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.
The casas and restaurants are housed in grand mansions built on a sugar-fortune amassed in the early 19th-century, except unlike Havana, Trinidad treasured its good looks and staved off the march of time; only a few corners are crumbling. After all, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. This also means it's one of the biggest tourist destinations for travel groups and holiday-makers.
When I get off the bus, I'm besieged by casa-owners and hustlers holding up picture cards of their houses trying to lure me to stay; some tug on my shirt with persistent gentle force, while others talk soft and fast in my ear of discounts and full breakfasts. It's all too much, and I announce I already have accommodation to bat some of them away. This is the trouble with Trinidad. There are probably more casas than tourists here -- both legal and otherwise - so fresh meat off the bus from Havana is ripe for the plucking. I refuse to be rushed into a decision, and as a rule, I believe, if they need to solicit you so aggressively, there must be better places to stay.
Walking the little lanes in the midday heat, my rucksack makes me a target and from every doorway calls follow me down the street in Spanish, German and English, 'Looking for a room?' My casa in Havana recommended Casa Santana (#425 Maceo; +53 41 994372), so I go straight there. A lovely couple welcome me, and seeing me dusty and red in the face offer me a cold drink.
Unsurprisingly, and as is often the case with the best casas, their place is full. But they let me sit in the rocking chair of their cool veranda and we chat about the crazy street scene. Isabel Lopez spent her childhood in America and now teaches English while her husband Dr. Julian Santana Uria is a dentist with a fascination with the city's history. Isabel walks me round her garden, an enthusiasm we share, and introduces me to tropical flowers I hadn't seen before.
Their friend arrives to take me to another casa around the corner, recommended by them. This is standard practise in Cuba, but you should never feel obliged to take the alternative offered to you. Luckily Casa Juan Carlos (#183 Francisco Peterssen) is equally charming, and I'm very happy in my courtyard room.
I spend my first day exploring the city -- check out the 24-hour slideshow below -- getting lost, lulled by the music, which seems to come from every window here. But there is a lot more to Trinidad than colonial perfection. Nearby, the white sands of Playa Ancon let you live out your Caribbean beach fantasies, although it's a shame about the hotel built so close to the water. An organised day trip will take you to one of the many waterfalls in the surrounding countryside, or you can go it alone like I did, and hitch a ride out to Parque El Cubano to the Javira falls. They may be smaller, but you can have them to yourself if you go early enough. An hour walk through the jungle over rickety bridges and through scrappy thickets leads you to the falls. Brave the 13 ft drop into the murky waters from the cliff top for a serious wake-up.
I spent three-days here in total, which was more than adequate to see the sights, unless you're planning to do one of the longer treks into the countryside. I ended my time with dinner at a little restaurant I had made two unsuccessful attempts to find before finally enlisting someone's help to lead the way. La Ceiba (#263 Pablo Pichs Giron) was down such a dark little alley that each time I tried to go, I was frightened back to better lit streets, thinking it couldn't possibly be the right direction. It was worth the search though. Dine in the courtyard under the boughs of a ceiba tree being fed straight from the stone oven in the garden.
I liked Trinidad, but I never completely fell for it. It was like walking into the Disneyland of Cuba, the daydream of every person who has ever wanted to travel here. Too picture perfect somehow, and the whole town is geared up to accommodate your every tourist need. It's beautiful and it's easy, but much like with lovers, that doesn't make you fall for it.
An elderly lady takes shelter in the shade as she carries her shopping home in the midday sun.
This is the leafy courtyard of Casa Santana. Beyond the airy front room of this early 19th-century home, Isabel Lopez maintains the most beautiful gardens, replete with an original water well, where you can take breakfast under a vine-covered trellis. She also speaks perfect English from her childhood spent in America.
At night this place livens up with musicians taking to the courtyard to entertain what is mainly a tourist crowd. I had breakfast opposite at a popular little restaurant, Wakey Wakey Shakey Shakey (#205 Jesus Menendez; +53 52743520), run by the charismatic El Chino, a local celebrity and font of knowledge about the area. He'll regale you with stories of his entertainment career, if you wish, while serving up relatively healthy fodder. Salad can be hard to come by in Cuba, but here they even have a variety of herb-infused dressings.
Walking further along Jesus Menendez, I came to this arts and crafts market with the usual crochet, jewelry, instruments and other souvenirs.
Kids were playing baseball all over the town down any quiet backstreet.
This museum of a restaurant is stunning (#45 Frente a la Plaza Mayor). Run by the same people behind famous paladar Sol y Son, they spent five years restoring the 1850s mansion - once home to the governor of Trinidad, I believe - to its former glory and packed it full of original European antiques. This was my favourite room, where you ate amidst 19th-century bedroom furniture. They've curated every detail - even the wardrobe is full of 1920s shoes.
Another restaurant capitalising on the city's wealthy past, Museo 1514 (Simon Bolivar #515) makes you feel you should be wearing long gloves or a top hat for dinner. The long dining table in the courtyard is especially atmospheric, but every place is laid to perfection like this one. I didn't eat here - I felt too scrappy in my traveller gear - but people say the food is very good.
People begin to gather before the sun has even set, securing a table for the night, or just lured in by the music. Casa de la Musica is the center of the action every night - the social meeting spot for dancing, flirting, drinking and people-watching. Sadly, my camera died before sun set, but the place packs out until people are sat on every step and squeezed around each table, taking turns to dance in front of the stage.
There is something incandescent about the light in Trinidad, or maybe it's just ridiculously beautiful. This is Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad on Plaza Mayor. In that quiet lull between night and day, before people come out to play, I watched the sun creep slowly up the steps and away.
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