Cuba: Sugar & Slavery in Colonial Trinidad

Author: Isaychev, Wikimedia Commons

In Cuba, history is everyday life. Many travellers say that it feels like stepping back into the 1950s: the communist-run state is famous for its old cars, crumbling buildings, and its visible (though not total) lack of the western corporate life so familiar to us today. But beyond the vintage cars, Cuba’s experience of colonialism, slavery and the New World is just as fascinating to see.

“A living museum of Cuban sugar production” is how UNESCO describes Cuba’s stunning colonial town, Trinidad, situated on the southern coast. On the one hand it seems idyllic: green hills surrounding cobbled streets and colourful colonial casas, with sandy beaches and warm Caribbean waters nearby. But it also tells the gruelling story of slavery in the sugar cane production process, which fuelled Trinidad’s wealth and prosperity. Near Trinidad, you can visit a former sugar plantation and even climb an overseer’s tower in the nearby “Valle de los Ingenios” (Valley of the Sugar Mills). I’d recommend the experience to anyone travelling to Cuba.

Trinidad: Where the Clocks Stopped Ticking

Lonely Planet calls Trinidad as “one-of-a-kind, a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement where the clocks stopped ticking in 1850” – and that’s how it feels to wander around its sleepy cobbled streets. Founded by none other than conquistador Diego Velázquez himself in 1514, only a few short years after the New World’s ‘discovery’, Trinidad is an amazing place to simply spend time in and relax.

Credit: Gorupdebesanez via Wikimedia Commons

Trinidad is firmly on the tourist trail, but this does little to ruin its atmosphere. The small town is easy to navigate, dotted with colourful one-storey colonial houses. I stayed in a casa particular, renting a room in a Cuban home, right in the centre of town – in a place like Trinidad this is a great way to stay in a beautiful colonial building at a very reasonable price. Among the colonial buildings all around you, don’t miss the Palacio Brunet, the beautiful, aristocratic home on the Plaza Mayor, a showcase of Trinidad’s colonial-era wealth.

Although not the town’s main attraction, Trinidad has nice beaches nearby, as its first role was as a strategic coastal town for the Spanish. But don’t try to walk to to Playa Ancón, the closest beach, from Trinidad in Cuba’s sweltering July heat, like I did. It’s down one long road (the Carretera a Casilda) but it’s a lot further than it first seems, and you’ll probably end up taking a taxi halfway anyway, covered in sweat and thirsty enough to drink every coconut on Cuba’s southern coast.

Credit: Esteban De Sousa via Wikimedia Commons

‘White Gold’ and its Dark Past

Europe’s sweet tooth caused demand for sugar from the New World to soar (and our teeth began to rot). Sugar became known as the ‘white gold’ and by around 1827, the manpower of over 11,000 slaves kept more than fifty mills in the region running. Slave houses, an overseer’s watchtower, and haciendas are still visible today. Cuba was among the last places to abolish slavery, legal until 1886 – over fifty years after Britain abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies. The clusters of houses around the area are still visibly poor, and predominantly Afro-Cuban.

You can climb up the incredibly rickety staircase of the Manaca-Iznaga Tower (below), a 45m-high structure built in 1816 to ring across the cane fields, marking the start and finish of the working day for slaves. Despite the feeling that it may well crumble beneath you, it’s well worth it for the beautiful views, and you get a good idea of sense of dominance and ownership over the fields and slaves working in them.

The practical bits

  • Trinidad is easily accessible from Havana or other parts of Cuba by tourist bus, Viazul. It’s a well-trodden part of the tourist trail.
  • I’d strongly advise staying in a Cuban’s home – a casa particular – rather than a hotel.  There are plenty of beautiful colonial-style houses right in the centre to choose from – especially in a small colonial town like Trinidad, it’s a great way to experience the history of the place.
  • To see the sugar fields, I rented a car in Trinidad and drove there (it’s about 12km outside the town). This probably gives you the most freedom to explore the surrounding countryside, nearby villages and beaches. You can also get to the plantation from Trinidad by taxi, by horse, or, so I hear, on a quaint little steam train with wooden carriages – but other travellers have complained of its inefficiency, so if you’re pushed for time, I’d suggest renting a car or driver.
  • There’s a small entrance fee (I think around $1).
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