Por Ana Teresa Benjamín
Fotos: Carlos E. Gómez
First there was the song by Silvio Rodríguez playing in my head. Like a little girl about to get presents, I found myself humming “Mis cantos que poco a poco, muelo y rehago habitando el tiempo…My songs that I slowly grind and remake, passing the time…” because I was about to fly to the island of Cuba and I was ecstatic.
Once in the sky, the landscape turned to sea. Lulled by the clouds, I went over the facts: Cuba is the largest island in the Antilles, with eleven million people and fifteen provinces, where since 1959, the victors over Fulgencio Batista have governed. Pablo Milanés described the Revolution this way: “Miro, me veo y toco, y me pregunto cómo ha podido ser… I look, I see, and touch, and I ask myself how this could be…” And that’s the way it has been for more than half a century, with triumphs and slumps, admirers and detractors…. A way of living and being that took a turn this past December, when the governments of Cuba and the U.S. announced their intentions to re-establish diplomatic relations.
Now on land, I recognize the Havana of postcards: a very long seawall filled with couples, children, and fishermen, an infinite horizon, fortresses, carriages, stately buildings, and old cars. I still don’t know anything about this country that both enchants and unsettles, but now my soul is once again singing with Pablo: “Amo esta isla. Soy del Caribe. Jamás podría pisar tierra firme, porque me inhibe…I love this island. I am from the Caribbean. I could never walk on solid ground, because it restrains me…”
Between Embroidery and Bandits
Cuba is, unquestionably, a tourist magnet. Data from 2014 indicates that the island received three million tourists last year —the majority of whom were Canadian— and although almost all begin their trip in Havana, the provinces also offer captivating landscapes and histories.
In the island’s central region, for example, is the province of Sancti Spíritus and within it, the famous city of Trinidad. I say famous because it is a World Heritage Site, thanks to the excellent condition of its streets, buildings, colonial houses, and squares.
With five hundred years of history, one of the attractions in “Cuba’s museum city” is the building where the Municipal Museum of Trinidad is housed, also known as Cantero Palace. The mansion belonged to an old, wealthy local family; it displays the luxury in which the landowners of that time lived: silverware, furniture inlaid with precious stones, lamps, and fine European adornments. All this is in the upper part of the mansion, because the bottom part, which is rustic and elemental, was reserved for slaves and servants.
Aside from the exhibits, from the balconies of Cantero Palace you can enjoy a panoramic view of Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor and spot the Sierra de Escambray Mountains or the Macizo de Guamuhaya, the island’s third mountain range after the mythical Sierra Maestra and the Cordillera de Guaniguanico.
But it’s the women who work in the museum that reveal part of Trinidad’s intimate history. The moment you enter, you see most of them sewing, embroidering, or unraveling stitches: the women of Trinidad, so I’m told, have a long tradition as seamstresses. That’s why there are so many shops in the city that sell tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and linens; all these handicrafts made stitch by stich with soft cotton fabric.
Once again on the cobblestoned streets, the area begins to flood with voices. At first I think it’s the background music from some rum shop, but the sounds lead me forward until, in front of a small plaza, I stumble across musicians who are playing one of the best known songs by the singer-songwriter Carlos Puebla, no less: “Aprendimos a quererte, desde la histórica altura, donde el sol de tu bravura le puso cerco a la muerte…We learned to love you, from the heights of history, where the sun of your bravery put siege to death…”
In front of the plaza that serves as a stage for the Grupo Sorpresa Trinitaria stands the National Museum of the Struggle against Bandits. During the colonial era, the building was the St. Francis of Assisi Convent and Church and, several years after the Revolution, it was used as a school. Since 1984 it has housed a museum that illustrates the history of those who, between 1959 and 1965, fought opponents of Fidel Castro’s government. Cuban history refers to this period as the “War Against the Bandits” and the combatants are called heroes of the Revolution.
