Tag Archives: Trinidad

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 4: Trinidad, Part 2)

Rum, Women and Song (2)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Architecture Tells the Story

IMG_4355After lunch, we met our Trinidad tour guide who took us on a fascinating walking tour through the city for about two hours. He showed us how closely the history and the architecture of this city are connected.

Trinidad was the third Spanish settlement in Cuba; it was founded in 1514, twelve years after Christopher Columbus had first set eyes on the island. The Spanish had been trying to find gold on their Atlantic voyages but in Cuba, they had to settle for tobacco, corn and sugar. They had also been charged by the then pope to “conquer, colonize and convert the pagans of the new world to Catholicism,” but instead they drove most of the IMG_2609indigenous people back into the mountains. According to our guide, the Spaniards were able to manage the tobacco and corn crops without help, but when they got serious about farming sugar cane in the 16th century, they needed stronger arms. More than a million slaves would be brought to Cuba from Africa over the course of the next century.

The crosses were recreated in the 1920s to show the location of the first centre of the town

The crosses were recreated in the 1920s to show the location of the first centre of the town

Cuba’s cultures have now blended, our guide told us: blacks, Europeans and indigenous people in the region have intermarried, and the colours of their skin and eyes reflect their blends of heritage. (He made this all sound very harmonious and charming, but I have read elsewhere that racism is as alive and well in Cuba as it is anywhere else, and for many, whether they are the perpetrators or recipients of racist behaviours depends a lot on skin colour.) Cuba was one of the last Caribbean islands to proclaim independence from its European rulers, which it did in 1899. It was also one of the last countries in the Americas to abolish slavery (1866).

As we walked through the streets of Trinidad, our guide explained that the original homes in Trinidad had been built from clay and wood. When metal began to be imported from the USA in the 1800s, the roofs no longer had to be angled to let the rain pour off, and the ceilings became higher. There was no electricity in those days, so the higher ceilings meant cooler rooms. It was better from an “air conditioning” standpoint to have a high ceiling than a second story.

The tall windows and doors – also necessary to alleviate the heat – were not secure, so many homes had domestic slaves who would guard them at night. However, they were no match for marauders from the mountains (the displaced Arawaks, among others), and many slaves lost their lives trying to protect their owners’ property. Many owners died as well. Therefore, everyone was relieved when wrought iron became available, because the iron grilling made their homes much more secure.

IMG_2616In the 1800s, marble began to be used as ballast on ships that were returning from Italy after dropping off their cargoes of tobacco, corn and sugar, and the wealthy Spaniards in Trinidad and elsewhere began to make their homes more elaborate and opulent. A favoured form of roofing tiles were the curved clay variety, and originally these were all slightly different sizes because they were made by folding wet clay over the thighs of slaves.

IMG_2615Until the turn of the 20th century, the streets in Trinidad were made of cobblestones: the small rocks were carried from the mountains to the city by the slaves. After the 20th century began, town planning became much more organized and the streets started to be made from concrete and to become better aligned. (At this point, in our walk, the town’s appearance became far less appealing, but the walk became easier on the feet.) As in Cienfuegos, the older part of Trinidad has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Interesting Things I Learned Today

  • Cubans use all parts of the royal palm. They use the roots for medicine, feed seeds to animals, make thatched roofs with palm leaves, and use the wood in construction.
  • Great Britain occupied Cuba for eleven months in 1762, but swapped it with Spain for Florida.
  • The sewer system that existed in Trinidad before a town sewage system was introduced is still in use in the older parts of town. In these areas, all the sewage drops into huge containers underground, which are cleaned out on a regular basis.
  • Many of the beautiful old Spanish Colonial homes in Trinidad are being made into hotels.
  • The former slave populations in Cuba have contributed to the distinctive sounds of Cuban music.

