This is the small town of Trinidad in Cuba, in many ways the country’s music capital, and everyone here seems to either play or dance, or do both – and usually superbly – whatever their age or day job.
While Cuba’s capital Havana grabs the headlines, seasoned travellers flock here, to Trinidad, four hours south west on the coast.
Quite apart from the free music and dancing every night in the square, it’s an absolutely charming old colonial town, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, with streets that are still cobbled from the 18th century, lined by terraces of carefully restored houses painted every shade of pastel.
Founded in 1514 by the Spanish, Trinidad was too far from Havana to be properly governed, so it became a shelter for pirates and traders putting 30,000 slaves to work in the sugar plantations and mills, the remains of which can still be seen in surrounding valleys.
The Spanish, however, also left behind a number of beautiful churches and mansions, usually owned by the old sugar merchants, in town.
On the palm-studded Plaza Mayor the main museum is housed in a palace built in the early 1800s, with exhibits on slave trading and the wars of independence. The tiny spiral steps inside the tower lead to stunning views over the jumbled roofs of the city and Caribbean Sea beyond. There’s also the largest church in Cuba, the neo- classical Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad with its 18th-century wooden statue of Christ that was bound for elsewhere but ditched by sailors in a storm.
Another church, built by the Franciscans in 1813, has been turned into the National Museum of the Struggle Against Bandits which tells the stories of the Cuban revolutionaries and the forces that tried, in vain, to defeat them.
Trinidad is tooled up for tourists, with dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as rows of little shops selling handicrafts, art and knick-knacks featuring the legendary Che Guevara on everything from T-shirts to life-sized portraits, keyrings to his signature beret.
Happily, just 12 kilometres up the road by bicycle, horse or ancient Lada taxi is one of the country’s loveliest beaches too, the white-sand Playa Ancon, lapped by clear azure waters and with a coral reef to explore a short wade in. There’s even a bar on the beach.
Trinidad is fast becoming the place to visit in Cuba and with all the joie de vivre of Havana, but few of the hassles, it’s a small town with a big heart, and the closest you’ll ever get in the country to a true holiday destination.
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