A simple ‘Ya tengo habitacion‘ was enough to disperse the small crowd of touts that awaited the arrival of our bus in Trinidad. They weren’t at all pushy, though, and would probably have been a good option for a free ride to a good casa particlar, had we not already booked our homestay on hostelsclub.com. We headed out to find Casa Mirelis, just a ten minute walk from the Viazul bus stop, and seemingly one of the only casa particulares in Cuba without the blue upside-down-anchor sign painted over the door. After a bit of tentative knocking and checking with a neighbour, we found Mirelis who welcomed us in and showed us our room and the plant-filled roof terrace where she’d serve us breakfast each morning.
Just as Havana had transported us back to a faded version of 50s opulence, so Trinidad took us even further back to a time of cobbled streets and cowboys. This small city is famously one of the best preserved in the Caribbean, founded during the times of the sugar trade. Horseback is a common mode of transport (those soviet Ladas didn’t stand a chance on Trinidad’s ridiculously bumpy streets), fruit and vegetables are sold from the back of wooden carts, and around every corner was another well maintained 16th century plaza.
Completing the Wild West picture were the vultures that ominously circled overhead the whole time we were in Trinidad. This wasn’t a sight we were used to – we almost started to worry that they knew something we didn’t when they seemed to follow us on our walk out of town up to the viewpoint at the old radio tower in the nearby hills. The walk took us out past the noticeably less touristy outskirts of town and up high enough to see the Caribbean sea glistening in the distance, and a panoramic view across the colonial towers and terracotta tiled rooftops.
The beach is an easy bus or bike ride away, but we spent all of our time getting happily lost amongst the town’s cobblestone streets and colourful buildings. These are not the quaint, smooth cobblestones of Europe. These Caribbean cobbles mean business. Walking down some streets was more of a rocky obstacle course than casual stroll.
While Trinidad is a big tourist hotspot in Cuba, it’s the kind of place where you feel like life would carry on in just the same way if you weren’t there. The horses and carts would still be clip-clopping along the streets, the garlic seller would still be wandering from house to house, and the street sellers are refreshingly not any more interested in selling you their fresh fruit, hot soup, or ice cold granizada than to the next Trinidadian.
On our last night in Trinidad, and penultimate night in Cuba, we decided to head out to one of the paladores for dinner. Paladores are family run restaurants, mostly aimed at tourists, and so have a CUC price tag to match. Other than eating at the homestays, they are also pretty much the only way to get to try local cuisine. The cheapest ‘peso food’ in cafeterias is more filling than flavoursome, and usually pizzas, burgers and tostadas rather than traditional Cuban meals.
We had yet to try the national dish of ‘ropa vieja’ – literally translated as ‘old clothes’ – so, with a pocketful of saved CUCs, headed to La Botija. The reputation for bad food in Cuba once again didn’t ring true with us, as the beef was stewed to perfection with a tasty mix of vegetables and capers.
As the sun sets, Trinidad transforms into the familiar Cuban mix of sounds, smells, and sights that you can’t help but love. The place to be each evening is undoubtedly the steps alongside the cathedral from Plaza Major – sitting on the steps here is one of our abiding Cuban memories. The sounds are salsa and sol rhythms drifting from the open windows of nearby houses at first, and later from the larger and louder casas de la musica and cabaret clubs. The smells are of cigar smoke as men and women, young and old, gather at the foot of the steps to light up (tobacco processing is the largest industry in Trinidad, and cigars are as cheap and easy to come by as in Vinales where the tobacco is grown).
The sights are of those same people gradually moving up the steps throughout the evening, kept in supply of drinks by waiters from the bar, ending on the open air dance floor next to the live band, where by the end of the night the same mix of young and old, locals and tourists, are a blur of professional looking spins and twirls, like you’d never see in the average London nightclub. The taste, of course, is rum; there are 2USD mojitos and cuba libres, but the local drink is canchanchara – rum with a blend of honey, lemon, and soda.
Back in Vinales we’d become acutely aware of our lack of salsa skills. It didn’t stop us from getting on the dance floor, but it did spur us on to have a salsa lesson in Trinidad – at least to get a few basic steps under our belt. Our first plan was to book a lesson at a school we’d seen in the courtyard of a ruined theatre, but as this was way out of budget we resorted to asking around. Mirelis’ husband Eddy pointed us in a few different directions, but in the end we passed a house with a sign tied to the shutters advertising half hour lessons. For 5CUC, Eusal, who’d retired from his career dancing in clubs around Cuba to set up a dance school in Trinidad, taught us the basic steps in his friend’s living room, which we then tried to replicate – with minimal toe-stepping and mid-spin memory blanks – at Casa de la Musica later that night.