Buenos Cumpleaños a Dos

By an amazing coincidence, today was the birthday of two people in our group: Arnie and Suzanne. After a one-hour salsa lesson (in which only four of us were courageous enough to participate), we headed out for dinner at a restaurant called El Museo, where we were greeted by the owner with a shot of rum. Now both relaxed and ready to dance, we were seated at tables that resembled antique shop shelves more than they did restaurant tables, and a local Cuban music group arrived soon after to entertain us with familiar and unfamiliar tunes, most of them with a strong Latin flavour (although a Bob Marley influence was detected as well). Three dancers, two sultry Cuban women and a suave Cuban male, had come to the restaurant with the band and they began to move around the room, inviting the tourists (guests) to dance. After a few Cuba Libras and other drinks each, the group was ready to celebrate the two birthdays in style. There was much dancing, eating, singing and shouting.

By the end of the most memorable (and active) day so far, we dawdled our way home through the quiet, lamp-lit cobbled streets to our casa, our feet sore and our bodies exhausted, but happy, well fed and (at least some cases) perhaps a little tipsy.


Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 3: Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Trinidad)

Some French architecture, then ¡Che!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
IMG_2479After breakfast, our group set out on a walking tour of Cienfuegos. The city was founded by Don Louis de Clouet, who came to Cuba from France via Louisiana. He worked to build up the city’s white population by inviting families to join him from New Orleans, Philadelphia and Bordeaux. As a result, much of the city’s early architecture is neoclassical French.

Cienfuegos has a more prosperous economic base than many other cities in Cuba (shrimp fishing, thermoelectric and petrochemical plants, and ship building, according to my trusty Lonely Planet), and it is a lovely city with a large port. Its elegant and stately buildings are gradually being restored after years of neglect, thanks to the financial support that has accrued from its having been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005.

In the main square of the city, there is access to wifi so after our tour we settled in for 15 or 20 minutes of connecting the outside world. Access to the internet is extremely limited in Cuba and estimates of the number of Cubans with internet connections range from 5% to 25%. Most of the connecting is done on mobile phones in wifi hotspots, most of which are located in city squares, and even when they are connected, Cubans’ access to many independent news sites are blocked.

Wifi access cards are 2 CUCs per hour (about CAD 3), and you can use them at any hotspot on the island. The card gives you a user name and a password. We were told that if you use the card for ten minutes and then sign off, you will be able to use the remaining 50 minutes at the same or other locations in future, but several times when I signed off part way through an hour, when I tried to sign on again I was told that I had used up all my time.


We then set off for Santa Clara, enjoying a varied and delicious buffet lunch en route at a restaurant whose Don Quixote theme made me very happy, needless to say.

Mausoleo de Che Guevara

Santa Clara is where the mausoleum of Che Guevara and his friends/fellow revolutionaries is located. In 1967, seven men, including Che, were tracked down and executed in Bolivia, where they were working to instigate an uprising there, but their bodies were not found for several decades. After their DNA had been tested to prove their identities, they were brought to Santa Clara. The location was chosen because it was in Santa Clara that, years earlier, Che and his compatriots had derailed the train that carried munitions and troops sent by Batista to defend the city, effectively spelling the successful end of the Cuban revolution.

The mausoleo complex is a shrine to a man who is more than a hero in this country. It features a towering statue of Che, his arm in a cast – as it was during the Battle of Santa Clara, since he had broken his arm in a battle at Caibarién a few days earlier. The mausoleum itself, which includes an eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro, is so secure that one is allowed to take nothing at all into it – including a purse or a cell phone. The documents and objects that are collected in the accompanying museum are intriguingly specific and detailed and range across Guevara’s life. I could have spent three hours there instead the one we were allotted.

Our guide Manny told us how Che had arrived in Cuba with Fidel, Raúl and nine others on a yacht called Granma in 1956. These twelve were only ones left of 82 who had set out from Mexico with the intention of overthrowing the Batista dictatorship – an upheaval that by then Fidel had been planning from exile for more than five years.

The day was cloudy and as we got back on the bus following our tour, it started to rain. The grey skies seemed appropriate.

