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Cuba: Trinidad

A view of Trinidad with the Sierra del Escambray in the background
Trinidad lies at the foot of the Sierra del Escambray mountain range, which can be seen rising in the distance

Trinidad oozes charm, which made it a perfect antidote to the disaster zone of Playa Girón. This time we drove straight into the centre of town, got lost, pulled up by the side of the road to try to work out a strategy for finding accommodation, and a man came out of a nearby casa particular, knocked on the window and asked whether we'd like to see his habitaciónes. We liked what we saw, and so we ended up staying with José and Daisy on Valle Maceo for three very pleasant nights.

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad
The Plaza Mayor is the focal point of the colonial town of Trinidad

Historic Trinidad

A view over Trinidad
The Trinidad skyline is dominated by the tower of the former convent of San Francisco de Asís

Not only was our casa particular a vast improvement on the previous night's hovel, but so was Trinidad itself. It's easy to see why UNESCO gives it a big thumbs up, as Trinidad is a beautifully preserved example of colonial Spanish architecture, and if you can squint your eyes and mentally block out the large number of tourists milling around the old town centre, it's easy to imagine that you're back in a time when old men were old men and their donkeys were more than just photo opportunities for tourist hordes.

Beauty is Skin Deep

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad
Looking down into the Plaza Mayor from the Museo Municipal de Historia

At first we couldn't resist it; we headed straight for the Plaza Mayor and walked up the wide stone stairway to the east of the Iglesia, taking a seat at one of the white metal tables in the Casa de la Música and returning the waiter's beaming smile with the order of a Cristal beer and a mojito. I was a little surprised when they brought me my beer in the form of a can and a small, thin plastic cup, as this was clearly the prime tourist drinking spot in Trinidad, but this wouldn't be the last time that Cuba appeared to be missing a tourist trick. The clientele were exclusively tourists, and I get the feeling that you could charge more than $1 for a beer if you served it in a glass, bought some parasols for the tables and improved the quality of your cocktails. Even in this bar in the centre of Cuba's most visited city, the corners feel cut.

A back street in Trinidad
The pretty back streets of Trinidad

Loud Cuban Bands

A house in the back streets of Trinidad
In the back streets, the cobbles turn to dirt and the houses become more dilapidated, but they're still gorgeous

We tried valiantly to scratch the surface of Trinidad, but ultimately we failed (unless, of course, Trinidad is little more than a tourist shell, which I don't really believe, and don't want to). We spent the first night doing the tourist thing and hanging out in the Casa de la Música, which filled up as the evening progressed until the steps were heaving with crowds of tourists watching the traditional Cuban band halfway down the steps. Despite the perfect setting and the undeniably upbeat music, the atmosphere was a long way from the thumping party vibe portrayed so enticingly in the Bacardi adverts. The crowd clapped politely between each song and hired dancers shook their hips in front of the band, but there was little engagement between the audience and the musicians; this was all about getting that Kodak moment and saying you'd been there. People were nursing their plastic cocktails rather than throwing them back, and I could see people mentally ticking the box marked 'Evening spent watching salsa band in historic colonial square.' We left them to it when we couldn't handle any more drinks, which didn't take too long.

A view over Trinidad
The crowded roofs of Trinidad
A Spanish colonial building in Trinidad
The Plaza Mayor is surrounded by Spanish colonial architecture

Burning Beach

Colourful houses in Trinidad
Trinidad's houses come in a lovely range of pastel shades

Instead, we spent our evenings talking with José and Daisy's son, Manuel, who spoke better English than we did Spanish and who was a delight to talk to. While talking about the area, we asked Manuel if there were any beaches nearby that he could recommend, and he said there were two. La Boca, the nearest, was where the locals went, while the tourists went to Playa Ancón, along the end of a 4km sand spit to the south of Trinidad. 'Ancón is just too hard for us to get to,' he said, 'so instead we take the bicycle to La Boca. But not often.' Playa Ancón is 14km from Trinidad; when public transport is non-existent and only the rich have cars, it's a very small world indeed.

Playa Ancón
The pleasant beach at Playa Ancón