Although Trinidad offers more to see and enjoy, it’s time to check in. The hotel is called Costasur and, although located on Playa Ancón, we can’t enjoy much of the sea since it’s been raining nonstop, and the sun is in hiding. During a pause in the rain I walk to my room, which is a cottage so close to the sea I have to step around crabs on the terrace. Now in my room I look out the window and I’m perplexed: sitting on my bed I see the backlit ocean and I hear the untamed waves crashing against the rocks. The show is overwhelming because, well, the rain and wind have painted everything in sepia. The music returns, and this time it’s to the tune of Trío Matamoros: “Y lloro sin que sepas que el llanto mío tiene lágrimas negras, tiene lágrimas negras como mi vida…And I cry without you knowing that I’m crying black tears, tears black like my life….”
To my good fortune, in Cuba there is no chance for tears. Not in the province of Sancti Spíritus, at least. The plan from day one on the island has included visiting Trinidad’s La Casa de la Trova. So I stop gazing out my window and go into the bathroom, only to discover that before I can shower I have to remove the crab that, from a corner, is threatening me with his pincers.
Dancing with Voices and Trumpets
I admit, what has frustrated me about my first trip to Cuba (because I do plan to return), is the four days of rain caused by some tropical depression coming out of nowhere, according to what I heard on the Cuban news. During these four days there was no good light for taking memorable photos or visiting a tourist spot when it wasn’t raining. But in the country’s defense, it’s important to say that traveling to Cuba in October is almost synonymous with stormy weather —although with more affordable prices. The best time for a sunny vacation is between November and April.
So, that night in Trinidad at the Casa de la Trova, the weather was no different. Located just a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor (on Cristo Street, no. 29), La Casa de la Trova is a tiny place with three rooms, where tables, chairs, dancers, and drinks crowd together. At first only the musicians were there and a few tourists who hardly dared to move. Later young Cubans began to arrive, on the lookout for good dancing partners. Later some Cuban women arrived, also hoping to dance, followed by more and more tourists, like us. Finally the miniscule dance floor was so packed that the chairs began to be passed over the heads of the people on the dance floor, people who were dancing to a classic Benny Moré song: “Castellano qué bueno baila usted. Castellano qué rico y bueno baila usted. Castellano qué bueno baila usted. El día que yo no venía, y aquí usted me ve. Castellano que bueno baila usted…Castellano, how well you dance. Castellano, how deliciously you dance. Castellano, how well you dance. The day I did not come, ay, here you see me. Castellano, how well you dance….”
When it was time to go, the rain came again. Drenched from so much dancing and so many people so close, the downpour made me shiver.
Less than an hour later I was back at Costasur, although now happier, because tonight I would go to sleep thinking that, after all, life could be like what Nicolás Guillén said and Milanés later sang: “Campana que repique o surco en que florezca y fructifique el árbol luminoso de la idea…The bell that rings or furrows into what flourishes and gives fruit to the luminous tree of ideas…”
In December Copa Airlines began offering flights to Santa Clara, Cuba on Tuesdays and Saturdays, departing from Panama City at 9:05 a.m. and arriving at the Abel Santamaría Airport at 11:30 a.m. The return flights are on the same day, departing Santa Clara at 12:30 p.m. and arriving in Panama City at 2:42 p.m. For more information, please visit www.copaair.com
Where to Go
If you want to go beyond Trinidad’s historical center, venture to the Topes de Collantes Natural Park, in the mountainous area of the province of Sancti Spíritus. With fauna and flora typical of the rainforest, coffee plantations, ecological trails, natural pools, and waterfalls abound. Go to the Casa del Café, where you can enjoy some of the twenty-three types of coffee cocktails on offer, cold or hot.
Trinidad’s flagship hotel is the Iberostar Trinidad in the historic center. In the beach area, you’ll find the Club Amigo Costasur and, in Topes de Collantes, the hotel with the same name.