Valle de los Ingenios

As you leave Trinidad on Route 12, heading northeast toward Sancti Spíritus, the road passes through the spectacular Valle de los Ingenios or the Valley of the Sugar Mills. Like Trinidad, this lush valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When it was Cuba’s most important sugar-producing region, there were more than 50 working sugar mills in the valley. However, there was a serious downturn in the valley’s economy in the mid-19th century, and then it collapsed completely in 1880 when world sugar prices slumped.

Many of the magnificent plantation houses and mansions dating from those days are now in ruins, but some still stand, most notably the exceptionally beautiful farm belonging to the Iznaga family, which has been restored. The prime estate Manaca Iznaga was purchased in 1795 by the dastardly Pedro Iznaga, who became rich by trafficking in slaves. The royal palms, waving cane and rolling hills are timelessly beautiful.

The quaint little Tren Turístico, an old steam train, goes from Trinidad station, south of the town, to Manaca-Iznaga daily. You cannot miss the farm, as it is splendidly indicated by the Torre de Manaca-Iznaga, 15km (10 miles) by road from Trinidad, which rears proudly out of the green cane fields.

Legend has it that the tower was built after a bet between two brothers, in which one had to build a tower higher than the depth the other could dig a well. In fact, the tower was designed originally as a watchtower to keep an eye on the slaves working in the fields, and has a bell that summoned them to work.

The immaculate hacienda is an excellent place for a drink of guarapo, the freshly pressed sugar-cane juice that is milled by Cuba’s only original trapiche (sugar press) remaining in situ. There are also demonstrations of sugar-cane pressing, in which you can participate, and enjoy the fruits of your labor afterward with a dash of rum.