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A walk through Trinidad - the jewel in Cuba's Spanish colonial crown

A walk through Trinidad - the jewel in Cuba's Spanish colonial crown

Trinidad, basking under the tropical sun on the southern coast of Cuba, was known as the Florence of the Caribbean during the 19th century. During its heyday, when slave-worked sugar plantations pumped the coffers of the local sugar barons, the town's grand mansions were laid with Carrara marble floors, fitted with Cuban mahogany furniture, decorated with the finest French porcelain, and graced with hand-painted Italian frescoes.

Nowhere else on this Caribbean island showcases such a grand display of ill-gotten wealth in such a small area.

Charming, wonky streets, paved with river cobblestones, and lined with painted one-storey homes undulate over ground in the Valley of Santa Rosa. To the north of the tiny city rear the lush green mountains of the Sierra del Escambray, while to the south, roll the waters of the glittering turquoise Caribbean sea.

At Trinidad's port of Casilda some 11,000 slaves on ships from West Africa were brought to toil on the plantations at the 56 sugar mills in the neighbouring Valley of the Sugar Mills (Valle de los Ingenios). Along with the slaves, came African religions and music: Palo Monte and Santeria are still practiced in town. After revolutions in technology, slave revolts, and overworked land, boomtown Trinidad fell into decline; this downward spiral preserved the city in a 19th-century time warp, and its extraordinary architectural wealth was recognised by UNESCO in 1988.

Plaza Mayor - Trinidad

Plaza Mayor - Trinidad

Today, Trinidad is one hot ticket in Cuba and this year it's celebrating its 500th anniversary following its foundation by Spanish conqueror Diego de Velazquez in 1514. The south coast city has embraced Raul Castro's recent economic reforms: pop-up restaurants, cafes and bars spill out onto its cobbled streets. Craft stalls, selling the renowned local embroidery and papier mache toys, sit cheek-by-jowl in some quarters, and music venues host partygoers who salsa and son into the night.

Start your walk in the centre of the city – the glorious Main Plaza (Plaza Mayor) [1] is surrounded by sherbet-hued sugar palaces and the handsome honey coloured main church. The square, dotted with bushes and Royal Palms, is ringed by a white iron fence and dominated by a statue of the Greek muse Terpischore. Decorative urns are topped by ceramic anon fruit, once abundant around Trinidad.

Walking around Trinidad - Map

The Parish Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia Parroquial Mayor) [2], completed in 1892, is simple in decoration save for the late 19th-century altarpiece. It houses the statue of the Veracruz Christ which is honoured during Holy Week (Semana Santa) when mesmerising processions take place throughout the town.

Brunete Palace - Trinidad

Brunete Palace - Trinidad

Next to the church is the elegant Brunet Palace [3], fringed with carved ironwork on its balcony and topped by a series of decorative urns. The palace dates from the mid 18th century but it wasn't completed until Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, super-rich sugar baron of the Guaimaro plantation, built a second storey in 1830. Today, it houses the Museo Romantico and showcases antiques collected from a variety of wealthy Trinitario homes.

On leaving the museum, turn left and then left (northeast) up to Restaurant 1514 [4] for a drink. This private restaurant brims with cutlery and tableware and is decked out like a museum. Head out into the back patio for a cooling drink.

Return to the main square and turn left passing the church and the steps that lead to the Casa de la Musica [5]. Every night, tables and chairs are set up on the steps and the town's salsa movers and shakers take to the cobblestone dance floor with a live band.

House of Conspirators - Trinidad

House of Conspirators - Trinidad

On the corner of the steps, the House of Conspirators (Casa de los Conspiradores) [6] has an attractive small balcony overlooking the street. It housed locals – including Venezuelan and Trinidad mayor Narciso Lopez – who rebelled against Spanish domination in 1848 and who took part in a conspiracy – the Cuban Rose Mine – which pressed for Cuba's annexation by the United States.

A few steps further on you'll come across the Palenque de los Congos Reales [7]. The alfresco courtyard hosts a daily programme of folkloric music and rumba. Stop by to check their schedule as it's always a riveting show.

Walk along Calle Cristo onto the triangular Segarte Square [8]. Some of Trinidad's most handsome brightly coloured buildings are here. Facing the square is the beautiful late 18th-century Casa de la Trova [9]. The back patio is always lively with a band - and there's ample space to practice those salsa moves. It also offers respite from the sun, and a chance to buy music at the onsite shop.

Return down Calle Cristo back to the Plaza Mayor. The duck egg blue Museum of Architecture (Museo de Arquitectura) [10] garlanded by white fencing is one of Trinidad's most gorgeous buildings. The former 18th-century home of the Sanchez Iznaga family, one of the most powerful sugar aristocracy families in the city, is filled with exhibits about Trinidad's remarkable architectural techniques and decorative design. One of its highlights is the 1890 American shower cubicle preserved in situ in the back courtyard.

The mansion Galeria de Arte Benito Ortiz was owned by slave trader Jose Rafael Ortiz

Galeria de Arte Benito Ortiz - Trinidad

Facing the church, on the southwestern slope of the main square is the Galeria de Arte Benito Ortiz [11]. This mansion was owned by slave trader Jose Rafael Ortiz. The decorative mural work of the interior can still be seen as can the winsome murals on the wall of the balconied first floor gallery overlooking the square. Pop in to see the photography and art shows held here.

Walk along the southern flank of the Plaza Mayor, passing the two cast-iron greyhounds, which guard the entrance to the square. Here you're likely to come across one of Trinidad's local personalities – an old man, is face creased by the tropical sun, mounted on his donkey and charging money for snapping his portrait.

