Saturday, March 29, 2008

The real Cuba lies beyond the resort walls

The real Cuba lies beyond the resort walls
Liz Brown, For the Calgary Herald
Published: Friday, March 28, 2008

For many Canadians, Cuba is a ray of sunshine during our bleak northern
winters. After a morning of digging out from a snowstorm, who wouldn't
dream of lounging on Varadero's white sands, frosty Cuba Libre in hand,
or sipping a mojito in Havana at Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar, La
Bodeguita del Medio?
But travel beyond Varadero's famous beaches and Hemingway's haunts and
you'll find a smaller, more laid-back city on the opposite side of the
island. Trinidad, in Sancti Spiritus province, isn't as well-known as
other Cuban destinations, but it should be.

Located near the Ancon peninsula, its beaches rival Varadero's, and the
city offers some of the best preserved examples of colonial architecture
in the Caribbean. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated this city of 70,000 a
world heritage site in 1988.

I stayed at a resort on the Ancon Peninsula, about eight kilometres from
the city. I used my resort as a base, but spent most of my time trekking
the cobblestone streets of the city.

The first day, I took a tour bus from the resort. The first stop was the
Mirador de La Loma del Puentos, a lookout that provided a panoramic view
of Valle de Los Ingenios, another UNESCO world heritage site. The
valleys hold the ruins of several sugar mills from the 19th century.

During the 18th and 19th century, Trinidad was a major sugar hub, and
the Spanish brought slaves from Africa to the area. At the industry's
peak, there were 58 sugar mills in the area, but with the abolishment of
slavery in 1886, the sugar industry began to decline. Against this
historic backdrop, you can enjoy a mojito or ice cream from the
lookout's bar.

Next stop was Trinidad's centre, Plaza Mayor.

The city was somewhat forgotten after the sugar industry's decline, with
minimal new construction taking place, and the centre remains virtually
the same as it was 200 years ago.

Pastel-coloured colonial mansions, many converted into museums, line the
heaving cobblestone streets. You can spend all day poking through
museums, but a must visit is the Palacio Cantero (Calle Simon Bolivar 423).

Housed in a mansion that was built between 1827 and 1830, it features
historic documents and artifacts. The mansion itself overshadows the
collection, with its massive courtyard, Italian marble floors and
lookout tower.

Although a steep and rickety climb, the journey to the top of the tower
is worth it. The view includes the city's main square, which features
Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad (Holy Trinity Church), one of the
largest churches in Cuba. From here, you can also see one of the most
familiar landmarks in Trinidad, the yellow and white tower of the
Convent of St. Francis of Assisi.

After my first taste of Trinidad, I was ready to explore the city on my
own. For two Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) (just over $2 Cdn), you get a
round trip bus from the Ancon Peninsula to the city centre. Like most
things, you get what you pay for, and though cheap, the bus isn't always
reliable. In the city, I waited at two bus stops but a bus never showed
up and I ended up taking a cab back.

Back in the city, I scouted out casa particulars, the Cuban equivalent
of a bed and breakfast. Since the 1990s, the government has allowed some
small businesses; with the casa particulars among the most popular. In
the three-kilometre area surrounding Trinidad's centre, there are 400
families who rent rooms. Look for a generic blue arrow above a home's
door, which signals that there are rooms to rent inside.

My favourite casa was that of Mabel Ortiz Duran (Fco. Javier Zerquera
360), just a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor. A big attraction in this
house was the private en suite bathroom. Twenty five CUC ($27 Cdn) will
get you a night's stay.

Just down the street from Duran's was a great little paladar, or private
restaurant. Paladars are another product of the slow economic reform in
Cuba. These are run out of homes and generally offer better fare at
cheaper prices than state-run restaurants.

I enjoyed a leisurely three-course lunch at the paladar of Odalys Garcia
(Fco. Javier Zerquera 61). Starters included tomato salad, fried banana
chips and split pea soup. The main course was a massive lobster tail on
a bed of rice. For dessert, Garcia's homemade flan is delectable. With
two glasses of wine, lunch cost 14 CUC ($15 Cdn).

The paladar is close to the main square, home to a sculpture of
Terpsicore, the Greek muse of song and dance - a fitting tribute in a
city where dance is a part of life.

Despite its small size, Trinidad has a vibrant night scene. For those
who want to salsa to live music, the Casa de la Musica is the perfect
spot. The open air bar is on the cobblestone steps next to Holy Trinity
Church. Locals here take their dancing seriously and it was easy to spot
the tourist from the well-practised Cuban.

I didn't pick up any new dance moves, but did learn an important lesson
- stilettos, cobblestones and alcoholic beverages don't mix. I suggest
more practical footwear if you plan on spending a night dancing in Trinidad.
If you crave thumping bass, Discoteca Ayala (Finca Santa Ana) is quite
literally the hottest spot in Trinidad. The bar is carved out of an
underground cave and lacks air conditioning. Cram a few hundred grooving
bodies inside on a 30-degree night and the venue quickly turns into a sauna.

It's pricier than other bars in the city, with a cover charge and drinks
running $2 CUC and more, but the atmosphere is well worth the prices.
There's not too many places in the world where you can dance to Spanish
club tunes reverberating off a cave's stalactites.

Seven days slip by quickly, and by the end I realized I hadn't spent
enough time on the beach. But, the ribbing I got about my pale skin on
my return was a small price to pay for ditching the beach and exploring
beyond the walls of the all-inclusive resort.

No comments: