ILENE COX | Redlands Daily Facts
We left Havana in the early morning for our drive to the colonial city of Trinidad, on the southern coast of Cuba, with a stop in Playa Giron to visit the Bay of Pigs Museum.
If you’re in your 50s or 60s, you probably remember the Bay of Pigs invasion. In April 1961, at the height of the Cold War, a group of 1,400 Cuban exiles, trained by the CIA with the approval of President John F. Kennedy, landed on the southern coast of Cuba at Playa Giron. They were confronted by the Cuban armed forces headed by Fidel Castro himself, who were well prepared for the battle and had the support of local residents. The fighting lasted three days and ended in the defeat of the invaders. In order to avoid an international crisis - given the Soviet Union’s support of Cuba - the United States withdrew its aerial support, leaving the invading forces at the mercy of Cuban troops. The abandoned invaders were taken prisoner and immediately tried. After spending 20 months in prison, they were allowed to return to the U.S. in exchange for medical supplies, foodstuffs and equipment for Cuban hospitals.
The Museo Giron chronicles the anti-Castro invasion through photos, documents, weapons, a tank and the wreckage of airplanes that took part in the attack. It’s off the beaten path, but it was interesting and well worth stopping. It’s definitely not favorable to the U.S., but it gives an accurate account of the invasion. It is evident that the Bay of Pigs was one of the worst locations, strategically, for the U.S. to invade.
After leaving Playa Giron, we continued along the coast toward Trinidad and the Valley of the Sugarmills. Trinidad, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, is one of the seven original towns founded by Spanish explorer Diego Velazquez in 1514. The original cobblestone streets and beautiful pastel buildings dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries reflect Trinidad’s colonial past. During colonial times, the city was a major center for trade in sugar and slaves. The buildings around the Plaza Mayor, the heart of Trinidad, reflect the wealth of landowners and sugar barons of a bygone era.
For a small town off the tourist beat, I was amazed at all the beautifully restored homes, many of which are now museums. The town’s main attractions today,are the arts and the beautiful colonial architecture. The only way to really see Trinidad is on foot, so off we went to explore the town’s historical center.
As I said before, the homes of the wealthy had elegant long wooden balconies, lovely porticos with wrought-iron balustrades, marble floors and carved wooden beams all reflecting the financial comfort of the time. Our guide, Manuel, suggested we visit the Museo Romantico (Romantic Museum) located off the main plaza. The original building, built in 1812 as the residence of the wealthy Borrell family, is now a museum and has some wonderful artifacts imported from Europe. My favorite was the curio cabinet inlaid with Meissen porcelain tiles. I have never seen anything so exquisite, even in Meissen, Germany.
Our accommodations for two nights were at the Brisas Trinidad Del Mar, an all-inclusive resort about five miles south of Trinidad on the Peninsula Ancon. The turquoise-blue water and white sand beaches make it a favorite destination for foreign tourists. The resort is interesting. The grounds are lovely and the location ideal; however, the resort itself did not measure up to other four-star resorts in Jamaica or Mexico. Manuel explained it very simply - it is Cuban, built and managed by Cuban companies. After seeing the conditions of the buildings in Havana, it really did explain everything.
One of the best parts of our stay in Trindad was the lobster dinner at a paladare (a small, family-run restaurant in a private residence) on the outskirts of Trindad. The gentleman who owned the paladare was also the fisherman, the chef and waiter. The lobsters were gigantic and were served with rice and beans; it was definitely the best meal we had in Trinidad. After dinner, we wandered downtown to Canchanchara, a bar famous for its rum drink and lively music. The Canchanchara, a mixture of rum, lemon, honey and water, is too sweet for my taste, but the music was great and we all had a fun time. My salsa dancing is sorely lacking, but Deborah Errico, a member of our group, put on quite the show.
As we left Trinidad, we stopped for a “Kodak” moment and a history lesson on a hill overlooking the Valley of the Sugarmills (Valle de los Ingenios). With the Guamuhaya mountain range as a backdrop, the valley is a fertile plain once filled with sugar plantations. In colonial times, sugar was the mainstay of the Cuban economy, which necessitated the rapid growth of the slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. By the latter part of the 19th century, slave revolts had increased and new technology was introduced, lessening the need for manual labor. Many of the large landowners left the area and eventually sold their sugar factories to American businessmen, who converted them into one large sugar-producing business. During the revolution, those lands were nationalized and are still owned by the government.
On our way back to Havana, we stopped for lunch in the charming town of Cienfuegos. Though it is not far from Trinidad, the town has a very different feeling. French settlers from Louisiana founded the city in 1819, and many of the buildings reflect the neoclassical designs. Cienfuegos’ location on the Bay of Cienfuegos makes it an important seaport for the export of sugar and coffee. We stopped at the plaza in the center of town and took the opportunity to visit the museum and theater that surround the plaza.
Manuel also directed us to the Palacio de Valle (Palace of the Valley), a wonderful combination of Moorish, Gothic and Venetian architecture built in the early 1900s for a wealthy sugar merchant. The Palacio has an interesting history: Gen. Fulgencio Batista turned it into a casino, and it was a popular vacation destination in the 1940s. Today it is a lavishly decorated restaurant popular with visiting tourists.
It had been an interesting and fun two days. Cuba is beautiful, green and lush with charming colonial towns and beautiful beaches. I’m really glad we had the opportunity to visit the Cuban countryside. Join me next week as we end our weeklong visit to Cuba.
Redlands resident Ilene Cox is the owner of Redlands Travel Service.