A pleasant jolt of culture shock sets in as I stroll through Trinidad, a small village on the Caribbean coast of Central Cuba. Here, it would be easy to mistake 2017 for 1957: elderly men in straw hats wander aimlessly while smoking cigars, others fan themselves in the heat from behind rustic food carts selling fruit or homemade churros. On these cobblestone streets lined with colonial-style, pastel-coloured homes, I don’t see a lot of cars, but those that do pass by are more often than not blindingly shiny American land boats from the pre-embargo days of the 1940s and ’50s—pristinely detailed Cadillacs and Chevy Bel Airs that snake slowly through the dusty roads alongside rickety horse-drawn buggies and modest bicycles.
I’ve come here, to this part of the country, to get a glimpse of what life in Cuba is like beyond the hub of Havana and the comfortable luxury of the country’s all-inclusive resorts. Between iconic images of cigar-chomping Cuban revolutionaries and my own visions of sipping Hemingway daiquiris while watching fedora-wearing musicians play Buena Vista Social Club-style music, I’ve long held romanticized ideas about this island, but spending time in the towns and cities of its heartland, I figure, will give me a taste of authentic Cuban culture.
Even though it’s not yet midday in Trinidad, the weather is getting hot, so I slip inside Taberna la Canchánchara, a bar famous for serving cancháncharas, the town’s signature cocktail. The bar itself is a rustic, open-air courtyard, with patrons lounging about, sipping drinks and smoking cigars. Sitting back in my chair, I breathe in the rich scent of tobacco wafting from the table next to me, the smoke disappearing into the rays of late-morning sun beaming into the courtyard.
A tray of drinks appears at my table. The canchánchara, consisting of just rum, honey, lemon and water, is said to have been invented to fortify soldiers fighting for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the 19th century.
“It needs to be served in this terracotta cup with a stir stick,” my guide, Tony Morfa, explains. “Otherwise, it’s just not a canchánchara.”
He’s right: there’s a sense of magic in the act of holding the terracotta cup in the palm of my hand and stirring the drink while snacking from small bowls of peanuts and olives. The idleness of the ritual helps settle the entire bar into a relaxed pace. Time is almost standing still, which is a typical sensation in this part of Cuba.
Of all the places I visit here, Trinidad is one of the most extreme examples of Cuba’s time-capsule feel. The central part of the town, which celebrated its 500th birthday in 2014 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of grand buildings, including the Palacio Cantero, a colonial mansion that is now a museum showcasing what life would have been like for the family living in the home during the height of Cuba’s sugar trade in the early 1800s. I can’t resist the invitation to climb the stairs of the Palacio’s tower, to take in a postcard-worthy view of Trinidad’s buildings and the rolling hills of the adjacent Valle de los Ingenios, or Valley of the Sugar Mills.
That evening, the town heats up as the night air cools off, and locals and tourists gather at the Casa de la Musica just off the central Plaza Mayor square to hear some live salsa music. Music is Cuba’s cultural soul, and, at Casa de Musica, I stand among the music fans crowded along the flower-lined steps, sipping frosty mojitos as the band drives everyone to dance to its irresistible Latin beat.
Read more: Five Things to Do in Trinidad, Cuba
Just an hour up the road from Trinidad, Cienfuegos, one of Central Cuba’s larger cities, has an inviting urban buzz. On a mid-week morning, I dodge young Cubans as they hurry along the clean pedestrian business district on their way to work. Heralded for its neoclassical design, Cienfuegos is astonishingly symmetrical, making it easy to navigate.
One of the city’s most popular tourist stops is the Palacio del Valle, a mansion built for a rich plantation owner in the early 1900s that now serves as a restaurant. With design elements drawing from Moorish influences, Egyptian kitsch and baroque luxuriousness, the once-opulent structure has now fallen into a state of deterioration, but I find the decay lends an appealing sense of shabby chic.
The meal I eat in the dining room is serviceable, but not fancy, which is typical for Central Cuban cuisine. Still, the Palacio is an example of the country’s persistence in maintaining its cultural symbols—even if they represent a painful and often oppressive history—and utilizing them in a way that works with its post-capitalist society.
Following my visit to Palacio del Valle, I stroll down Paseo del Prado and stop at the statue of Cuban musician Benny Moré, a hero in these parts. Born in Cienfuegos province, Moré led Banda Gigante, one of the country’s most-beloved big bands in the 1950s and ’60s. His lifelike statue stands at street level so that locals and visitors can get up close to the cultural icon.
Santa Clara, the second largest city in Central Cuba and the home of the region’s international airport, offers another urban view of Cuban life. When I visit the Constantino Pérez Carrodegua cigar factory, located two blocks from the city’s central Parque Leoncio Vidal square, the mood inside is relatively cheerful as dozens of workers sit at rows of tables, chatting and hand-rolling cigars. A young man, who introduces himself as Fidel, slides his finished cigar through a measuring tool, boastful that he’s managed to roll yet another cigar perfectly to size. One of the last truly Cuban industries, hand-rolled cigars represent the country’s pre-revolution culture and its post-revolution discipline; they stand as a symbol of both the socialist work ethic and a lingering zest for life’s pleasures.
Speaking of the revolution, it’s impossible not to notice the continuing influence of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara when travelling through Cuba, and Santa Clara is the heart of revolutionary tourism. I join the young, bearded revolution buffs who have travelled here from Canada and Europe to pay homage at the Tren Blindado museum, which sits on the site where, in 1958, Guevara and his guerrillas derailed a train carrying government soldiers and ammunition, essentially securing victory for the rebels against the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Stepping aboard the actual derailed cars, now filled with revolutionary memorabilia, I can sense the pride that Cubans still feel for their revolutionary heroes.
But that sense of revolutionary reverence at Tren Blindado barely compares to what I find about 10 minutes from the centre of Santa Clara at the Che Guevara Mausoleum. A 22-foot statue of Guevara sits atop an underground chamber containing his remains and those of 29 of his fellow guerrillas, as well as a museum detailing Guevara’s life. The mood here is sombre—even visiting tourists realize this is a sacred place to Cubans, for whom the effects of the revolution (both positive and negative) are still very real.
Cuba is justifiably known for its beaches, warm weather and tropical beauty, but, as I travel through its heartland, it’s clear that what sets the island apart from other Caribbean countries is its culture—the music, the architecture, the legacy of the revolution and the proud people who pay respect to the past while looking to the future.