The Trouble with Trinidad

For Katherine Pye, the colour and energy of Trinidad, Cuba cannot erase its dark past. Part of the Cherwell Travel Supplement.


A picturesque UNESCO world heritage site, Trinidad charms thousands of tourists each year with its brightly painted colonial buildings and bustling Casa de la Musica. If Havana is frozen in the 1950s, the clocks stopped in Trinidad in 1830. At sunrise the convent bells chime and horses hooves clop along the cobbled streets as bicycle vendors cry ¡El pan!, baskets bursting with fresh bread.

Yet its vibrant, cosmopolitan society sits uncomfortably with its bleak origins, treading a thin tightrope towards a promising future, haunted by its past. Distinctive conga percussions applauded by tourists in Trinidad’s salsa clubs are echoes of generations of enslaved Africans clinging to the last memories of their homeland. The walls of Trinidad’s most famous 17th century inn are dressed in rusty shackles, not for horses’ legs but human legs, African legs, and this realisation makes the delicious lunchtime boliche churn in your stomach. The locals laugh and chat as if unaware, although they cannot be. They live with Trinidad’s tragic past every day and smile in its face; sorrow and suffering are ingrained in their character.

More recent enslavement is also buried deep in the town psyche. A popular salsa move ubiquitous in Trinidad’s dance clubs is the balsero, whose name echoes las balseros, tyre boats made by Cubans who risked their lives to cross the shark-infested Straits of Florida to reach the USA. Some died on the journey and those who turn back are mercilessly punished.

On the streets those who dance and laugh on shop corners and drink with friends live on the brink of poverty, many have faced disaster. As the cheerful owner of the Trinidad casa particular I stayed in described how proud she was of her passion fruit flowers she recounted in the same sentence how she had lost everything in the recession after the collapse of the USSR, abandoning her training as an engineer to work in tourism, which became Cuba’s only hope.

The realities I encountered in Trinidad reflected truths about the country as a whole. The past is veiled and manipulated. Colourful music and a diverse cultural heritage mask a repressive government. A generous and passionate people are frustrated but incapacitated. This results in their ability to weave happiness and sadness, celebration and despair into a rich and mysterious tapestry. But Trinidad’s is unravelling; as Cuba opens up its threads loosen and its image may be lost forever.

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