Dig into Cuban history and culture on a shore excursion with Celestyal Cruises.
By Renée S. Gordon
Architecture and history aren’t the sort of words that attract young travelers, so when choosing a Celestyal Cruises’ shore excursion in Cuba the terms signal an adults-oriented tour.
And what a trip it is! In Cuba’s Cienfuegos and Trinidad, you’ll see architecture that even Castro recognized as so important that he banned changes, areas that are designated UNESCO world heritage sites, learn cultural history, hear Cuban roots music, and see authentic Cuba. The entire area is “preserved in amber”: You can sit in the plaza and it is as if you are in the past; only the attire has changed.
Cienfuegos and Trinidad, along with the Valley de los Ingenios that stretches between the two, are living testaments of Cuba’s agrarian and plantation history, pivotal to two important UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Gulf was discovered in 1494. In 1745 a fort was built to protect the bay from pirates. Cienfuegos, the “Pearl of the South”, is on Cienfuegos Bay and became a center of tobacco, coffee and sugar cane trading. French immigrants from Louisiana and Bordeaux founded Cienfuegos in 1819. The city began where the Main Square is today; a zero mile marker indicates the center of Cienfuegos. The square is set amidst several Neo-Classical gems but the 1886 Tomas Terri Theater is the showpiece. Your tour begins outside where gold-leaf mosaics of the muses of comedy, tragedy and music top the portico. The interior of the 950-seat venue is adorned with hand-carved Cuban hardwoods, wrought iron embellished balconies, ideal acoustics and a stunning ceiling fresco. The first performance was Aida in 1895 and since that time the world’s greatest artists have performed in the space. Because Cienfuegos is an architectural wonder a walking tour is important but be certain to take a ride along Cienfuegos Boulevard, the longest street in the country.
Trinidad, located an hour drive from Cienfuegos, is another UNESCO city, the first designated in Cuba. It earned the designation for its history, culture and architecture. Villa de la Santisima Trinidad, the fourth of the original settlements, has roots in an indigenous village in 1514. It was named to honor the Holy Trinity. By 1532 more than 62 percent of the Cuban population was African slaves who constructed the cobbled streets and large squares surrounded by colorful buildings that are still intact today and represent the best collection of Spanish colonial architecture in the Americas.
Trinidad was prosperous, first from farming and gold mining then during the Colonial Era as a result of the sugar and tobacco industries. The area between Cienfuegos and Trinidad is a UNESCO site, the 87-sq. mile Valley de los Ingenios, the hub of Cuba’s lucrative sugar industry. In 1827 the valley was home to 11,000 slaves and 56 sugar mills and produced the largest amount of sugar in the world, about 220,462,280 pounds.
Cuba became the main importer of slaves to the Caribbean. It is believed that in just 1835 a total of 64 400,000 slaves were sent to Cuba, more than 1,000 a month. After the Haitian revolution instigated a migration of former plantation owners to Cuba they brought their slaves, their tools and knowledge of sugar production along. The slaves, in turn, brought with them their religion, music and cuisine, all of which are visible in Trinidad.
You can ride an antique train into the Valley to Hacienda Iznaga’s 144-ft. tower built in 1750 that enabled plantation owners to monitor farm activities. There are seven levels, each with a different shape and a narrow staircase that leads to a stunning view of the valley.
Chief Hatuey, a Taino Indian, is credited with being Americas’ first freedom fighter. He organized armed resistance against the Spanish invaders of Haiti who came in 1502 with 30 ships of settlers and 100 African slaves. In 1511 he expanded his efforts to Cuba. He and his men held Velásquez and Cortés trapped in a fort for three months. Hatuey was overwhelmed and on February 12, 1512 and publically executed. A statue of Chief Hatuey is situated on the valley road.
Trinidad prospered thanks to the fortunes of the sugar magnates. They built lavish mansions and plazas until the sugar market collapsed in 1860. No major roads led to Trinidad until a century later so the city remained largely secluded. Simultaneously the government banned development in order to preserve the Colonial atmosphere. Trinidad’s streets were designed by military engineers as a labyrinth to confuse invading pirates and corsairs. The symbols of the city are the 131-ft. bell tower of the San Francisco Convent and the Plaza Mayor.
Palacio Cantero is an 1830 Neo-Classical mansion that now houses the Museo Histórico Municipal. The mansion is filled with antiques including hand-carved mahogany furniture, Baccarat crystal, original tile and Carrera marble sculptures. Chronological exhibits are in the mansion’s rooms.
La Canchánchara is located near the plaza. It is famous for serving a drink—two-thirds rum and one-third lemon juice—that was carried into battle with Cuban warriors. Bottles of Canchánchara have come to symbolize freedom.
- The best, hassle-free and most affordable way to see Cuba is on a cruise.
- Take cash. You can exchange money at each port. There are no ATMs and very few people take credit cards.
- Beware of the sun. Use sunblock, wear a hat and carry an umbrella.
- Wear sturdy shoes.
- Take lots of pictures.
- Do not buy cigars on the street. They are of inferior quality. Premium cigars cost about $25.00 each.
- Odds of Encountering Children: Low. This is not a destination that will appeal to children; it’s an off-the-beaten-path destination to see the real Cuba.
Important News Regarding U.S. / Cuba Travel…
Trump’s recent announcement regarding Cuban travel does not affect group or cruise travelers. No changes will take effect until new amendments are written. https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs
– Photo Credits: Palacio Cantero by Jackie Finch; remainder by Renée S. Gordon
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.