Cuba: Trinidad, the tourist trap

Trinidad- The “Most expensive city in Cuba”

Not my words, the words of my Casa Particular owner when I called her out for ripping me off.

I so badly wanted to wax lyrical about the homely welcome and good VFM of Cuba, but after two nights in Trinidad I simply can’t. This place, more so than possibly anywhere else, is where I have felt most like a walking wallet. Cynical exploitation of the tourist trade like this can only ever end one way, and it’s not positive.

This started with my casa particular. Recommended by the lovely Maria from Santa Clara, however in her defence it seems to have changed hands since she knew it. I won’t deny that it was a pleasant spot, however having discussed prices with several other people I met it in Trinidad, it was 10CUC more per night than virtually everywhere else in this town. As much as they may claim otherwise, accommodation really is much of a muchness here and there definitely is a going rate of 25CUC per night. Maybe 20, maybe 30. Definitely not 35 as I paid. This is doubly galling as the room rate never changes according to occupancy, plus dorms don’t really exist, so I’m constantly paying a 100% single supplement.

I challenged the owner on this, to which I received a lot of flannel but no decent explanation. They know we’ll just pay, so further argument turns out to just be wasted breath.

We’ll come on to the merits of the horse tour that I did at a later stage. Needless to say it was not a positive experience!

Overall then, I’ve come away with a really negative view of Trinidad, which is a shame because the town and the area are undeniably beautiful. What makes me most annoyed is that all of this profiteering goes on amongst just one stratum of society. Sure, I don’t deny that taxi drivers and tourist touts have families to feed too, but when they are the richest people in the country and state employees like doctors and other highly skilled people are on pennies then something’s badly wrong.

My one recommendation is not to bother with one of the cheap horse tours. Pay 50CUC via Cubatur for a day-long excursion taking you right into the park, to the coffee museum, on a walk etc. Lunch is included on these tours, and it makes for far better value than the half-arsed wander/shopping opportunity we completed.

But what about the architecture?

Yep, it’s flipping amazing. Trinidad is probably one of the best preserved colonial towns behind Cienfuegos, it’s been an UNESCO world heritage site since 1988 and the sheer quantity of history was incredible. Coupled with the low mid afternoon sun, Trinidad is a truly photogenic place.

Artful dilapidation

Sleepy streets

The Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima has some of the finest views in town, both in terms of the numerous postcards which feature its honeyed walls from outside, and also from the expansive views from within the vertigo-inducing bell tower.

Plaza Mayor up towards the Iglesia

Walking up towards the Iglesia. Amusingly the smart old gentleman above featured in several of my photos of the same sight on different days, he must be a professional extra employed by UNESCO. Possibly with a cigar allowance.

It’s only 1CUC to enter, definitely Trinidad’s biggest bargain, and once inside there is an eclectic mix of exhibits in the museum downstairs including religion, revolutionary history, seized ‘spy’ boats… It really has it all going on. The biggest attraction is the bell tower though. Go steady on the stairs since you’ll inevitably be bulldozed at some point by a European tourist coming the other way!

There’s a lady who sits on a chair before the final staircase up. She advises everyone “No sonar la campanas!” Excellent advice in fact, which I failed to heed during a 1980’s school trip to St. Michael’s School when I definitely DID ring the bell, and got into lots of trouble. This time however I was alright, and as I descended I solemnly told her that I had NOT rung the bell. “Bien hecho Sam.”

Windows on Trinidad

The views from the bell tower and various terraces really are stunning, encompassing the whole vista of the city and looking beyond to the verdant rolling hills. Definitely worth taking a few moments to gaze in peace. I actually had quite a decent period of time in Trinidad to just wander and take in the views, and to grab some arty shots. I would recommend not going much higher than Plaza Mayor though, the streets get more dilapidated and whilst not intimidating, the atmosphere definitely gets a bit less friendly.

Random cannon set into the wall, making a practical protector against scuffs. This could never happen in England, an enterprising young tyke would have it weighed in before you could blink.

Adios Fidel

During my first day in Trinidad I received the news of Fidel Castro’s death. It’s imposible to over-estimate how important this felt to the people of Cuba, and his passing was marked with a 2-week period of national mourning. One one hand I think it’s faintly ridiculous to bewail the peaceful death of a 90-year old unwell man like it’s a surprising outcome, however on the other hand the symbolic significance of his passing is enormous. He really was the founder of modern-day Cuba and indeed he is seen as a father by the majority of the people.

On a somewhat practical note this would throw an enormous spanner in my mojito and jazz plans for the rest of the trip! From Sunday onwards all bars were ordered to close for the duration of the mourning, and alcohol could not be bought (almost) anywhere. All public music was prohibited. Cuba suddenly got a LOT less fun.

Horsing around

So, the horse trip. Grr. 

I’d briefly chatted to an Austrian couple at Casa Maria in Santa Clara just before leaving, and they had not only recommended a Casa (Which, with the benefit of hindsight, I definitely should have headed for), but also mentioned that the aforementioned Casa booked them a horse excursion which sounded great, 20CUC per person, trip into the hills, visit a waterfall and then eat an amazing pork lunch (The implication was that this was also included). I’m not a tour guy normally, but this sounded tempting!