Assorted interesting things I have learned today (mostly from Manny):

  • The given name of Che – who was Argentinian – was Ernesto. His nickname came about from his Argentinian custom of ending his sentences with the interjection “che?” (as Canadians do “eh?” Example, “Let’s go get a beer, che?”). One of his closest friends, Nico Lopez, a Cuban, asked him, “Why do you always say ‘Che?’ I am going to call you ‘Che’.”
  • Cubans are not permitted to ride in motorized boats – even a catamaran that is for rent to tourists is off-limits to Cubans
  • Locals shop and stay in separate, lower-quality stores and casas particulares than do tourists
  • White herons hang out around the cows, adding spots of brightness to the fields

Field of sugar cane as seen from the bus


We next travelled through some truly beautiful mountainous countryside to Trinidad, which is a charming town on the island’s south shore with an amazing array of restaurants, bars, nightlife and shops – not to mention more interesting history and culture.

Since we arrived after dark, there was no time for sightseeing, but our group met at the foot of the stairs where all the action is. The younger ones went up the stairs to party. The more mature of us (Arnie and I) went for a great dinner in a rooftop restaurant and then walked back to our new casa.

The female head of this household – which includes two school-aged children – is, like our host in Cienfuegos, a warm and friendly woman who wants to help us practice our Spanish. 🙂 She told us that they have friends in Montreal who come down to stay with them every year or two. She also told us that they have never been outside Cuba because they cannot afford to travel (as is the case for most Cubans). For holidays they go to Havana sometimes, but prefer to spend their time at their beach house. She also told us that when she was growing up, they did not teach English in schools, but now they do. Her children are learning to speak English and she believes that this is very important.

We have two nights here, so we feel as though we can settle in a bit.









We’re Going to Cuba!

¡Hola Cuba!

I am very happy to announce that my (new) husband and I are embarking on my next (also his next, but our first) adventure early in January, 2016. We are going to Cuba! I have always wanted to go there, and now that Cuba and the USA have re-established diplomatic relations, I want to get there before the improving trade situation allows the export of whatever makes Cuba Cuba (which I have some theories about already, but no real knowledge), and the import of what does not. I hope that in the long run, the détente is going to be good for the average Cuban, but as Canadians well know, exposure to our powerful neighbour to the south (and Cuba’s north) can overwhelm what makes a nation distinctive.

As was the case with my trip to India, I will start by reading about the country I am about to visit: the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba is waiting for me at the post office as I write this. I am also brushing up on my Spanish, using an app called Duolingo. I have taken Spanish before – many times, in fact. I studied it at university for a year, and have taken conversational Spanish classes a couple of times since then. I am not sure how Cuban Spanish varies from that of other Spanish-speaking countries (of which, so far, I’ve visited only Mexico), but I will probably find out and write a post about it. In the meantime I am learning such useful terms as “The monkey sleeps above the parrots,” and “I eat in the basement,” which I am sure I will be using regularly on my trip.

I found the tour we are taking online at Responsible Travel, as I did with the India tour. Responsible Travel is dedicated to directing travellers to small, local travel companies that work to improve or at least contribute to the sustainability of the countries in which they are located. We have chosen a small-group tour from Locally Sourced Cuba, that involves local modes of transport, and accommodation with Cuban families at casas particulares.

My husband’s experience with travel has mostly involved renting a car, staying in hotels, and driving around at his own pace, so this will be a new approach for him.

We are leaving in early January, and we will be travelling for ten days. The actual tour leaves from Havana and includes the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara, and Vinales, before returning to Havana. At that point we will go to Varadero on our own for a few days of sun. I learned on my last trip that the perfect way to end an intensive tour is to take some time for total relaxation before returning home. That will give us some time to process everything we’ve seen (and allow me to catch up on my blog posts).

I gather that internet access is almost non-existent in most places in Cuba, so although I will be writing about each day’s travel, I have no idea when I’ll be able to post my various installments. Perhaps not until I get home.

All that is still a long way in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping you posted on my preparations.