Trinidad, Cuba: The party atmosphere of Havana, without the hassle

In a crowded bar everyone's sitting listening rapt with attention to a guitarist strumming a passionate folk song when a woman suddenly rises to her feet.

Her back is as straight as a rod, her head is held high and her arms move up in a graceful arc, with her wrists bent and her hands rotating outwards. Everyone holds their breath as she starts gracefully swaying to the rhythm, her arms and hands constantly moving in a bewitching display of flamenco power and grace, absolutely lost in a world of her own.

As the last notes die out, she finishes, and there's a tumult of applause. She looks surprised. The spotlight catches her face. She must be 70 to 75 years old.

This is the small town of Trinidad in Cuba, in many ways the country's music capital, and everyone here seems to either play or dance, or do both – and usually superbly – whatever their age or day job.

Two hours before our visit to the Casa de la Trova, we'd been in the open-air Casa de la Musica in the historic part of town, dancing under the stars. We watched bands and Tropicana-style dancers take the stage, as locals and visitors alike drank rum and danced on the cobbles below.

It was infectious fun and no one seemed to much care how uniformly bad the tourists were, especially compared with the astonishingly cool and graceful Cubans (not least the gigolos among them). Adjourning to a little restaurant with a veranda overlooking the plaza, we ate fish, beans and rice, as a succession of different musicians played for 20 minutes each, then came round to sell CDs of their music.

While Cuba's capital Havana grabs the headlines, seasoned travellers flock here, to Trinidad, four hours south west on the coast.

Quite apart from the free music and dancing every night in the square, it's an absolutely charming old colonial town, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, with streets that are still cobbled from the 18th century, lined by terraces of carefully restored houses painted every shade of pastel.

Founded in 1514 by the Spanish, Trinidad was too far from Havana to be properly governed, so it became a shelter for pirates and traders putting 30,000 slaves to work in the sugar plantations and mills, the remains of which can still be seen in surrounding valleys.

The Spanish, however, also left behind a number of beautiful churches and mansions, usually owned by the old sugar merchants, in town.

On the palm-studded Plaza Mayor the main museum is housed in a palace built in the early 1800s, with exhibits on slave trading and the wars of independence. The tiny spiral steps inside the tower lead to stunning views over the jumbled roofs of the city and Caribbean Sea beyond. There's also the largest church in Cuba, the neo- classical Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad with its 18th-century wooden statue of Christ that was bound for elsewhere but ditched by sailors in a storm.

Another church, built by the Franciscans in 1813, has been turned into the National Museum of the Struggle Against Bandits which tells the stories of the Cuban revolutionaries and the forces that tried, in vain, to defeat them.

Trinidad is tooled up for tourists, with dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as rows of little shops selling handicrafts, art and knick-knacks featuring the legendary Che Guevara on everything from T-shirts to life-sized portraits, keyrings to his signature beret.

Happily, just 12 kilometres up the road by bicycle, horse or ancient Lada taxi is one of the country's loveliest beaches too, the white-sand Playa Ancon, lapped by clear azure waters and with a coral reef to explore a short wade in. There's even a bar on the beach.

Trinidad is fast becoming the place to visit in Cuba and with all the joie de vivre of Havana, but few of the hassles, it's a small town with a big heart, and the closest you'll ever get in the country to a true holiday destination.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies direct to Dallas, then American Airlines flies to Mexico City, and finally either AeroMexico or Air Cubana continues to Havana, from which it's a four-hour drive to Trinidad.

STAYING THERE

Trinidad has one of the nicest casas particulares (private B&Bs operated by Cuban families) in Cuba – the Casa Brisas de Alameda, with its pretty garden in which breakfast is served each day. Tel: (+53) 41 99 83 72 casabrisasdealameda.jimdo.com/bookings/. Owner Johan also organises tours.

EATING THERE

The restaurant and bar La Redaccion was once home to the 1800s newspaper El Liberal, which was edited at this historic mansion. Original publications hang on the walls. The food is a great mix of Cuban and European, and both benefit. Calle Gutierre 463, Tel (+53) 41 99 45 93

Sue Williams travelled at her own expense.

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