Archaeology Museum dominates the southwestern corner of Plaza Mayor

Archaeology Museum - Trinidad

The ochre-coloured Archaeology Museum (Museo de Arqueologia Guamuhaya) [12] dominates the southwestern corner of Plaza Mayor. Diagonally opposite the archaeology museum is private restaurant Paladar Son Ananda, a great lunch stop [13]. Dine amid the beautiful furniture, frescoed walls and period furniture. The menu is long and eclectic, featuring dishes such as gazpacho, samosas and lassis. Lunch and dinner are usually accompanied by a live band.

The neoclassical Cantero Palace is one of the Trinidad's most outstanding buildings

Cantero Palace - Trinidad

After lunch, head south down Calle Desengano (Disillusion Road) to one of the city's most outstanding buildings, the neoclassical Cantero Palace [14], now the local history museum. A sugar baron's palace with its own observation tower, it's adorned with luxuries bought with the profits of the sugar trade. The main reception room is stunning – decorated with vivid, classical murals by Italian painter Daniele Dal'Aglio, Carrara marble statues on pedestals, and gilded mirrors. There's crockery from England, porcelain vases from France, and a wondrous four-poster bed. Legend relates that a central fountain once sprayed eau de cologne for society ladies and gin for the town's gentlemen. Climb the tower, not only for the magnificent picturesque views of the city, but to see the exquisite friezes that decorate the walls of each floor. The Cantero Palace was built between 1828-1830, just a year after Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron's sugar mill produced the largest sugar harvest in the world.

Iznaga Palce is currently being restored and converted into a five-star hotel

Iznaga Palace - Trinidad

Just a little further south are the ruins of the Iznaga Palace [15], currently being restored and converted into a five-star hotel. This enormous colonial pile, built in 1814, belonged to Pedro Jose Iznaga y Borrell.

Opposite the Iznaga Palace, head up Calle Gloria, which is lined with some of Trinidad's most beautiful BandBs (casas particulares). At the Yesterday Bar [16], imagine yourself back in the 60s as Beatles music is played to curious punters.

Return towards the Plaza Mayor, browsing the embroidery and crafts market [17] on Callejon de Pena. Turn left at the plaza and walk towards Jigüe Square.

Yemaya Temple is dedicated to the saint Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean, of motherhood, and the mother of all human beings

Yemaya Temple - Trinidad

Just before the small square is the Yemaya Temple [18] dedicated to the saint (orisha) Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean, of motherhood, and the mother of all human beings in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. A white doll, guardian of the family house and orisha, can be seen at the entrance of the pretty blue house (blue is the colour of Yemaya), which is open to visitors.

The Jigüe Square [19] is a tiny, misshapen square which marks the spot of the first mass held in the city in December 1513.

Close to Jigüe Square, is one of Trinidad's legendary drinking spots. Past the new La Bodeguita del Medio bar [20], sit down in the shade of the long, narrow Bar La Canchanchara [21] inside one of the oldest buildings in the city. While a local band plays, sample the local tipple – the canchanchara – a heady blend of white rum, honey and lemon served in rounded earthenware cups.

The 18th-century San Francisco convent whose bell tower is an iconic emblem of Trinidad

San Francisco convent - Trinidad

Head right out of La Canchanchara and take the first right passing early to mid-18th-century Trinitario homes. Walk down Calle Cristo, one of the city's oldest streets to the 18th-century San Francisco convent [22] whose bell tower is an iconic emblem of the city. Today, it houses the Museum of the Fight against the Bandits (Museo de la Lucha Contra Bandidos) – rebels who fought in the nearby mountains against Fidel Castro's 1959 Revolution. Climb the tower here for the superb views of the city and the mountains.

Opposite the pretty Christ Square (Plazuela del Cristo) is the Cafe Don Pepe – the perfect leafy retreat for a coffee or refreshing mojito [23].

Taberna La Botija, a tavern with its walls lined by the owner's collection of slave memorabilia

Taberna La Botija - Trinidad

Head north up Calle Boca to the corner with Calle Amargura (Bitter Road) where you'll find Taberna La Botija [24], a tavern-cum-slave museum as the owner's collection of slave memorabilia lines the walls. This is a great refreshment stop for a drink or a late lunch.

Head east along Calle Amargura and then take the first track up the hill to the Chapel of the Candelaria de La Popa [25]. The facade of this 19th-century church has been incorporated into the new Hotel Pansea Trinidad which is due to open as the first Western-style boutique hotel in Cuba.

Vista Gourmet - an excellent restaurant with panoramic views

Vista Gourmet - Trinidad

Head back down to Calle Amargura, turn left and take the first right heading down to the small Segarte square passing beautiful examples of wrought-iron, and wooden grilles on the one-storey homes. You'll see the Bar Ruinas de Segarte [26], and the steep Callejon de Galdos which leads to the excellent Vista Gourmet restaurant [27] and its panoramic views. Walk right down Calle Cristo and take a left down Calle Rosario passing the very handsome 1795 priest's house with its duck egg blue facade, white fencing, and portico. Head down narrow Calle Rosario passing shops selling embroidery, cotton clothing, and art works.

Return to the plaza to enjoy a well-earned cocktail on the cute balcony of the Casa de los Conspiradores [6] or at Restaurant Esquerra [28] and watch the late afternoon light colour this beautiful Caribbean city. Alternatively, head south from the main square down to the old Brunet Theatre (Ruinas del Teatro Brunet) and enjoy a cold Cristal at the new House of Beer inside the ruins [29].

Claire Boobbyer

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Claire Boobbyer

Claire Boobbyer

Cultural Explorer

A self-confessed wanderluster and devoted culture lover, Claire writes about her frequent travels...

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