I enquired at Casa Ripoff and they said yes, there were tours, and duly booked me onto one. Naively I assumed that they all used the same company as happens in most places, but actually here in Trinidad I think it’s not the case. Tip: Do NOT book with “Elbis and Iosbel” horse tours. So, they picked me up on a horse cart from the casa along with 2 really nice German guys. We get to a kind of horse staging area where all the tourists get sent out, and pay our 25CUC. Why not 20? Oh, we pay the National Park entrance fee. OK, fair enough, maybe it’s not included on the other tours. We’ll come back to this.

For now though, it was pretty pleasant. I met and bonded with my lovely horse. To be clear, it’s a cuddle not a headlock. And I’m not entirely sure why I look so huge in this picture. It was just a normal-sized horse, not a Shetland Pony.

We set off, walking the horses down the steep road. This is a crap tour, we’re just taking them for walkies! Before long though, we did actually get to ride. Off road and into the admittedly fantastic countryside.

The two Germans. I mentioned the war once, but I think I got away with it (TM- Fawlty Towers)

The only way to travel

So, after about an hour of plodding through the countryside under a desiccating sun, we arrived at our first stop-off. A small restaurant where they were pressing sugarcane. Would you like a sugarcane juice with rum? Yes, that’ll be lovely. It’s probably included in the tour after all.

The next shack was only about 15 minutes ride away. Yes, we got to meet a man who (allegedly) grows his own coffee. How exciting! And we can also buy some of the coffee to take away, as well as honey. Fantastic, while we’re here let’s have a thimbleful of the coffee. What, that’s 1.50CUC? We have to pay? Ok, no worries. By the way, I love the way you use a mortar and pestle to grind the coffee. That’s a great way to make awful, bitter coffee since the grind is so uneven. But what do I know, I’m not the man who grows his own coffee.

Unlike the coffee, I am most definitely not bitter. But I did have to laugh when one of the other tour group actually bought a small bag of this shite. 7CUC, about £6. And she’ll take it home and brew a big pot of it during her 3 hour slideshow epic Mein Urlaub and all of her press-ganged viewers like friends Gretchen and Ralf from Duisburg will ooh and aah and have to pretend to like the fucking stuff. Mmm, authentic. Utter bullshit. Much like his £7 honey. Robbers, all of them. Fuck off with your coffee, coffee man. And your bees.

So, after parking the horses about 5 minutes away from the last spending opportunity, we walked 15 minutes to an admittedly pleasant swimming hole. With 2 makeshift bars. Great! Mojito? Mojito? Mojito Sir?

On the upside, it was absolutely packed to the rafters with fit 20 year old girls in bikinis, and the cold water was very refreshing on such a hot day, so overall I will regard the swimming segment as a win. The guide told us to take as long as we liked there, presumably because we had absolutely fuck all else left to do on this contrived rural shopping outing and anyway, he got to stick his fat belly out in the sun for a bit and regale the other guides with tales of horse derring-do.

After we’d all tired of swimming or, more importantly the constant badgering to buy drinks, we moved off. Yes, back to the first restaurant. How jolly! Since we’d ordered our lunches already they were nearly ready. About 4 small vegetables each and some slivers of meat, much like that reconstituted turkey bullshit that used to appear in school dinners. Yum. And so, the bill comes, it’s a frankly usurious 8CUC for the food (Bearing in mind my full, and actually tasty, lobster dinner cost less than this in Santa Clara) and, oh look- Our sugarcane juices from earlier have reappeared on the bill. 3CUC each. But I thought those were a lovely gift?!?

Suitably refreshed, and all more than a little jaded and grumbly from the experience thus far, we repaired to the horse park. 

Now, I’m a mischievous sort and I fucking hate being ripped off. So, I decided to have a little chat to the horse guide, incidentally the son of the boss whom we had paid earlier. 

When it comes to transactional stuff I’m basically fluent in Spanish now. And when someone’s ripping you off they hate it. Like, really seriously hate it when you call them out on it in good Spanish. So, in a disarmingly friendly manner I asked him when he had paid the National Park entrance fee (remember… 5CUC extra) and who to. Because clearly he… hadn’t.

He didn’t like this one little bit. I could see the cogs whirring, as he acted dumb. I continued, pointing out that we had paid 25CUC for the tour. “Oh, no, the other tours are 15 or 20CUC because they’re not official.” Ah, ok. So then, back to the National Park entrance fee- Who did you pay it to? You need to talk to my dad. End of conversation. Haha, job done. 

After a brief ride back through the exact same lovely countryside we pitched up back at the horse staging area, and the whole sorry affair was done with. I could no doubt have argued unsuccessfully with boss horse about this fictitious National Park entry fee but it would have been, quite simply, wasted breath. Sometimes, it’s just enough to let the fuckers know that you know.

Anyway…

Moving on, I’d planned to meet the German guys at a Cachancharia bar later but neither could I find it, nor was it open, due to the Fidel Mandatory Mourning Period (TM) therefore some ropa vieja and an early night it was, before getting the hell out of Dodge.

Ropa Vieja. Nicer than it looks- Basically shredded pork in a Creole sauce. A Cuban food staple

Next up: Reclaiming the love in Cienfuegos

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