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Cuba Part 11: Trinidad, Cuba's Pastel Gem

This is Part 11 of a multi-part series on Cuba. It focuses on the pastel streets of Trinidad. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is frozen in time and a joy to explore on foot--just watch out for the uneven cobblestones! Like the rest of our Cuba trip, we will spend our time exploring the architecture, people, and local culture.

Our afternoon destination is Trinidad. Trinidad is known for having Cuba's best preserved colonial architecture. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, renown for its pastel facades and decorative wrought iron grillwork. Trinidad, like much of Cuba, has that frozen in time feel with classic cars and horses traversing the cobbled streets, but the city's facades do feel significantly more well preserved than elsewhere in the country.

When we arrive in Trinidad, our first stop with our guide, Tony, is to see a local artisan's shop. The shop, El Alfafrero, is famous for its clay pottery. El Alfafrero comes complete with a bar--shopping and drinking, what a perfect combination. The shop and bar are owned by the Santander family and have been run by the family for generations. Per Tony, the artisan (a member of the Santander family) is simply known as "Santander" to everyone. It seems appropriate that El Alfafrero is located in the colorful city of Trinidad; the shop is filled with the colors of the rainbow--much like the streets--with painted pottery lining the walls.

The shop sells a variety of wonderful items: pots, cups, candle holders, vases, and decorative plates--just to name a few. When we arrive, Santander is working clay on the shop's pottery wheel and stops what's he's doing to welcome us. Tony takes us around the workshop and shows us the large brick kilns in the courtyard. As we head back into the main shop, the gentle tinkle of wind chimes draws me to a selection of delicate clay chimes; I have to have one for my sun porch at home. The sonajeros (hanging bells) come in all different designs and sizes and consist of a larger bell at top holding strings of different lengths capped with miniature clay bells at the bottom. I select a mid-sized one to purchase, and Santander has it carefully wrapped for me.

The El Alfafrero bar is known for serving a wonderful canchánchara. Canchánchara is a local drink made with honey, lemon, sparkling water, and Cuban rum. The Canchánchara served here is strong and is extra special because it comes served in a souvenir clay cup made by the artisan himself.

After our departure from El Alfafrero, Tony drives us over the city's rough cobblestone roads to see the Santa Ana Church. The church was built in the 1700s, and the years have not been kind to it. Minus the facade, the building is essentially in ruins. Unfortunately, as we've already seen elsewhere, buildings being in ruins in Cuba are not an uncommon thing. However, these ruins are quite a bit older than most of the ones we've viewed across the country. As we continue to roughly bump down the city's cobbled streets to our next destination, I think to myself that this may actually be worse than the rutted roads of the mountains.

Our next destination is our AirBNB to check-in. Tony drops us to our host, Libia. Libia welcomes us and shows us around the home we will be staying in for the next two nights. Our lodgings were originally her family home, but they have moved elsewhere. The home comes complete with a bedroom (with air conditioning), a sparsely furnished sitting area/ kitchen space (without air conditioning), a small outdoor courtyard (complete with an outdoor shower), and a bathroom (with an indoor rain shower).

After, taking advantage of the latter shower, we head out on our own to explore the cobbled streets of Old Trinidad at sunset. The city's pastel facades seem even more vibrant in the soft glow of the setting sun. Wandering the old town's streets in the evening, it feels as it there is music playing from nearly every direction; tourists and locals alike are out strolling, enjoying the slightly cooler weather and the lively atmosphere.

We wander through Plaza Mayor, the city's central square and take in the Spanish colonial architecture that surrounds it. The Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima (Church of the Holy Trinity) dominates the square. The neoclassical house of worship was constructed in the late 1800s on the site of an earlier church. The bell tower that caps the end of the square used to mark yet another church, but it now houses a revolution museum. That tower is also famous for being featured on the Cuban 25 cent coin.

