4 Nights in Trinidad
Trinidad is located in the Sancti Spíritus Province of Cuba, which is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the country. It's as far east as we got. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1988 by Unesco, the city harkens back to the times of cowboys and adventure. Stepping onto the cobblestone streets of Trinidad is like stepping back in time, it's not uncommon to see horses tied up in front of houses or buggies navigating the main thoroughfare of Antonio Maceo.
How we got there:
As I mentioned in a previous post, I figured that we'd travel through Cuba via Viazul. Turns out we didn't step foot on one Viazul bus. There is another network of connectado busses that operate on a smaller scale, and out of more central locations than the Viazul system (the Viazul station is not centrally located in Havana, about 2km from the city center). The connectado system runs out of hotels and you can buy your ticket in advance, just make sure to do so before 1 p.m. the day before you want to leave. We purchased our ticket to Trinidad from Hotel Plaza, off of Parque Central. You can also buy connectado bus tickets from Cubanacán offices. The network serves most areas you'd want to get to and prices are comparable to Viazul, maybe 2-5CUC more. However, you get a faster ride on a smaller bus.
Where we stayed:
As per the Guide Book Problem, the place we picked out on our way to Trinidad was booked. However, since everyone in Cuba knows someone who can help you, that host knocked on a few of her neighbors doors and eventually we found a a lovely place to stay.
We ended up at Hostal La Fortaleza "Air Berlin" at Calle Maceo #532-A. Our host, Norma, didn't speak English, but was still tremendously helpful. She helped set up dinner one night, arranged a salsa lesson for us and helped us catch a collectivo taxi to Viñales. Norma's house had two rooms for rent, both with en-suite bathrooms, located in a separate back area of the house. We had two porch levels and the rooftop had excellent views of the city.
Things we did:
We went with a Book recommendation for our horseback tour, Trinidad Travels. It's a tour company run by Reinier, the son of the hosts of Casa de Victor. We booked the day before through Reinier's father at the casa but during high season it might be necessary to book more in advance. Matt and I were the only ones on the tour that day, so we had more of a private guide experience.
Our excursion took all day, from 8:30 a.m. to around 3 or 4 p.m. Reinier meets you in front of his father's casa and then walks you out of "tourist Trinidad" and into "real Trinidad." In "real Trinidad" there are no tourists, but cowboys, family and lots of horses. It was interesting to see how the city changed by walking just a few more blocks, even the cobblestones were more "real" in that they were not well maintained.
The horseback tour takes you through the rural countryside just outside of Trinidad in the Valle de los Ingenios. We stopped at a local farm stand and had fresh coffee, hiked to a waterfall and had lunch at a local's house. The tour is pretty standard in terms of what you do no matter who your guide is. However, Reinier seemed to hit everything when it was less crowded and his pricing, while more than others, included the coffee and lunch, so we didn't feel heckled.
Reinier was a fantastic guide and speaks excellent English, which he learned by just speaking with guests of his parents' casa. He was fascinated with his new smartphone and we talked about the differences in Cuban and American life. It was definitely worth while to hear his stories of growing up in Trinidad and the saga of his new home's construction.
This wasn't a typical horseback ride tour that I've ever been on. We didn't walk slowly for an hour or two, we covered A LOT of ground. Often there was trotting involved. I learned on this tour that I am not particularly a horse person, by the end of the day I was so ready to be on my own feet. But it was a great way to see more of rural Cuba.
Most casas can book you a horseback guide and our host seemed a little disappointed that we booked through someone else. While I did hate doing the typical Book thing, I was very happy with Reinier's tour and highly recommend it!
Diving was at the top of my list of things I wanted to do in Cuba. Prior to any research, it seemed like Cuba was a diver's secret paradise. However, it became clear that to do some really spectacular diving in Cuba, you have to dedicate serious travel time and money (looking at you next time, Jardines de la Reina) or do the Veradero thing, which we didn't want. And since this wasn't a dive vacation, we came to an agreement that if the opportunity to dive presented itself, we would take it - but we weren't going to move heaven and earth to do so.
20 minutes from Trinidad is Playa Ancon, a strip of classic Caribbean beach with a couple of all-inclusive resorts that offer activities such as diving and snorkeling trips. You can book these activities in Trinidad at the Cubatur office. To book a dive you MUST BOOK BEFORE 10 a.m. the day before. Why? Because after that there is no guarantee that anyone will answer the phone! (Cue "That's Cuba"). We opted for 2 dives, which cost 64CUC per person.
The minibus service that runs from Trinidad to Playa Ancon doesn't start early enough for you to make the designated start time of 9 a.m., so you'll have to cab it. We got there a little earlier but ended up waiting over an hour before we even loaded onto the boat. I suppose you could show up day of and be able to dive, but I wouldn't recommend it during high season. Our first dive only had one other diver, but our second dive ended up having two groups of divers and some snorkelers.
