Sarlat stole my heart. There's something about this little medieval…
I did something in Cuba I rarely do. I booked a bus tour.
As a Canadian, I’ve visited Cuba several times, but I had yet to see the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Given the last minute nature of my trip and limited time, the tour seemed like the best way to get there.
I know. Bus tours are not an ideal way to get a real sense of the place.
But there were glimpses.
As the bus departed Varadero for the all-day tour, sunlight spilled over the horizon to blanket the green countryside in golden rays.
From my window seat, I watched Cubans going to work and to school. In rural areas, there were fewer of those classic cars from the 1950s. Instead, I saw lots of bicycles, small lorries, and larger, flatbed carts filled with people and pulled by a single, hard-working horse.
As we passed through a tiny village, I saw a man cutting grass with a scythe.
Frequently, we encountered livestock on the road, mostly cows and goats, and several times, there were some rather harrowing close calls to avoid them.
Real life indeed.
During the journey, our local guide provided commentary (fluently in English and French) on the way of life in Cuba: on the education and health care systems, the rations, the two currencies, how much people earn and the limited ways to improve their finances. It was an interesting and, surprisingly, open discussion. Except for the part about how Cuba is a Socialist, not a Communist, country. No one asked any questions about that.
Cienfuegos is known as the “Pearl of the South” because of its gorgeous natural bay and striking neoclassical architecture. The prettiest buildings surround José Marti Park, which is where our bus stopped on the tour.
The city is relatively new by Cuban standards, settled in 1819 by French colonists. The French influences can be seen in the architecture, but not in the bakeries (as I had hoped). There is even a tiny Arc de Triomphe in the main square, along with a statue of Cuban national hero, José Marti. Marti was a poet and a journalist who spent his short life fighting for Cuban independence, long before Fidel Castro came along. If you’re not familiar with Marti, you might know the song, “Guantanamera”. It was adapted from his poetry.
What To do:
Cienfuegos is a good town for wandering. On the main square, you’ll want to check out the stunning buildings, including the theatre and the cathedral, and take the opportunity to climb to the cupola of the Casa de Cultura. From the square, you can walk along a pedestrian shopping boulevard, and then on to see the colonial houses lining the main street, Paseo del Prado, which leads to the gorgeous waterfront.
Aside from the stunning architecture, I was struck by two things about Cienfuegos.
First, it seems to be a shinier, more prosperous city than others in Cuba. The city is supported by industry related to its port, such as trade, ship building and the like.
Second, there aren’t a lot of tourists there. You’ll see families and school children in the park, local people shopping along the boulevard, and drivers chatting at the taxi stand. It may not take much more than a day to see this city, but you will find glimpses of real life there.
If you’re looking for a heritage city dating back a few more centuries, Trinidad is the real deal. Founded in 1514, Trinidad has been called one of the finest colonial towns in the Americas. Magnificent estates and plazas were built as the town prospered from the sugar cane industry and the slave trade. Then in the 1860s, the bottom dropped out of the sugar business, and development in the city stopped.
Trinidad remains as it was then. To visit is like stepping through a time machine.
What to do:
The first order of business on the tour was lunch in an elegant sugar baron’s mansion. It was touristy, to be sure, but with the new private enterprise laws in Cuba, there is a burgeoning dining scene in Trinidad.
From a cultural perspective, there are galleries and museums of history and architecture located on the main square, the Plaza Mayor. The pastel-hued bell tower, an icon of the city, is now a curious museum about the “Struggle Against Bandits”. Among other things, the museum displays the fuselage of a U.S. spy plane shot down over Cuba. The real draw is the view from the bell tower. Nearby, at the Casa de la Cultura, you can sign up for a salsa dancing lesson.
Given its location between the Caribbean sea and the Escambray mountains, there are plenty of outdoor activities close to Trinidad, including hiking, horse riding and the white sand Ancón Beach.
Back in the city, for me, there is nothing better than walking with your camera off of the main streets. This is where you’ll find glimpses of real life in Trinidad.
There are a lot of tourists in Trinidad, but it’s easy to see why. This is a one of a kind time warp experience, well worth a longer visit to take a slow walk through history. I’ve added it to my list.
For more information on traveling in Cuba, and the associated costs, see Travel Budget for 3 Weeks in Cuba.
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