Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Trinidad, Cuba - UNESCO Treasure or Tourist Trap? Day 2

After an interesting first day and evening in Trinidad, I slept well. I decided to forgo the breakfast offered in my casa particular. Instead I wanted to walk around the streets and see what I could find. There was the normal hustle and bustle of people going to work, kids going to school… and then I saw a line forming at this doorway. There are bad lines and good lines. This appeared to be a good line. There were about 10 people winding their way up this small staircase waiting for something being distributed through the doorway. It stuck me as a little strange, because the venue did not look like your typical Cuban ration store or dispensary - it looked like a house. I observed as person after person would patiently wait, pay some money, then walk away with a little morsel in their hand.
This is what the people were walking away with… a fish sandwich. Sometimes it is advisable to follow the wisdom of the crowd. So I patiently waited my turn. One of the locals behind me in line seemed a little perturbed that a tourist was invading his favorite breakfast spot. I just ignored him. I waited like everyone else, paid my money (10 Pesos), then after a minute or two was given this tasty treat. The bread was soft and tender. The fish was crisply deep fried. The proprietor sprinkled a little of her secret sauce on top. It was like a hot juicy tasty explosion going off in my mouth. After devouring my first fish sandwich, I returned for a second. Luckily by this time the line had subsided. 
There were a number of local taxis to shuttle one around the town, but I opted to walk.
While walking, I spotted this teacher leading a group of students orderly through the streets. 
When modern technology and antiquated technology mix. A father and son set off to work.
Trinidad had a number of museums located around the Plaza Mayor. I'm not sure if they were developed to document and preserve art and history or make a buck off of the tourists. Most of them charged a few CUCs or $s to enter. 
This museum was the Museum of Colonial Architecture. It contained a number of displays about some of the significant buildings that were built and preserved around the city.
Inside there were mostly photos, drawings and a few architectural models.

This museum was called the Romance Museum. I asked around what was inside. I let me imagination run wild and thought that perhaps the museum contained some artifacts from a mysterious wild romantic relationship. 
What I found out was that the house was once owned by a sugar baron named Nicholas Brunet. The items inside the house did not really belong to the baron's nor to his family, rather they were gathered from around the country and assembled into a collection. Thus, I was a little skeptical if this was truly a museum to preserve some history or make some money. There were a few rooms that displayed classical colonial style furniture and furnishings. Some were authentic and some were reproductions. Sometimes in Cuba it is hard to tell the difference between what is real and what has been reconstructed.
I thought the most striking thing about this museum was when these two tall thin elegant ladies, one dressed in bright colors and one dressed in all white, walked in front of the canary yellow colored building.
 
There were other museums like the Galeria de Arte Universal that took a different approach.
This museum displayed contemporary works by young and upcoming local artists.
One of the more interesting museums that I saw was the Palacio Cantero. It was one of the largest and most impressive of the houses surrounding the Plaza Mayor. The house is now used as the Municipal History Museum (Museo de Historia Municipal) which details the history of Trinidad.  
Grander than most buildings nearby, it featured a spacious entrance hall that opened on to a large galleried courtyard. 
Original frescoes survived on the plasterwork of the main hall. 
Originally built in 1828 by Don Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, one of the richest men in Trinidad, it was inherited by his son Jose Mariano Borrell y Lemus, Marques de Guaimaro and then bought in 1841 by Maria Monserrate Fernandez de Lara y Borrell, a niece of the older Jose Mariano. 
In 1842 Justo German Cantero y Owar-Anderson, a local doctor, married Pedro Iznaga's widow, Maria Monserrate, and it was the home of the Cantero/Fernandez de Lara family until the late 19th century.
Accessible from the courtyard, there was a narrow staircase that led up a tower that provided good views over the Plaza Mayor.
One could almost see the entirety of Trinidad. 
From this vantage point, there was a clear view the Convento de San Francisco de Asis. Built in 1813 by Franciscan monks, the building became a parish church in 1848, and in 1895 was converted into a garrison for Spanish troops. The church fell into disrepair, and in 1920 much of it was demolished, leaving only the bell tower and a few nearby buildings.  
The rooftops of the neighboring houses formed a patchwork of colors and textures.
Above the plaza to the north-east stands the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad (Church of the Holy Trinity). Construction began on the current church in the late 19th century and it was completed in 1892. It was built on the site of a previous 17th-century church that was destroyed during the 19th century by a cyclone which damaged a great many buildings in Trinidad.
The church contains an 18th-century wooden statue of Christ, El Señor de la Vera Cruz (The Lord of the True Cross) which is an object of particular reverence in Trinidad. Originally destined for a church in Veracruz in Mexico, the ship carrying the statue was driven back to Trinidad three times by bad weather and was only able to make the journey after abandoning part of its cargo which included the statue of Christ. This was taken as divine intervention by the local population and the statue has been housed in the church ever since. 
I wandered a bit and found the Parque Central Cespedes. This park seemed to have more locals and fewer tourists. There were a number of benches surrounding the park and I found it a great area to people watch. It also happened to be the only place in the city with wifi internet. So I sat watching people walking by and trying to load posts for my blog. One blog post with text and images might take 15 minutes to post and cost me about $3-4 in internet time.  
Just off the Parque Central Cespedes I found a little restaurant that offered hearty meals and charged local prices. The meal included a slice of pork, seasoned rice, congri (cabbage), cucumbers and tomatoes for the whopping price of 40 Pesos ($1.50). I had a nice dinner then retired to my casa particular for the evening.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Trinidad, Cuba - UNESCO Treasure or Tourist Trap? Day 1