As we continue along, enjoying the atmospheric evening, we begin to head in the general direction of dinner. Tonight, we have plans to eat at Restaurant San José. This is not your typical local Cuban eatery; it feels more upscale, complete with waiters in bow ties and an air conditioned, glass-enclosed section in the back featuring exposed brickwork that reminds me a bit of a wine cellar. We are seated inside the air conditioned area which is a welcome relief from the Cuban heat. From where we are stationed, we can see into the kitchen, and it looks immaculate, which is reassuring. We start with 2 piña coladas to cool off after our walk, but then my husband sees someone with a Heineken, and he wants one of those, as well. Who can blame him? The only beers we've seen thus far on our trip are Cuban ones--and besides, it has been a rather hot day.

The menu features Italian dishes--something we have not seen thus far on our trip. Once we see pizza, which is even more rare since it is so hard to find cheese in Cuba, we settle on each ordering a different one for dinner to share--one margherita and one chorizo. To start, we decide to try something more local, and go with the tostones rellenos con ropa vieja (unripened green plantains stuffed with shredded beef, fried, smashed, and refried for a crispy texture outside). I always find it important to try something specific to the destination we are visiting--and the tostones are delicious--but it's also nice to get a bit of a break from Cuban cuisine. The pizzas are the perfect respite; they are thin crust, delicious, and topped with fresh basil--just how we like them. For dessert, we go with the coconut flan. It is one of the best desserts we've ever had. My husband, who loves flan, declares it the best dessert of the trip. When the bill comes, we're reminded of how wonderful Cuba is on a budget; for all of this (plus two bottles of water), our bill is under $30.

When we are ready to depart, we try to make a reservation for the following night, but we are informed that the restaurant does not take reservations. I can see why as we head out the door past a line forming down the street. Nonetheless, we decide we will try to come back for dinner tomorrow night--early, to avoid a long wait.

After dinner, we are not quite ready to retire to our AirBNB, so we head off on an evening stroll. We wander the city's floodlit, cobbled streets and browse the open shops. There are more open storefronts that I would have expected this late. Perhaps they do better with sales after the midday heat has dissipated.

We decide to head back to Plaza Mayor for a nightcap on the square. The atmosphere has the feel of a Spanish evening paseo with everyone doing slow laps or enjoying a drink seated on the curb. There are two competing bars on the square with windows selling drinks. We get a kick out of the vigorous competition between the two vendors. One's sign says "Best Mojito in Cuba" and the other's says "Best Mojito in the World." The bartenders have a gregarious banter going back and forth, trying to steal one another's business. For a while, we just stop and watch. Eventually, we each choose a competing vendor a buy a beer from--it seems only fair for the entertainment value they've each provided us. "It's amazing how many experiences we've had on this trip," my husband remarks with a sip and a smile.

After a night of rest in our AirBNB, Libia arrives in the morning with her husband to make us breakfast. For 5 CUC (appx. 5 USD, which seems to be standard in Cuba for tourists), she makes us eggs, a fruit plate with four different types of fruit, fritters (similar to a potato pancake), cheese, guava juice, café con leche, tea, muffins, some veggies, and rolls with honey and butter. It's quite the spread.

After breakfast, Tony meets us at our AirBNB for a morning of exploring Trinidad. The pastel colors and wrought iron grills that have made Trinidad famous are on full display in the historic center. Some of the iron designs are quite intricate and detailed. Tony points out a few that are especially complex.

As we walk the city's cobbles to our first destination, Tony tells us that the street's stones were brought to Cuba from Spain. They were used to balance the empty ballasts of merchant ships on their journey to Cuba. Upon arrival, the stones were left in Trinidad, replaced with sugar cane for the return journey to Spain. It somehow seems apropos that it's a balancing act walking on them today.

Tony has arranged for a horse and buggy driver, Elvis, to take my husband and I around the city for an hour this morning to visit work-a-day Trinidad. We take in the locals going about their daily business, bicyclists, horse carts, and even someone killing their dinner in the street (I'm sure you'd rather I not go into detail on that). This is the real Cuba--no polished tourist zone--but it's a side you have to experience to really understand the people and their everyday normal. It's a look behind the curtain of the colonial, pastel beauty of this dichotomous city into the gritty struggles of daily life.

