Even for people who have been to Cuba many times, it’s difficult to describe Cuban culture in a nutshell. Not just because of its complicated political history, but also because of the influences that have shaped it: geography, slavery, European colonization, Latin neighbours and of course the Americans who adopted it as their playground until the 1950s. But if there is one place that reflects all these influences in the best possible way, it would be Trinidad: one of the country’s most beautiful and interesting UNESCO towns where I discovered the best of Cuban culture and more in this ‘Museum City’.
Architecture and Religion in La Santisima Trinidad de Cuba
“The Holy Trinity of Cuba” is what Trinidad was named in the 16th century when it was founded by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez, and the cultural influences these European conquerers brought are seen everywhere in the town – from the way the town is laid out to the Christian holidays that it celebrates.
But along with the Spanish came slavery, and that dark period in the country’s history also left its mark on the architecture and the religious beliefs of the country which you can still see today.
Trinidad’s Colonial Architecture
Trinidad is one of the prettiest colonial towns in Cuba, with its colourful buildings, numerous churches and photogenic cobblestone streets that appear almost unchanged in over 500 years. The historic centre covers more than 50 blocks, with historic mansions and plazas around every corner, where you are just as likely to see horses tied up in the shade as you are to see classic American cars from the 1950s.
Like most colonial towns of the 17th century, Trinidad’s layout follows a plan that is built off a central square, the Plaza Mayor, which typically is where you will find the oldest and/or most important church in the town. In Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor this is the Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad (Church of the Holy Trinity) which was rebuilt in the late 19th century after a cyclone destroyed the original one from the 1600s.
Storms also played a role in transporting one of the church’s most revered religious icons here, a wooden statue of Christ known as “The Lord of the True Cross”. Originally destined for another church in Mexico, the statue ended up here after storms kept the ship from reaching its intended destination three times. That kind of interference was interpreted by the locals as divine intervention, signifying that the statue was meant to stay in Trinidad where it has remained ever since.
Trinidad’s Architectural “Tower of Power”
Churches may have represented the power of God in colonial Cuba, but private citizens, especially plantation owners, displayed their power and wealth with towers of their own: the higher the tower, the greater the wealth and influence of the estate owner. Of course, towers also served a more practical purpose as watchtowers for slave owners to keep an eye on their slaves and property.
One of these large watchtowers is located right in the centre of town and forms part of the Palacio Cantero, an 1830 mansion that once belonged to a wealthy sugar baron, Dr. Justo Cantero. The mansion is now the Museo Histórico Municipal where visitors can climb to the top of the tower for a gorgeous panoramic view of Trinidad.
TIP: The climb up to the watchtower can get a little claustrophobic (and hot!) especially as the stairs narrow towards the top, but the stairs are sturdy and the view is well worth the effort.
After descending the tower and before leaving the house, have a look around the mansion’s main floor which has rooms that have been furnished to reflect what the owner’s living quarters might have looked like in the day. Although there’s no guarantee the rooms would have been used exactly as pictured, the furniture helps to give a sense of the style in which the Cantero family would have lived.
Slavery Shapes Religion in Cuba: Santeria
Christianity was the religion of the conquering Europeans, but with the influx of slaves between 1750 and 1825 to work the sugar plantations, a new hybrid religion was born in Cuba, known as Santeria (the Way of the Saints). This Afro-Caribbean religion originated with the slaves from West Africa, who blended older animistic beliefs with Christian doctrine. In Santeria, spirits called Orishas are worshipped as a manifestation of the divine, and for the help they can provide, much the same way that Christian saints embody virtues that can come to the aid of people. Highly ritualistic, Santeria includes animal sacrifice, dancing, drumming, and eating with the spirits, and even today the religion is practiced in private by many Cubans.
Not surprisingly, these Santeria influences also carried over to another integral part of Trinidad’s Cuban culture: music and dance.
Music and Dance in Trinidad
Music is everywhere in Cuba, and Trinidad is no exception. When I first arrived in the city with a group of other journalists, we were greeted by a group of enthusiastic musicians and dancers who immediately welcomed us and invited us to follow them as they danced and drummed their way towards the historic centre of the town.
It soon became evident that this music was very different than the salsa and chacha rhythms we had encountered elsewhere, and had definite Santeria influences. The beat of the drums became the soundtrack for a performance that reflected some of the mysteries and rituals of the religion: the lead singer/dancer even held a skull-topped staff which he used as part of a series of demonstrations that involved feats of strength, fire rituals and even snakes.
The performance was a fascinating blend of religion, music and dance, bringing together some of the major influences that have helped define Trinidad’s culture.
Canchànchara: THE cultural drink of TrinidadFood and drink are a huge component of Cuba’s culture, and Trinidad has its own characteristic cocktail that no visit to the city would be complete without: canchànchara. A mixture of high-proof alcohol, honey and lime juice, this could be considered the original daiquiri, but its roots are tied to Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, not to beach vacations. According to the book, Cuba: The Legend of Rum, freedom fighters kept bottles of canchànchara strapped to their saddles to quench their thirst and ease the pain of their wounded.
Today you can enjoy this Trinidadian cocktail at Taberna La Canchànchara, a characteristic bar that offers food, drink and live music in an historic building with a pretty interior courtyard. Your canchànchara will be served in a traditional terra cotta cup with a stir stick for mixing the concoction which is deceptively sweet and delicious, belying its high alcohol content. I could see how a few of these might land me on my butt, especially drinking too many under the hot Cuban sun. It was pretty tasty, but I wisely restricted myself to just one or I would have been the walking wounded myself!
More Than Just A Museum City
Trinidad is a UNESCO-designated city for many reasons, from its well-preserved colonial architecture to the role it played in the sugar industry in the Caribbean. But for me, Trinidad is much more than a collection of historic buildings and plazas: it is a living example of how Cuba has incorporated all the influences of its past to develop a culture that is uniquely its own. Hopefully that uniqueness will survive, whatever other influences the future brings to this country.
Special thanks to the Canadian office of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism who hosted me during my visit to Trinidad.