I landed in Trinidad a little past mid day. Honestly, I was excited. 

I had seen photos of the city and heard rumors about the city. By all accounts the city was considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in Cuba. 
At the center of town there was the Plaza Major (Central Park). Standing in front of the park was the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo (Church of the Holy Spirit).
To the right of the cathedral there is a rustic looking sprawling staircase made of cobblestones that bent like a giant V. It formed somewhat of an amphitheater. 
At one edge of the staircase I saw this gentleman tuning his guitar. 
A few blocks off of the Plaza Major there was an outdoor market selling textiles. It appeared to me that this little street market was primarily set up for tourists. They were not quoting prices in Pesos, but rather in CUC. 
I quickly learned that in Trinidad, the mules were work animals, but not necessarily like the beasts of burden that I saw in the countryside hauling wagons full of crops. In Trinidad, the mules were used for photo opportunities for tourist. The sign on the head of this mule read, "For Rent Photos 0.50"
For dinner I decided to try the cooking at my casa particular. In Cuba, many casa particulars offer meals that range in price of $3 for a breakfast of eggs, bread and fruit to $15 for a dinner of lobster and sides. I asked for a reasonable meal of chicken, rice and vegetables. It cost me around $8. 
When you ask for vegetables in Cuba you will likely be offered cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage and onions. At various places I asked what vegetables they had available and I was always offered the same thing. Many times it was just cucumbers.
After dinner I decide to walk around the Plaza Major to see what the night life was like. It seemed like the main activity centered around the staircase.
At the top of the staircase there was a restaurant with outdoor seating. There was a Cuban band playing some Trova and Salsa. It seemed like most of the clientele at the restaurant were tourists traveling in packaged tours. The prices were in CUC and it appeared that most of the meals cost 15 to 30 CUC. At the base of the staircase there was a variety of different tourists. There were mostly Europeans, some Latin Americans and a few North Americans who were probably Canadian. I believe that they were mostly traveling independently and in smaller numbers of 1 to 4 people. 

The scene was pretty relaxing. Everyone seemed to be enjoying listening to the music in the background and watching people pass by. The locals were passing by on the way home to their families after a day of work. The tourists were passing by strolling around the plaza. 

I did forget to mention that when I first walked by the church on my way to the staircase I was solicited. 

There were two women standing in the shadow of church holding what appeared to be rolls of paper. One woman spoke to me from about 10 feet away and asked if I was looking for a restaurant. I politely turned to her and said "No, gracias. Ya comi" or "No, thanks. I've already eaten." 

Hearing that I spoke Spanish, she then approached to within a few feet of me and more softly inquired "Quiere una mujer?" or "Do you want a woman?"  I wasn't quite sure that I had heard her correctly and I scanned my surroundings quickly to assess the situation.  I replied. "Que?"

I looked more closely at her and at her friend. She was holding a restaurant menu in her hand, but she was clutching like a rolled up newspaper. The two women were dressed rather plainly in jeans and tshirts. I looked around to see if there were any other people or perhaps pimps standing around. There were not. However, no more than 20 feet away there were two police officers talking to each other. I quickly assessed that I wasn't in any immediate danger, but that perhaps this could be a proposition, set up or sting. The woman approached me even closer, wrapped her arm around my arm and whispered softely, "Quiere una mujer?" I heard her correctly this time. I replied, "No, gracias." and continued on with my stroll.

Sex tourism in Cuba is for real. The story that I conveyed above was just one encounter that I experienced. I was propositioned a number of times. I also met some international sex tourists. I'll convey some of these stories in the future. 

