For most people in retirement age, Cuba produces visions of a successful period soon after WWII — shiny new 1950s cars, Mafia kings smoking cigars in classy casinos, and Hemmingway posing on his yacht. But there is so much more!
My visit was in 2018, soon after former President Obama alleviated the travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. I was with 12 other avian specialists on a 10-day bird research trip with the Caribbean Conservation Trust. (If you’re not familiar with the rules for traveling to Cuba, the U.S. Embassy in Cuba has more information.) One of my favorite experiences was an afternoon in Trinidad.
The 6-hour drive to Trinidad from Havana is easily accomplished with many bus and train options. Private tour companies are found at the airport or hotels in Havana, and they drive groups to Trinidad on a regular basis. Most people stay in Trinidad for a few days to enjoy the shimmering sandy beaches, scuba dive the protected reefs, tour the colorful historic sites, and shop.
Here’s why you’ll love the historic town of Trinidad:
1. Trinidad’s Compelling History
The story of Cuba begins with Indigenous people living on the island long before the first recorded landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Then, for the next 300 years, this Caribbean Island endured violence and turmoil caused by nations attempting to claim Cuba (and uprisings by Indigenous Cubans to stop them).
By the time I was born, Cuba was saturated with foreign nations’ cultural footprints, creating mingled traditions flowing into the food, architecture, and language.
Amid all this turmoil, the beautiful seaport town of Trinidad somehow thrived, creating a tiny town with a giant personality. Bordering the Caribbean Sea, nestled at the foothills of the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba, the town’s original cobblestone streets are lined with pastel-colored buildings smartly dressed in wrought-iron grilles, bestowing a feel of gaiety. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
Trinidad embraces its jumble of remarkable Indigenous and foreign cultures, creating a charismatic character and charming personality. It is one of the best-kept secrets as a marvelous vacation destination.
2. San Luis Valley
There are many routes to Trinidad, but, if possible, pass through the San Luis Valley, a major sugar cane region due to its favorable habitat. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are numerous monuments, plantation ruins, and archeological sites throughout the valley just outside of Trinidad. The valley has a direct historic link to the famous Cuban rum.
3. Plaza Mayor
Wherever your bus drops you off, the guides will lead you to this famous plaza first. I smiled when I saw the old and the new side by side, with two young teenagers walking down the ancient stone stairs, sidetracked from history as they focused on their high-tech phones. The Plaza Mayor is where most of the historic buildings and museums can be easily reached.
Musicians In Plaza Mayor
One of my favorite activities in this inspiring city was just simply sitting quietly on the Plaza Mayor stairs, listening to a guitar musician playing his heart out for tips. Take time to enjoy the music and people of Cuba, who were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met in all my 50 years of traveling the globe.
- If you take a photo of performers or vendors, it is customary to give a tip. In fact, they may follow you and demand one.
- If you have more time, other plazas, such as the beautiful Plazuela Las Tres Palmitas or the famous Plaza de Santa Ana, are worth a visit.
4. Municipal Museum
Also known as the Cantero Palace, this striking building once belonged to Dr. Justo Cantero, a German who became rich with sugar cane plantations. The museum opened in 1980 and exhibits Trinidad’s growth throughout the years in its role in the sugar cane industry.
Pro Tip: Built like a fort, the guard towers reveal amazing views of the footprint of the palace and how effective the towers were for protection from pirates.
5. Iglesias Parroquial De La Santisima Trinidad
Construction on Iglesias Parroquial De La Santisima Trinidad began in 1817 but was delayed for 75 years, creating a most interesting cathedral. Its original classic Greek Neoclassic architecture is mixed with modern 19th-century updates. The Spanish endowed their cathedrals with many fine riches, and this church is no exception: One of the largest in the Caribbean, this striking church has five naves, three tower bells, a golden tunic on a statue of Jesus donated by Queen Elizabeth II, and a wealth of fine art.
Pro Tip: Climb up the bell tower for amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
6. Brunet Palace
The Brunet Palace was the first museum that opened in the village and is often called the Romantic Museum. Located in the heart of Trinidad, the home once belonged to a wealthy Creole family and was completed in 1808. Deemed one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean, its 14 rooms consist of 19th-century common household objects tastefully placed next to luxury items and artworks of the period.
When I visited, there were numerous vendors lining almost every street and alley in Trinidad’s central historic district, including one-man shops where vendors strapped the goods to their bodies. Cuba is not just about rum and cigars! Among other things, you can find:
Cuban Guayabera Shirts
A must for many is to find a true Guayabera shirt, also known as a Cuban collar shirt: a simple untucked button-up shirt with an open collar. Numerous vendors carried the shirts along with a variety of sparkling white skirts and tablecloths made of the same fine linen.
Pro Tip: The authentic Cuban shirt is white or pale yellow with a few colored decorations. Shirts that are similar in style but brightly colored with wild prints are Hawaiian shirts.
Handcarved Items Made From Local Trees
Artists carve richly colored wood from Cuba’s Caribbean forests into elegant dancers, bowls, domino games, or wall art. My carving of the national bird, the Cuban trogon, is one of my favorite bird-watching souvenirs.
Music is an integral part of the Cuban DNA, and you can see it in their beautiful locally made musical instruments. Instruments from flutes to guitars to drums can be found in a few temperature-controlled indoor shops near the Plaza Mayor.
8. Taberna El Barracon
On the corner of Calle Alameda and Callejon de Galdos is the Taberna El Barracon restaurant, which has a high approval rating from various tourist agencies. They have a wonderful selection of Caribbean, Latin, and Cuban cuisine, including vegetarian options. All tables were on open patios, including a rooftop patio, overlooking the market streets. A live band with a nice Cuban beat moved between patios.
9. Gran Parque Natural Topes De Collantes
My tour did not include this place, but our guide insisted we come back and spend more time at this premier ecotourism park and spa famous for rest and health benefits. Only 30 kilometers from Trinidad, the nearby Gran Parque Natural Topes De Collantes is known for its coffee plantation ruins, waterfalls, and mountain routes popular with hikers.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the Casa Museo del Café (Coffee Museum) within the park.
10. Playa Ancón
Where blinding white sand meets the sea blending into a turquoise sky, Playa Ancón is also a hot spot for beautiful seabed and coral reefs. Cubans take scuba diving seriously because Castro was an avid diver and took great care to preserve reefs around the island. This beach has 20 immersion points and draws people from all over the world.
Just 12 kilometers south of Trinidad, this beach has a long history of assaults from Barbary pirates’ galleons, earning the designation of an “important archaeological reservation.”
11. Villa Guajimico Resort
On our way back to Havana to catch our plane the next day, we headed toward the city of Cienfuegos. On the highway that unites the two cities, we stayed at the eco-sustainable Villa Guajimico resort, named by a famous Indigenous Cuban as “paradise.” The resort has more than fifty brightly colored cabanas, many facing a lake. Surrounded by mountains, the resort has a scuba diving center, a dive boat, and a dock for training classes. But we were there for the birds and were rewarded at the end of a productive day with cozy cabins and delicious food.
Know Before You Go
Be aware that the country is suffering from the blockade of goods to and from the United States. Trading from much farther away adds cost to products. School supplies, shoes, and toys in Cuba are very expensive and in short supply. Please consider taking extra items to donate during your visit. I walked over to a school next to our hotel in Havana and handed a sack of coloring books and crayons to a very grateful teacher. Guides or drivers will also be happy to distribute.
Leave items in a hotel room but attach a note — I left packets of soap once, and the housekeeper chased down the bus carrying them thinking I had accidentally left them!
For information about a bird research trip, contact the Caribbean Conservation Trust.