Tony meets us at the end of our ride back in the square where it began, and we continue our walk of Old Trinidad. Our next stop is the Mueso Municipal en el Palacio Cantero (the Municipal Museum in the Cantero Palace) for a view over the city. This is a must-do. Tony, who we have discovered through the course of our trip has two fears in life--horses and heights, declines to accompany us up the rickety, steep, narrow wooden staircase through the Palace's tower. The view is worth the precarious journey to get there, though. You can see for miles around, taking in a 360 degree view of the city below and its many orange-tiled roofs.

After we descend back the way we came and meet back up with Tony, we head off to do some shopping in the colorful Trinidad storefronts and street markets. We bargain hard--a requirement in Cuba. I get some great handcrafts, including delicate, flower-shaped earrings made of shells and a lace-embroidered tablecloth.

During the course of our shopping, we come across a girl commemorating her quinceañera (fifteenth birthday). The quinceañera, often celebrated in Latin culture, is traditionally a celebration of a girl reaching womanhood. Quinceañeras can range from a simple family event to an affair as extravagant as a wedding. This one appears to be the latter, with a photographer, videographer, professional hair/makeup, and a very fancy dress. The display of wealth doesn't quite fit in with most of the poverty we have seen across Cuba, but it is a reminder that even in Cuba, there is some class distinction.

Once we've had our fill of shopping, Tony takes us to hear some local music. One of the places we stop at is Casa de la Trova. Casa de la Trova is well known for its live music, and when we arrive, the venue has a large band playing. The building has an open-air courtyard, and we sit with the other patrons to enjoy the music. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed, but Tony says it can get fairly lively with dancers later in the day and into the evening.

Having now covered local culture, handicrafts, and entertainment, we round out our morning with a lesson on economics; we are headed to see one of Cuba's most profitable industries firsthand--a cigar factory. Tony is taking us to a small-scale production location because pictures are permitted here; whereas at the larger factories, they are not. When we arrive, however, they won't let us inside--apparently they lack the proper security for visits today. We are permitted to look in from a side door to watch the process, though. Tony talks us through what we are seeing, and as promised, we do get a chance to take some pictures.

Our busy morning complete, we're ready for a some air conditioning and lunch. By midday in Cuba, the heat can get fairly oppressive; a cooling afternoon break is a must. Tony takes us to lunch at a restaurant owned by the Santander family--the same family who owned the pottery shop we visited yesterday. Restaurant Cubita is a really cool place (figuratively and literally) with exposed brick, a little exhibit of local tools hanging on the walls, and Santander pottery on the shelves. I immediately love the atmosphere. Our server brings us each a little appetizer to start (cucumber stuffed with tuna) followed by rolls and a small veggie plate with beets, cucumber, green beans, and tomato.

For our entrees, we order the red snapper and seafood paella to split. The fish is prepared on the grill and must have been marinaded in something with a sweet coconut flavor. It is served alongside a coconut rice (which goes perfectly with the fish) and a light salad. The paella consists of lobster tail, crab, shrimp, squid, local fish and rice simmered in a delicate saffron broth. Both entrees are delicious. Beer is included with our meal, but we have developed a taste for cuban piña coladas by this point (it must be the island's famous rum) and order one to share, as well--immediately followed by a second. I've noticed that many places in Cuba (like here) serve them sprinkled with cinnamon; it's a surprise I quite like. For dessert, we are served candied grapefruit topped with candied coconut, sprinkled with cheese and drizzled with a sweet sauce. It's not a list of ingredients I would ever think to combine in my own kitchen, but it is equally delicious.

After lunch, Tony takes us back to our AirBNB to change into our swimsuits and then drives us out to Playa Ancón. Playa Ancón (Ancón Beach) is about a 7 mile drive from Trinidad. It's famous for its white sand, crystal clear water, and calm surf. While there are a plethora of beaches options in Cuba, Playa Ancón is our one and only beach stop. Not one to relax--and also wanting to keep to a full program per my visa--we are only staying for about an hour to check out the beach, take a quick dip, and organize my notes on the day thus far (while sitting under the shade of a palm tree near the surf, of course).