Anyways, Trinidad was an interesting place. The city does hold some historical significance. However, what I found interesting was that, more than any other place I visited in Cuba, Trinidad provided me insight into the near future of Cuba. The mix of colonial history with communist rule with modern tourism was creating a complex culture. I'm not sure if I liked what I saw developing.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad - Countryside, Cattle, Carts and a Cathedral

After a few interesting days in Sancti Spiritus I continued westward. This part of Cuba might be considered the bread basket of the country. In other words, it seemed as if this part of the country had very rich farm and ranch land. To the north there were mountains. To the south there were beaches. In between there were acres of flat green pastures.
There was some traffic on the road. This horse drawn carriage was actually traveling at a pretty good pace. They passed me first. Then I sped up my cadence to keep pace. Then I finally passed them. I don't think that they realized that they were part of the race, otherwise I'm sure that they could have easily out distanced me.
After about 8km of pedaling I came across a small town. There were a number of school children walking on the streets on the way to school. I saw a number of the children running up to this roadside cafe. I decided to check out what all the excitement was about. It appeared that many of the school children were enjoying their morning breakfast at this cafe. Most of the people were ordering pan y refrescos (bread and juice). Then I heard one kid order a pan con juevo (bread and egg). I'd only had a light breakfast of two bananas and water, so I thought that a pan con juevo y refesco would be nice. The breakfast really hit the spot and it only cost me 15 pesos or about 60 cents. 
I continued riding through some very scenic areas. There were cows lounging on hillsides with palm trees in the background.
There was a little traffic on the road.
I passed by this lone bicycle parked along the road. The owner was no where to be seen. I'm guessing that he was a farmer tending his field. In this area of Cuban I'm guessing that no one would have to worry about a thief stealing their bicycle. It would take them miles and miles to get away. Plus, the local bicycles were not really designed for long distance riding. Often the tires and tubes on the bicycles were home made and often separated or punctured.
In many countries seeing an old 1950 era automobile on the road would attract attention. In Cuba it is pretty much just the average taxi.
I passed by this field of workers harvesting a crop. The one worker in the center noticed me riding by and began signaling me with his arms. He then yelled at me. I could not understand what he was saying because he was still quite far away. So I paused. He was inviting me to join them in their work. In hind sight, I probably should have stopped and joined them. It would have been an unique opportunity to hear their stories and experience their lifestyle. However, I knew that I had a full day of riding before me to reach my next destination. I continued on.

The road between Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad was mostly flat with some undulating hills. I passed by a billboard advertising the City of Trinidad. Lots of hype about Trinidad.
Before I would reach Trinidad I passed though an area known as the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Mills) This valley previously held large plantations and sugar mills.
The Valley of the Sugar Mills, is a series of three interconnected valleys about 12 km (7.5 mi) outside of Trinidad, Cuba. The three valleys, San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer, were a center for sugar production from the late 18th century until the late 19th century. At the peak of the industry in Cuba there were over fifty sugar cane mills in operation in the three valleys, with over 30,000 slaves working in the mills and on the sugar cane plantations that surrounded them.
Along the road there was this roadside marker that indicated that I was approaching Trinidad. I thought to myself that if the roadside marker was this nice, than I could hardly wait to see the city.
The bicycle ride between Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad was about 70km. I had already traveled about 50km and it was just past the middle of the day. It was a hot and humid day. I was tired, so I found this bus stop and made good use of the shade. I ate some of my food, drank some of my water and took a little siesta.
Refreshed and refueled I set back out on the road. I still had about 19km to reach Trinidad.
The view really opened up and I could see the valley below. However, I paid a price for this view. The cost of seeing this scenic overlook meant that I had to ride up and over some rather steep hills.
At one point, I found myself in a little competition against this farmer driving a horse and wagon. He was hauling some rather large bags of produce. I'm not really sure what was inside of the bags, but the wagon was fully loaded. I probably followed him for about 3km from a distance up and down the hills. I could see him ahead of me, but I could never catch up to him. On the downhills I would gain ground, but on the uphills I would fall behind. I'm not very strong at peddling uphill. Unlike the previous wagon driver I think that this driver knew that I was trying to pass him. When I sped up, he would speed up. When I slowed down, he would slow down. On the tallest hill of the route I finally passed him. We glanced at each other and smiled. He looked at me and said, "fuerte." I looked back at him and replied, "fuerte, fuerte."At the top of the tallest hill there was a restaurant, tower and scenic overlook called the Iznaga Tower. I was anxious to see the city so I did not stop to climb the tower. I continued on my way.
Once I finally arrived into Trinidad I had to dismount my bicycle. The roads were paved mostly with cobble stone which made it difficult to manage my bicycle. As I walked down a long boulevard to the city center a number of people offered me a place to stay. They always started at 30CUC ($30), then would go down to 20CUC, then finally 15CUC. By the time that I reached the city center where I wanted to stay I already knew how much a room would cost me. I found a casa particular 30 feet from the Plaza Major (Main Square) for 15CUC called the Hospedaje Mercedes Cano Gonzales.
I rested for a while, then took a walk around the town.