Trinidad is almost too pretty. If such a thing is possible. Pink, yellow, green colonial houses line the cobbled streets where children play baseball, and old weathered men sit on doorsteps plucking melancholically on a guitar. No car ever drives faster than a horse and cart could carry you, and in the heat of the day, it wouldn't be surprising if the whole sleepy town ground to a happy halt.Read More
"I've only got two weeks in Cuba; what should I see?" This is a question I get asked from a lot of holidaymakers wanting a taste of the country on a limited time schedule. So I thought I would share a recent itinerary I devised for one such traveler, which incorporates city, culture and beach. Days 1-3: Havana
Habana Vieja | Tyler Wetherall
Base yourself in Centro so you can just as easily explore the stunning colonial architecture of the old town, as you can head into Vedado, where you will do the most fulfilling eating, drinking and playing. Check out the best of your accommodation options in my previous blog here.
Spend at least a day getting lost in Habana Vieja, dodging bici taxis and cat calls to ogle the beautifully restored buildings of Calle Mercaderes and Plaza Vieja. I recommend the Preservation and Social Programmes Tour with San Cristobel travel agency (Calle Oficios #110 bajos, e/ Lamparilla y Amargura) to learn about the way funds from tourism are channelled back into restoration and social programs. This includes a visit to the Convento y Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belen, a former ruined 17th-century convent turned active community center for the needy, which is always a moving and educational experience.
Castas y Tal | Tyler WetherallEat at any one of the many new paladares currently forging a contemporary Cuban culinary culture out of the previously dire dining scene. Castas y Tal (Calle E #158, e/ 9a y Calzada) and San Cristobel (Calle San Rafael # 469, Lealtad y Campanaro) are two of my personal favourites.
Music pulses through these streets, rattling out of vintage car radios or streaming from open windows, and you need to spend at least one night dancing till your eyes sting with sweat. Go for Miramar's El Diablo Tun Tun (Calle 20 esquina a 35, upstairs from La Casa de la Música) -- especially on a Thursday -- to get your hips swinging to the sweet beats of live salsa, though the dance floor gets hot with hip-grinding when the reggaeton starts up.
There are many potential sights, but the Cuban part of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artesgave me another perspective on Cuban cultural history through artists I had never encountered before, such as the deeply moving work of Antonia Eiriz.
Day 4-6 Trinidad
Trinidad | Tyler Wetherall
There are more casas here per square kilometer than anywhere else in Cuba, so you can have your pick of colonial residences, most dripping in antiques. Spend one day exploring the cobbled streets and churches of this 19th-century Spanish colonial settlement -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 -- ending with an evening drinking mojitos at Casa de la Musica. I woud take another day to explore the lush surrounding countryside of the Sierra del Escrambray diving into waterfalls and hiking up overgrown trails, or, for those with a higher tolerance for tourists and touts, do the beach bum thing on Playa Ancon. Make sure to dine at the hidden gem La Ceiba (#263 Pablo Pichs Giron) at some point during your stay.
Day 7-8 Santa Clara
Casa Hostal Florida | Tyler Wetherall
If that intellectual revolutionary has always fascinated you, come here for mass indulgence in Che hero-worship. With a museum dedicated his life's work, his mausoleum and the site where he ambushed an armored train in 1958, you'll come away with a better understanding of the man himself, or at least his legacy.
Santa Clara also has some of the country's most interesting and edgy night scenes thanks to the many students here. Although taking to Parque Vidal with a bottle of rum is just as satisfying: sit beneath one of the mighty palms, listening to a man strumming his guitar and watching the youth of the town dance their modern day courtship. Book into the Hostal Florida, one of the most beautiful casas in Cuba. If you can't get a room, have dinner in the on-site paladar located in their overgrown tropical garden terrace.
Day 9-13 Cayo las Brujas
Momo on Flickr | Some Rights Reserved
There are countless beaches full of tourists brandishing their all-inclusive wristbands, who spend their holiday in the air-conditioned sanctuary of tour buses or the sanitized resort bar. No matter the beauty of the beach, I find it an uncomfortable pleasure, and would much rather somewhere shared by locals. While you really need to get further afield, away from the well-developed, state-controlled cayos to find such a beach, Cayo las Brujas is one of your best options within reach of Havana. Public beach Playa Salina is little more than a strip of white sand, with wind-battered tattered palm shades, under which Cuban families on holiday enjoy picnics and loved-up honeymoon-ers splash about smugly in the shallow, turquoise waters, while at the other end is the average yet affordable Villa las Brujas.
