Cuba is an extraordinarily large and highly varied island and it is well worth venturing beyond Havana and the beach resorts. One excursion from Havana takes you to the western province of Pinar Del Rio and the Valley of Vinales.
The valley is a unique landscape of limestone outcrops giving it a touch of Vietnam, when combined with its intense greenery and lush vegetation. Both Pinar del Rio, the provincial capital, and the small town of Vinales are characterised by single storey buildings with grandiose columns and even the occasional Art Deco flourish. As you walk around typical Cuban towns, you are struck by how busy and bustling they are with all ages, and 50s Buicks sitting alongside horse and carts. Someone used to London or New York streets would certainly not feel out of place. The reality however, is that this activity on the streets during the day largely reflects the fact that many ordinary Cubans do not have jobs, at least not in the formal economy.
The colonial town of Trinidad is nestled in the southwest of the island, with the Caribbean Sea glimmering tantalising on the horizon. The well preserved historic core comprises pedestrianised cobbled streets, single and two story properties, many with colonnades and classic colonial detailing. The main square with its grand palatial buildings, tall palms, tidy vegetation and the gentle mountains as a backdrop has a very South American or indeed Mexican feel. Whilst the main square can be surprisingly sparse of people other than the odd tourist, perhaps on account of the searing heat during the day, the surrounding streets are abuzz with an eclectic mix of locals, street traders and tourists. Away from the main square which feels somewhat sanitised, Trinidad could arguably be like any other provincial Cuban town.
The Iberostar Trinidad is our pick to stay in the city with its Moroccanesque inner courtyard lit by a roof lantern and ambient lighting. The junior suites on the top floor provide a discrete window into Trinidad’s living room played out on the Plaza Carillo below. By evening, once the heat has eased, the square becomes a surreal setting for all ages to converse, connect and play. Throughout the night the square has a gentle hum of conversation, with every park bench occupied, every low wall rested on. Trinidad is undoubtedly a stunning example of an interior Cuban town, with its beautifully preserved buildings and well-presented squares. Whilst tourism has brought many benefits however, including investment in its buildings, its legacy has arguably led to a somewhat sanitised environment. Those looking for a more authentic experience may therefore wish to venture further afield from the urban comforts of Havana.
The coastal city of Cienfuegos is also well worth a detour. The city is blessed by an idyllic setting adjacent to a beautifully curved bay framed by the Caribbean Sea. The town centre, on a Saturday morning, has a frenetic, prosperous air, bustling with life and activity. The French colonial architecture, especially its grand opera house, framed by royal palms and in tropical colours gives the town a distinct and unique feel. The azure blue Caribbean sea can be seen at the end of the street, reminding one that this is very much a maritime settlement, even though the town itself is not particularly orientated towards the sea. Cienfuegos is also the birth place of the celebrated Cuban musician Benny Moret, a statue of whom graces one of the main thoroughfares of the town.
Undoubtedly the jewel of Cienfuegos is the Moorish styled Palacio de Valles. Located a short distance around the bay, on a slight headland, the Palacio is nowadays a well-trodden tourist attraction with ample car parking and adjacent hotel. Despite this, at a quiet moment, exploring the building’s terraces and viewpoints could keep you busy for many hours. The detailing is arguably on a par with Granada’s Alhambra. On the first floor level, once up the grand staircase, the view out to the front is framed by exquisite Arabic curves. Up the spiral staircase, the expansive roof terrace has beautiful views out to sea, and one could spend many hours soaking up its rich ambience were it not for the next tour group arrival. Despite this, the Palacio de Valles very much reflects Cuba itself, characterised by unpolished gems which hint of the depth of Cuba’s appeal.
Beyond Havana, Cuba
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“Throughout the night the square has a gentle hum of conversation, with every park bench occupied, every low wall rested on.”