To Trinidad and Back Again
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
The trip to Trinidad from Cayo Santa Maria winds southward through tobacco plantations, quaint rural farms, and lovely colonial towns, before climbing over the Escambray Mountains and then plunging into the Valley of the Sugar Mills—whose produce once made the city wealthy, a jewel of the Caribbean.
My wife and I made the journey with Gaviota—Cuba’s military-run tourism giant—accompanied by Dunia, our guide, and Ianko, who also works with Gaviota in an administrative capacity. On this excursion, we would learn a lot about Cuba and its history. But we would also learn a lot about its present, thanks to our two guides.
UNESCO protected since 1988, Trinidad is one of the best-preserved cities in Cuba. Its Plaza Mayor is cobbled and resplendent in flowers and colour. The Santisima Cathedral on its north end presides proudly over 500 years of history. And just down the street resides the Convento de San Francisco, which has become an iconic image of the city.
Tourists from the resorts in the north may feel a little bleary in the increased humidity as you stretch your legs after the four-hour journey. But there is much to see in the city’s slender streets, including the artisan market which snakes away from the Plaza Mayor and spills off into several different alleys. You can also visit the Santander Family, who have been throwing pottery and producing some of the finest ceramics in the country for more than 100 years.
Everywhere in the city centre there is live music and movement. Tourists and locals throng in the streets. We took a carriage ride through the old town and poked through the markets before sitting down in a shady café, with Dunia and Ianko, for a coffee (them) and a beer (us).
We asked them, from all their experience in the travel industry, what they thought the best place in Cuba was. The answer surprised us.
“Varadero,” Dunia said after looking to Ianko.
He nodded his assent.
“It’s clean,” she added, “and safe. You have the beaches, but you are also close to the city, and to Matanzas. Havana is only two hours away, if you want that.”
“And for us,” said Ianko, “there are jobs. And it’s a good place for kids.”
My wife and I have always been concerned about our travel habit—the ethics of wealth and our decisions about where and how we travel. We read a lot on the subject. And in that moment, the blog article that stuck out in my mind was “10 Things NOT to Do in Cuba.” Number one was “Varadero.”
But then tourism in Cuba is a complicated concept.
Take our excursion to Trinidad, for example. We were up at 6am for a 7:30 departure. The tour included a coffee stop in Yanguajay, as well as a drink and free time in Sancti Spiritus—a lively colonial town well-worth a longer visit. We had lunch in the hills above Trinidad and almost 3 hours to explore the city. We were not back in Cayo Santa Maria before 10pm.
Now consider Dunia and Ianko. They must bus more than an hour to and from work in to Cayo Santa Maria before and after the tour. Think of the bus driver, Daniel. The three of them would have clocked in a 16 to 17 hour shift that day.
But how do they feel about that?
“There are some jobs that take little time, but give you little money,” said Ianko. “If you want things for your family, you put in the time. This is a good job in Cuba. A government job pays the equivalent of 20CUC/month. Teachers make 30. Doctors, 40 or 45. But those jobs are not paid in CUCs (convertible pesos). They are paid in the national currency.”
“In the tourism industry, our tips are paid in CUCs. This makes a big difference.”
“A family needs 15CUCs a week just to cover the basics,” added Dunia. “A week.”
Gaviota is Cuba’s fastest growing business. It has sent Ianko all the way to Angola to recruit health care tourists. In Cayo Santa Maria alone, Gaviota’s hotels offer up 9000 rooms (the company owns 51% of each of the area’s 18 resorts). And current construction will see that increase to 13000 in a few short years. The government company has constructed dozens of apartment blocks in nearby Caibarein to house the resort workers. After five years of employment, workers may apply to live in one. After 15 years they may apply to own it.
Money from government tourism has also funded the massive construction of the award-winning pedraplen, or causeway, that likes Cayo Santa Maria and four other cayos to the mainland. And spinoff money has injected tourism dollars into nearby towns like Remedios, funding the restoration of its main square and its churches. A rum and cigar museum has even been built in the town’s abandoned sugar mill.
Tour guides like Dunia have a spiel that you will get used to hearing at the end of every excursion. They thank you for choosing Cuba. They ask you to tell your friends about them. Then they tell you about the importance of tipping.
Cuba is a country of free health care and universal education up through university. But it is also a country which must provide its citizens with ration cards to cover the basics. It has made a long slow climb out of its economic collapse in the 1990s. And this climb has been made on the back of tourism. Another guide told us, “Our heads are now above water. We’re breathing.”
So the next time you go south, consider Cuba. And take a few days away from your resort. See the country. Meet the people. They are grateful for it. You will be too.