbol of Iznaga’s power and status in the valley.
We climbed to the top. You can see for miles. Anyone trying to run would likely be spotted. The view was pretty nice though.
Trinidad’s wealth came from this valley. For a brief period, a mere blip in time, in the 19th century the wealth from sugar, on the backs of slaves, allowed a few lucky people to experience vast riches. And then came the Wars of Independence and the area was largely abandoned. Sugar production was revived in the early 1900’s and continued until the middle of the century. At this time the price of sugar plummeted due to the farming of sugar beets in Europe after WWII, and the mills and plantations of Valle de los Ingenios were once again abandoned. Almost all that was built up crumbled back into the earth. What remains are a few structures to remind us of this earlier time, and some very old, very very crooked railway tracks that explained the train’s slow pace.
Our guide’s name was Lenia, after Lenin, her father’s hero. We spent a day with Lenia, and another couple, exploring Guanayara National Park. Our first stop, about eighteen kilometres from Trinidad, was Tope de Collantes, for a view that went on forever, almost 360 degrees of blue wonder punctuated by a soft breeze and soaring vultures. In the distance was Trinidad. In the far distance was the sea.
Next stop, forty-five kilometres later, was the entrance to Parque Guanayara, an area of jungle-covered limestone mountains. We hiked for about three hours along the Centinelas del Río Melodioso trail. In most places we were embraced by lush foliage and dwarfed by the trees, the sentinels of the Melodious River,
as Lenia shared with us her knowledge of the many plants and their uses.
And then suddenly she spotted it. It is one of the great advantages of exploring with a guide – they know what to listen for, what to look for. We would probably not have seen it on our own, and if we had would not have known what it was. What Lenia saw was a tocororo, the red, blue, and white revered national bird of Cuba. The tocororo is the most unique and exotic of the trogons, and ancient people considered it a harbinger of good news.
We continued on and eventually came to the seasonal cottage of a coffee farmer.
The yard was messy, all scattered broken equipment, scratching chickens, muddy ducks,
old broken furniture, a pig half way into its food trough,
foraging piglets, and a feeling of resigned neglect. The interior of the cottage quickly dispelled that feeling. The cottage was delightful; simple and practical, but neat, clean, and homey. It was clearly well loved. There were three rooms – a kitchen and two bedrooms. The kitchen had a wood stove and a metal workbench. Pots, pans, and plates hung on the wall above a table set with colourful bowls of tomatoes and chilies. I’ve cooked in similar kitchens myself in wilderness hunting camps in the far north of Canada. There’s a warmth and hominess about such places that engenders a cozy contentment, though I daresay cooking on a wood stove in northern Canada is more comfortable than cooking on one in the tropics.
In the first bedroom clothes were piled neatly in the corner and bananas hung from the ceiling to ripen,
and on the opposite wall farm tools filled the wall.
In the second bedroom Shrek and Piglet made snug bed companions.
Walking on we came to a hillside of coffee plants interspersed with trees to provide shade. Shade-grown coffee requires less chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and the trees help with moisture retention.
From the coffee plantations it was a steep downhill hike to the El Rocio Waterfall and plunge pool where we declined to swim given the icy temperature of the water.
We crossed a rickety bridge, walked through a bamboo forest, and eventually came to the end of the trail where we emerged into the gardens of Casa la Gallega, a traditional rural hacienda where we were served a late lunch.
The drive back to Trinidad took us through more gorgeous scenery. The Jeep Safari Guanayara tour turned out to be one of our best days in Cuba.
Next post: One last look at Havana
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.