Nestled between the El Escambray mountains and the Caribbean Sea, Santisima Trinidad or Trinidad and the Vale de los Ingenios or Valley of the Sugar Mills present the traveler with a myriad of historical landmarks and a mesmerizing glimpse at a timeless culture in an unparalleled setting. Seductively quaint, historic and lively, Trinidad boasts a long and fascinating history that tells a matchless story of Cuba from its early roots through the booming sugar trade era and the rich tobacco crops to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and prime tourist attraction today.
The magnetism of this historic colonial city of 73,00 (2004 census) is undeniable. The plush mountains shelter the harbor while the rich waters and pure white sandy beaches make this popular venue one of Cuba’s most alluring tourist havens.
Trinidad (December 23, 1514) was the fourth of seven cities along Cuba’s coastline that was founded by Spanish conquistador Don Diego Velazquez between 1512 and 1519. Following the creation of Nuestra Señora de La Asunción de Baracoa, San Salvador de Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba, Santisima Trinidad was intended to honor the Holy Trinity. The harbor town serenely rests halfway between Cuba’s southern and northern points.
Protected by the mountain chain, Trinidad served as an important bridgehead for expeditions to the Northern continent. From the secure port, notorious conquistador Francisco Hernandez de Codova used Trinidad as a launching point for expeditions to the north in 1517 and 1518.
In 1540, Francisco Iznaga, a wealthy Basque landowner in Cuba’s southern portion during the first 30 years of the Spanish colonization, was chosen Mayor of Bayamo. The Iznaga family built long-lasting roots in Trinidad and fought for Cuban independence and the Annexation to the US in 1820 and in 1900.
By the end of the 16th century, Trinidad emerged as an economic power in Cuba. As cattle, tobacco and contraband arrived for export, Trinidad began to prosper.
By the end of the 18th century, the Valley de Los Ingenios had established itself as a primary area for the development and export of lucrative sugar trade. By 1796, Trinidad emerged as Cuba’s third largest city. The newfound wealth was evident on the streets, the architecture and in Cuban society.
Today, tobacco and tourism are the chief industries in the region. Very few people look forward to departing magical Trinidad.
Trinidad’s urban design remains remarkably unchanged from its original plan. All streets point to the Plaza Mayor, which is under the watchful eye of the famous Convent of San Francisco. The convent and the centrally located Santisima Trinidad Cathedral present charming colonial era edifices. The Plaza is a lively center with office buildings, historical buildings and popular museums integrated with casas de musica (music houses) and restaurants.
The cobblestone streets and elaborate facades make Trinidad the best representation of true colonial architecture in the Caribbean. Primarily a residential community, the narrow streets are distinguished by small lots with pastel colored residences and intricate grillwork. With mostly residential streets occasionally interspersed with small plazas and squares, Trinidad rarely feels crowded.
The beaches around Trinidad are hard to resist, the hotels are built for tourists and there are plenty of sights and sounds to see and hear during a stay. A walk through Trinidad is an unforgettable journey into Cuba’s colorful and diverse past rife with socio-economic reminders of an affluent past.
All Trinidad’s buildings feature elements of Andalusian and Moorish influences. The architecture off the more modest 18th century structures blends seamlessly with the larger and more elaborate 19th century buildings. Today, the outskirts of the town are in various states of disrepair, like the outskirts of many Cuban cities.
Several intimate squares and plazas briefly interrupt the pedestrian flow along the way to the city’s hub, Plaza Mayor, one of the most popular tourist centers in the country. The Palacio Brunet reminds of the booming sugar trade while the neoclassical Palacio Cantero, now a municipal history museum, reflects the distinguished authority of Plaza Mayor.
At the center of the plaza, four small, but manicured gardens that are divided by white cast-iron fences somehow connect the rich land, rolling mountains, ocean and town. Two bronze statues of greyhounds adorn one garden. Fountains built in the early 19th century add to the charm that surrounds the tower. In the center of the gardens stands a statue of the muse of dance, Terpsichore, who presides over all who pass by. As in all of Cuba, music can be heard from the side streets to the casas de musica.
As a World Heritage site, Trinidad has been diligently preserved with authenticity and integrity. Stunning landscapes illustrate the year-round growing season that thrives in the valley. The Trinidad’s outskirts are protected from development for new tourist attractions. Because of the historical value of the area, many travelers refer to Trinidad as the “outdoor museum.”
The Manaca-Iznaga Tower
The Valley of the Sugar Mills was home to Trinidad’s sugar cane plantations. The valley is also a UBNESCO World Heritage site. 12 kilometers outside Trinidad is one of the region’s most impressive landmarks, the 148 foot tower known as Manaca-Iznaga Tower which was built by Alijo Iznaga Borrel in 1816.
From this tower, most of the Vale de los Ingenios can be seen. At the beginning and end of each workday, a bell in the tower would toll signaling the commencement and conclusion of the workday for the 75 plantations in the valley.
Vale de los Ingenios
The Vale de los Ingenios is comprised of three interconnected rural valleys; San Luis, Santa Rosa and Meyer. Preserved remnants of the 75 plantations still exist in the Valley of Sugar Mills and continue to enthrall tourists with their outbuildings, slave quarters, barracks, sugar mills and once-grand plantation houses.
Most of the farms are abandoned but many structures remain. The valley’s intricate and sophisticated infrastructure has endured quite well making travel in the region easier than in many areas of Cuba. Working farms rely on the ancient infrastructure to produce their tobacco crops and get them to market. Over time, land degradation and an inability to implement a fluid fresh water network caused the decline in sugarcane farming.
By 1827, more than 11,000 slaves populated the valley and worked the fields. By the 1990’s, the plantations were a shell of their former productivity. Today, tourists continue to flock with keen interest to this “living museum” of a prosperous era gone by.
Coasts and Beaches
Trinidad is surrounded by a host of spectacularly pristine beaches with crystal blue waters and intriguing, unspoiled reefs to entice divers and snorkelers.
Playa Ancon, Ancon Beach, was one of Cuba’s first post-1959 resorts to be fully developed. Three popular tourist hotels, Hotel Costa Sur, Hotel Ancon and Hotel Brisas Trinidad del Mar line the shores of the Ancon Peninsula.
20 kilometers from Trinidad rests Topes de Collantes, generally regarded as one of Cuba foremost ecotourism destinations. Casilda Bay attracts national and international divers and snorkelers.
Arriving in Trinidad is sure to stir the emotions. Staying in Trinidad will provide exciting excursions. When you leave Trinidad, you will know you have experienced the magic that is Cuba.