Caibarién | Tyler WetherallI chose to stay in Caibarién, a study in precarious architecture and surreal small town idiosyncrasies. This is a place where horse and cart is still the most viable form of public transport, and by the afternoon you can't purchase a loaf of bread in the supermarket. It was an hour's drive to the beach by day, but by night we got something closer to real-life Cuba.
An alternative to Cayo las Brujas is to head back towards Havana through the Viñales region, and check out the lesser-explored coast of the Pinar del Río province such as the three kilometers of sandy beaches on Cayo Jutias or the more developed Cayo Levisa.
Although, as much as you plan, it's the unplanned adventures -- hitch-hiking along dusty streets in the midday sun, barbecuing freshly caught lobster on the beach, getting lost and finding yourself somewhere completely unexpected -- that makes any trip to Cuba worth taking.
‘Antique’ doesn’t have quite the same significance in Cuba. There is an abundance of antiquity in this country for many reasons, but certainly years of economic hardship and trade constraints contributed to a make-do-and-mend culture that has kept everyday items in circulation longer than in other places. Fifty-year-old American Buicks are passed down through generations patched up with Chinese parts and perfectly preserved dinner sets from the 1800s are still in daily use.
While the young of Cuba hanker after newer cars and faster electronics, for visitors it creates a unique aesthetic. The heavy Victorian furnishings stand somewhat staid and sober against the world of bright Caribbean colors and the constant stream of music. People call this country a time warp, but it’s unlike anything that’s come before.
The houses of ordinary people, surviving on a modest state-controlled income, may have a chandelier hanging above the dining room table that could be worth thousands of dollars back home. Not that it would do them much good - a ban on exporting antiques has preserved the country’s colonial stock from foreign pilfering with amazing efficiency.
With the tourist industry in the country booming, naturally proprietors and restaurateurs are aware of the appeal of their abuela’s best china, and nowhere is this more apparent than Trinidad, known as the Museum City. Like the Disneyland of Cuba, this picture perfect spot plays up to all our Cuban daydreams. The rows of houses are brightly painted, the streets are cobbled and by night, as the sunsets behind the palms in the church square, musicians take to the steps of Casa de La Musica to play while visitors and locals dance.
After amassing a sugar cane fortune in the 18th century, the town grew fat with grand mansions and decorative squares. But when the trade collapsed, it was abandoned, and remained a sleepy outpost until UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status in 1988. This saved it from the decay seen on the streets of Havana, and you can now lose yourself in a historical fantasyland.
The houses here are famous for their antique-laden rooms and there are more museums than anywhere else in Cuba. The former homes of the sugar-rich aristocracy have become shrines to the colonial heyday of the city, such as the impressive 18th century Palacio Brunet. Now housing the Museo Romántico, it was originally named after the daughter of Don Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, one of the richest men in Trinidad responsible for much of the city’s finery.
But shelves of antiques can bore even the most enthusiastic. Eating amidst them is another matter. Restaurant Sol Ananda (#45 Frente a la Plaza Mayor) is a veritable museum in itself. Run by the same people behind famous paladar Sol y Son, they spent five years restoring a 1850s mansion - once home to the governor of Trinidad, I believe - to its former glory and packed it full of original European antiques. Eat at one of the two tables in the bedroom, and make believe this is your boudoir. They curated the entire building with incredible attention to detail down to the 1920s shoes stacked on the shelves of the wardrobe.
Another restaurant harking back to the city's illustrious past, Museo 1514 (#515 Simon Bolivar), will make you regret not packing your long gloves or top hat. The long dining table in the courtyard is especially atmospheric, and every place is laid to perfection.
But all of this can, at times, feel like a flight of fancy. A whimsy far removed from reality. As travelers we want to be part of the beating heart of any city we explore. So, go sit on the stone steps leading up to Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad on Plaza Mayor in a fading sunbeam; as the sky is slowly stained red, people will gather around you; a few musicians will start to play; and then the dancing will begin and will continue late into the night. This happens night after night, and has happened in one guise or another for aslong as people can remember.
All photos: Tyler Wetherall | All Rights Reserved
As published in Insight Cuba