Trinidad Horse Whisperer: Explore Cuba on horseback
Trinidad sits behind only Havana and perhaps the northern beaches of Varadero on the Cuban tourism bucket list and is perfect place to explore Cuba on horseback. It’s a rare showcase of Spanish colonial architecture and exponent of a world that seems to have largely missed the train of progress. Cobblestone streets and crumbling pastel facades shade cowboys with cigars. It’s a bustling little town that feels more like a communal theme park than a functioning society.
Images by Julio Muñoz
Image by Wicked Bubble
Trinidad’s “theme park” feel is not through a lack of authenticity, quite the opposite, it’s so authentic. This is a world heritage site that was founded over 500 years ago by the Spanish, it’s main industry is tobacco but tourism is integral to the economy. With that comes the usual barrage of street hawking but it also creates a lot of options for the tourist. Casa particulars are plentiful as are cigars but the one thing that is almost as synonymous with Cuban society is the horse culture. Working horses via for room on the streets of Trinidad with classic cars, they are a huge part of this community and the town’s horse whisperer, Julio Muñoz, is bringing them to the tourism table.
Image by Julio Muñoz
Trinidad Horse Whisperer
Julio Muñoz is a colourful character, a true Cuban entrepreneur that is clearly passionate about his region. After quizzing Julio and exploring some of his ventures it became clear to me that there is way too much going on in Julio’s world to cover in one post. If he’s not running Casa Colonial Muñoz with his wife Rosa, he’s fixing for film crews or summoning John Wayne to shoot a Canon from the hip and all that is in between meetings with Barak Obama (there’s a presidential security gag in there somewhere).
Image by Julio Muñoz, Right: Julio at work
A big part of Julio’s profile is about his love and expertise of photography and horses. I’m a TV Camera Operator of almost 20 years and to me, his photographic method and story is fascinating and enviable. But it’s who Julio is as an exponent of Cuban ingenuity, especially in the field of horse culture, tourism and horse care that I thought was fascinating and offered a real insight for tourists wanting to get a different experience out of a well-worn tourism trail (not sure if that’s a pun or contradiction).
An interview with Julio Muñoz
(aka John Wayne: aka Horse Whisperer… err aka Robert Redford?)
Cheryl and I visited Trinidad over ten years ago, from the images Julio has sent me it looks to have changed quite bit, so I’m eager to get back there someday soon. I asked Julio if he would mind if I fired over a few questions to get a better insight into Trinidad and what it was like experiencing it on horseback, he was kind enough to oblige, below is the transcription unedited.
Me: Let’s say I’m curious about the idea of doing a horse riding tour, but I’ve never done it before – why ride a horse in Cuba?
Julio: Trinidad is very special city and one of the most popular destination for tourism because is the only city in Cuba which has together:
-Mountains (landscape, waterfalls, zip line, hiking ,flora, fauna)
-Country side (landscape, waterfall, great farmer food, horseback riding, trekking, farmer village)
-Sea (swimming, fishing, snorkeling, sailing, excursion to cayos)
-Human Heritage condition (architecture, music, dance, religions, traditions)
Image by Julio Muñoz
Me: I’ve seen your wonderful photography and read that you are also an electronic engineer, where did you get your passion for horses and photography?
Julio: I open my B&B in 1998. Started to have as guest professional photographers, filmmakers, photographers running workshop; because I speak English and have knowledge about the city some of them rent my services as an assistant and fixer, So I started to learn about the fascinating word of the documentary photography which match with my personality because I like challenge and this photography style involve a lot of challenges.
But the “falling in love” with the street photography was when I meet David Alan Harvey. He was in my house several times and was very kind to show me tricks of street photography.
My “self task” of documenting Trinidad started because very often when I read articles about Trinidad made by foreigner photographers I found them very superficial and silly stereotype. I realize Trinidad is very complex and very rich in culture, traditions, events, religion etc, so I decide that Trinidad should have a photographer who can feel the “beating heart” of the city.
When I was developing “self task” of documenting Trinidad I realize the city has several small farmer villages with fascinating life, but when I try to go with my old Russian car was impossible to reach some, so I started to use horse to go there and falling in love with horses.
Me: For foreigners, Cuba is fascinating. What do the locals think of tourists buzzing around them, staring and taking photos constantly?
Julio: Cubans think they are silly. Ha,Ha… This is one concept I use for my advantage when I am in the street with client who want to learn my style.
Me: Is there a perfect time to go to Trinidad?
Julio: Trinidad is always busy, but I recommend from November to April because the temperature.
Me: Can you tell me who sells the best plátanos maduros in Trinidad?
Julio: It is one of the Cuba paradox, difficult to find fruits. Better to get in the farmers villages.
I had to throw that in there, plátanos maduros is the one thing that kept us going in Cuba (savoury fried bananas). Bananas aside, if the images that Julio supplied don’t make you want to experience Cuban horseback riding, it’ll certainly turn your attention to the beautiful town that Trinidad is.
When we passed through Trinidad, we were on our way to Playa Ancun, which is a very pretty beach just a few kilometres away, but after getting Julio’s insight I’m only now realising how much the region has got to offer. In hindsight I wish we had stayed a little longer in Trinidad.