I can't speak for the dive scene in Cuba, but our experience was very DIY, we carried our own tanks and gear to and from the boat. I didn't feel particularly confident in our guide but the equipment set up seemed solid, I was expecting way worse honestly. If you do dive in Cuba, be confident in your ability to assess the equipment given to you and know what you're comfortable with. I don't take diving lightly, but I am willing to bail and kick to the surface or grab onto my buddy's octopus when doing a standard recreational dive.
The actual diving was okay. Not to sound jaded, but it was a pretty standard coral reef system. The guides baited sea life with food, something I am not a fan of. The coolest things we saw were Moray eels, but only because of the baiting. During our second dive our guide didn't even do one air check and seemed more interested in taking pictures than pointing anything out to us. Which was fine, I just enjoyed being in the ocean and pretending to be a mermaid.
Would I dive again in Cuba? Yes. But not at Playa Ancon. I'm going back for the Jardines de la Reina, a week long live-aboard south of Cuba's mainland.
A stipulation of mine was to have at least one beach day while we were in Cuba. Soon into the planning of this trip I realized this was not going to be a beach vacation. But one or two days in the sun would do me a world of good before heading back home for another Utah winter.
After our diving we spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach. You can rent chairs from the hotel for about 2CUC per person, totally worth it. The day we were there it was a bit overcast, but that just meant the beach was empty and it felt like we had the place to ourselves. In high season I imagine it's much busier, because even though there were maybe 4 or 5 others around us, the hotel pool/entertainment area started blasting techno music in the later afternoon.
You can do a beach day easily by taking the Trinidad minibus, which picks up outside of Cubatur on Antonio Maceo. It departs twice in the morning and returns in the early evening. Check with Cubatur for exact times.
Hike to Cerro de la Vigia
One of my favorite days of the trip was the day we did this hike. We opted for a local day of exploration rather than booking another tour. The hike is maybe 30 minutes total, I'd call it mild. You walk straight up Calle Simón Bolívar, the path is pretty evident.
When you get to the top where the radio transmitter is, you'll have 360 degree views of Trinidad and the surrounding area. Beware, at the top we took on an accidental tour guide. A man was waiting outside of the small snack shack and started talking to us about the transmitter and the scenery, pointing things out to us. We tried to tell him no thank you but he just kept following and talking to us. He did take us up a ladder on top of one of the structures where we had a spectacular vantage point. I guess the 2CUC we paid him was worth it. So much for free activities in Cuba!
Casa de la Música
Every night the square outside of Casa de la Música fills with people. Music is in the air and the mojitos are flowing. The Casa is an institution for salsa dancing and we caught part of an odd show there. It was a mix of pyrotechnics, magic and maybe a little voodoo. I'd highly recommend hanging out there one afternoon or night and just let the atmosphere take you over.
Places we ate:
Our first night in Trinidad Norma made us a reservation and walked us here. It was wonderful. You have to walk through the owner's home to the back patio, where tables are arranged under a giant ceiba tree. Order their specialty, chicken in lemon and honey sauce. Fun fact: Norma tried taking us here again the next night, she didn't understand that we would want to try somewhere new.
This was one of my favorite places we ate in Cuba. The theme of the restaurant is guitars, and they go all out with it (including guitar bread cutouts as decorations on your plate). My ropa vieja was excellent here, as was their guava cheesecake. They also leave you with Cohibas as a gift of the house.
This double-deck restaurant was it's own experience. The concept is that you order a main dish and then get to hit the appetizer and dessert buffets. Overall the food was just okay, but the buffets were a definite plus for my always-hungry boyfriend. We were on the top terrace and the views and ambiance were worth the so-so fare.
Restaurant San Jose
We ate here on the recommendation of a fellow tourist we met at Playa Ancon. Apparently it was the best meal he had had in Cuba so far. Obviously we wanted in. It is also apparently the most popular restaurant in town, as we had to wait for a table and were handed a buzzer (yes a BUZZER in Cuba!) for when our table was ready. Of course, across the street was probably a perfectly good restaurant, sitting empty. This was our last dinner in Trinidad and by this point I had been eating Cuban food for about a week, so I though the food was a little lack-luster. However, everyone around us was enjoying their meals. And they served wine, always a plus.
Trinidad was on our list because it seemed like it was supposed to be. I didn't know much about the city other than it was a Unesco World Heritage site and was supposed to be extremely photogenic. Our time in Trinidad felt slow and easy, very different from Havana. I absolutely loved the cowboy and troubadour quality about the place. Even though the city sprawls a bit, it feels more contained and quaint. My memories of it are dripping in golden sunlight and watching the horses kick up dust from the cobblestones.