by Kate Hartshorne of GoNOMAD
I have just returned from a week-long journey to Cuba, the majority of which was spent in Trinidad, a small town on Cuba’s southern coast. Founded in 1514, Trinidad is one of Cuba’s oldest cities, and much of the colonial architecture remains intact. The cobblestone streets crest up a hillside, upon which sits the Plaza Central (town square) and the original churches and mansions surrounding the square have mostly been converted into museums, perfect for absorbing the history of this antique locale. There are stunning panoramic views of the city, mountains, and ocean from the top of the Museo Contra Los Bandidos, and the Palacio de Los Canteros. For around $1 you can climb a rickety ladder and take in miles of countryside, worth the arduous climb to the top. A large set of old stone steps sits at the top of the Plaza Central, where hundreds of travelers flock each evening to witness breathtaking sunsets.
After the sun goes down, the steps suddenly transform into a live salsa club, famously known as Casa De La Música. At this open-air venue you can witness a different live salsa show each night, and these talented musicians work hard to make sure everyone has a good time. If you haven’t had a chance to sway to the rhythmic beats of salsa or rumba under the stars on a warm tropical night, then you should absolutely put Trinidad on your itinerary. Everyone from the novice dancer to the master of salsa can find a partner to dance with at Casa De La Musical, and everyone is welcome and encouraged to try. The mojitos flow liberally and the energy of the music will have even the shyest traveler on their feet.
If you want a change of pace, there are several different music clubs within walking distance in Trinidad, all of them filled with amicable dancers and bongo beats. There is live music everywhere in this town; Trinidad is a music lover’s paradise. For those who don’t want to dance, but just want to enjoy the show, you can find salsa bands and jazz quartets in countless restaurants, bars, and even just strumming along in the Plaza Central. If you didn’t arrive in Trinidad a salsa fanatic, you are almost certain to leave there loving the music and craving more.
Trinidad is famous not only for its hot salsa nights and charming cobblestone streets, but also the nearby beaches and mountain trails easily accessible from the city. Located just 15 minutes from crystal blue waters of the Caribbean coast, Trinidad is an ideal spot for visitors who would like to enjoy a cultural excursion to the beach. Local taxi drivers are lined up and waiting to escort you. For northerners like me, the white sand and hot sun of the Caribbean is a mecca after months in the cold New England winter. There are several beach options on the southern coast, most famously Playa Ancon (crowded but incredibly beautiful). There are several lesser-known beaches that a local guide like CUBA CANDELA can show you to avoid crowds during the high season. Most beaches rent lounge chairs and umbrellas for a minimal fee, will serve you cold beer and cuba libres to your seat, and fry you up the catch of the day for lunch. Be sure to bring enough sunscreen for the duration of your stay in Cuba.
My favorite day trip that we took while visiting Trinidad was a drive up into the mountains to Parque Guanayara. The drive takes about an hour and a half to climb the steep summit up the curving mountain road. There are many hikes to choose from on this mountain, with several options for waterfalls to view, and some with swimming holes. We went about a mile hike down into the valley to reach the swimming hole, which comes just after a massive cascade. The natural pool that is formed at the base of the falls is the closest thing I have found to heaven. Hikers work up a sweat with the moderate climb down into the valley, and the cool, refreshing river water is a perfect treat. This is a must-do for nature lovers. You will not be disappointed. For the more avid and experienced hiker ask a local guide to take you to some of the lesser-known and more challenging spots.
Trinidad felt relaxed and very safe. I was able to walk alone late at night and never felt the slightest bit nervous. The local residents are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and they go above and beyond to make sure that visitors feel welcome. Trinidad is both beautiful and fascinating in its history and architecture. With so much to see and do, I cannot wait to return and explore more of this old colonial gem.
Tips for traveling to Trinidad:
1. Trinidad is filled with gourmet restaurants, some better than others. Since Cuba can be somewhat hit or miss with its cuisine, I suggest getting recommendations from your local guide on where to eat. With CUBA CANDELA we had reservations made for us at some of the best restaurants in Cuba, all very reasonably priced by American standards. From experiencing a panoramic sunset view of the city while we dined, to dancing with the waiters in an old museum filled with antiques, each restaurant treated us to delicious delicacies in completely unique settings. You will often require a reservation to get a table at the better restaurants.
2. Trinidad is a city built on a hillside with numerous cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, anyone with significant mobility issues will find it to be a considerable challenge. I would recommend bringing comfortable walking shoes and flats. Also, there is no need to worry that you are not dressed up enough. The ambience in Trinidad is extremely relaxed and everyone dresses casually, even to go salsa dancing.
3. Wi-Fi is scarce in Trinidad (and Cuba in general). I could not get my iPhone to connect at all, although many people buy a Wi-Fi card to connect to public Wi-Fi spots in the Plaza Central or the town park. When traveling to Cuba you should assume that you will be disconnected and simply enjoy the unplugged lifestyle! Download a map before you go so that you can get around and bring a good book to enjoy on the rooftop terrace of your casa particular. It is such an unusual treat to be able to completely disconnect from the chaos of life, and Trinidad allows you to do just that.