The powder-fine sand, bathtub warm water, glass-smooth sea, and shady palm trees are the definition of perfect tropical destination. The soft sand squishes between our toes as we walk in the shallow surf, kicking up water droplets and momentarily disturbing the peacefully waves lapping our ankles. The beach is fairly empty, but it's also the low (rainy) season for tourism. Luckily for us, there's barely a cloud in the sky. The one thing we find so striking on this gorgeous beach is that there isn't a major hotel chain in sight. We can see a few small hotels well down the shoreline, but there are no sprawling Caribbean resorts anywhere. As we drive back from the beach through a little seaside town, we see a B&B or two, but there is still no sign of large-scale tourism. It's one of the things I love about Cuba; it's still authentic, unspoiled by commercialism.

During our drive back, Tony, ever the naturalist, points out a large group of flamingoes standing a narrow inlet. I've never seen them in the wild before. It's a bit thrilling as I've only ever thought of these pink beanstalks as occupying zoos. Tony says this area is a well known breeding ground for them. Yet another interesting fact to add to my ever-growing list on Cuba.

Tony drops us back at our AirBNB, and we decide that we need to take a second shower--it seems that most days we need to take a second shower in this island heat. After, while my husband takes a little afternoon siesta, I sort through our luggage and get us ready to depart Trinidad tomorrow (and Cuba the following day). I really can't believe our trip is already coming to an end, but I have SO much writing material--and pictures--to sift through that I don't even know where to start!

Tony says we can't leave Cuba without taking a salsa lesson, and while saying I have two left feet would be an insult to left feet everywhere, I decide to be a good sport about it in the name of research. Tony has arranged for a pair of salsa dancers to come to our AirBNB this evening and give us a private lesson in the main room. I breathe a sigh of relief that at least my humiliation will be in private--wrong. There is no air conditioning in the main living space of our AirBNB, so the dancers open up the big double doors onto the street to let in some fresh air. With the blaring salsa music and the entertaining sight of two Americans attempting to learn to dance, passersby gather to watch. Wonderful, I get an audience after all.

The instructors show us the most basic moves to start and then each take one of us as a partner to practice. We try to get the hang of it, and it is more fun than I would have thought, but we certainly won't be winning any dance competitions anytime soon. At the end, the dancers put on a demonstration to show us how the dance should actually look. The ease with which they move together and their natural rhythm is awe inspiring--I could never dance like that no matter how many years I practiced. It was worth the humiliation of the lesson just to get the chance to watch them effortlessly spin one another around the floor.

After working up quite an appetite dancing, we head back for another dinner at Restaurant San José. Typically, when I travel I like to try new places, but we are both equally content to try a few new dishes and have another delicious meal at the same restaurant as last night. The air conditioned area we sat in the previous night is already full, but we are able to snag a seat in the open-air section in the front, and the day's heat has finally dissipated a bit.

I spot a table getting an awesome looking lobster dish which turns out to be lobster Thermidor, and I know what I am ordering for dinner. We decide to order croquettes as a starter, and to wash it down, I order a mojito and my husband a beer. The croquettes have a crisp exterior, pillow soft interior, and come with a delicious, tangy dipping sauce on the side. For entrees, we split a margherita pizza and the lobster Thermidor--which here consists of a a huge lobster tail smothered in a cream sauce, onions, mushrooms and cheese--served alongside fried plantains, rice and beans. Both are awesome. For dessert, we share the coconut flan again, and it's just as amazing as last night.

Following dinner, we wander down to La Casa de la Cerveza (The House of Beer) for a beer. The bar is situated in a huge, open-air courtyard inside the ruins of an old theater (Teatro Brunet). With the brick ruins towering around us and plants growing up the walls beside us, we decide that it is quite possibly the most atmospheric bar in Trinidad.

As we head back to our AirBNB for a much needed night of rest, I cannot believe how much we've managed to fit into our day and a half here in Trinidad. There is just so much to see and do in Cuba that it's difficult not to keep going all day--and night--just to see what you may discover next. I can't believe our trip is winding down, but it's not over yet. Tomorrow, it's back to Havana for one last day in this enigmatic country, and I intend to make the most of it!

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins


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