Images by Julio Muñoz
Horseback Riding in Trinidad, Cuba
Julio’s horseback excursions are to the Ingenio Valley and looks to cover it all, a great way to experience what Cuba is all about. You’ll ride through farms, a village, hills, rivers, forest and even have the opportunity to swim at a waterfall.
Image by Julio Muñoz
Here’s a nice little bullet list I’ve lifted from Julio that sheds some light on the more practical side if you want to experience Cuban horseback riding –
- Healthy, medium size Horses with calm and quiet temperaments, so no experienceis required.
- The saddle, bit and reins are in very good condition and helmets are supplied.
- Two experienced guides will go with the group.
There’s a horse carriage option if riding horseback doesn’t do it for you and there’s a chance to buy some lunch at a local farm along the way.
Horseback riding price & duration
- CUC 26 per person (Included the entrance to the waterfall).
- 4-5 hours. It is taken at a pace that suits you, so the experience is relaxing and enjoyable.
- You’ll need to book at least a day ahead.
It’s heartening to see yet another side of a community, Julio made no mention of the Diana Project but I noticed this on his website and thought it was a terrific initiative and legacy that he and his friends have created. Certainly there is a tendency for westerners to rush to judgement about animal welfare in other countries, but every country has it’s problems and these guys are being proactive about it. This is a project that was started in memory of a horse that was tragically killed in an accident. It’s aim is to invest in the welfare of local horses and educate their owners. You can read more about the Diana Project here.
Julio in print
You can purchase Julio’s book here.
As you can see, Trinidad is a spectacular town and if you fancy an exceptional insight into it and refining your travel photography technique at the same time then this would make for a fulfilling experience. Contact Julio for pricing and to make arrangements.
One of the big draws of Cuba for Cheryl and I was the aesthetic and it didn’t disappoint, it has everything in abundance. There’s not a day when you wont be scrambling for your camera or Cheryl for her paint kit. I use a sling back pack when we’re on the road, it’s great for quick access and comes with a waterproof cover, I rarely go anywhere without a tripod – I go as small as possible with a ball head and flip locks on the legs, preferably with exposed screws so I can retighten them, as they constantly get loose. Cheryl’s always got a basic paint kit at the ready which she will cover in a coming post.
Other things to see and do in Trinidad
Just wandering the streets will keep you busy but Plaza Mayor is where it is all happening. You can sit in a restaurant amidst some beautiful exponents of classic architecture and music performances.
There’s a 2km hike to the lovely Vegas Grandes waterfalls on the edge of town or you could always catch a cab to Topes de Collantes, the natural preserve if the horse riding thing doesn’t do it for you. Visiting a tobacco farm would make sense in this part of the world or if road testing a Cohiba is not your thing then perhaps head down to Playa Ancun for a day on the beach, it’s only a 15 minute cab ride away.
The main thing to remember for the modern traveller is that internet access is not readily available throughout Cuba. You can get online but it is not without it’s challenges and expense. So it would pay to download as many maps and articles as you can before you get there so you’re not spending your entire trip chasing the elusive wifi signal.
When to go to Trinidad
We went in December, as Julio mentioned, November to April’s temperatures are best. August to October is hurricane season, but unless you are purely going for the beach resorts I wouldn’t let that stop me from exploring Cuba.
Getting to Trinidad
Trinidad sits 15 kms inland of the southern coast, just under half-way as the crow flies between Cuba’s two biggest urban centres, Havana and Santiago de Cuba. You can read another post on the southern end of Cuba, the spectacular Guatonamo Province and the city of Baracoa.
We rented a car for most of our trip around Cuba. The roads aren’t great so the distances are not a good indicator of transit times. We found you could pretty much add half again to what you would normally estimate – not sure why you would want to zoom around anyway, there is so much to see. You can check car rental rates here.
*For this leg of our trip we came down from Santa Clara, which is one of Cuba’s more historically significant cities in regards to the revolution. I would highly recommend it.
Trinidad to Santa Clara – 125km, 2 hours
Trinidad to Havana – 315 km, 4/5 hours
There is no train service directly to Trinidad. You can get to Cienfuegos (the nearest large urban centre) via Santa Clara, but I would suggest getting off at Santa Clara (5 hours from Havana), staying a few days then catch the 2 hour bus ride straight to Trinidad. Here’s a great site for more information.
You could always do Cuba in 1950’s style by catching a taxi. We jumped in a Chevy Impala out to Hemingway’s house… very cool, very loud. Check put this site if you want to really get into your Cuba travel planning.
A one-way trip will cost you CUC 160
Image by Wicked Bubble
The buses are comfortable and a great way to see the countryside. The national bus service Viazul is now very regular and reliable and can be booked in advance., they operate daily routes Trinidad from Havana.
Havana to Trinidad – 4/5 hours
Santa Clara to Trinidad – 2 hours
It’s a dumb idea so I’m not going to bother with that.
Where to stay in Trinidad
You’ll want a minimum of 2 nights here but as I mentioned, I wish we had stayed longer. You could easily base yourself here for 4/5 nights and explore the whole region.
Julio and Rosa’s Casa Colonial Muñoz of course! Not sure how we missed it when were there but it looks pretty special and the reviews are great and you’re sure to get terrific insight into the area.
We use Airbnb whenever the opportunity pops up. We run our own place in Port Douglas so know the system pretty well and for us it’s the most user-friendly of the private holiday rental apps. Click here to set up an Airbnb account.
There is a plethora of Casa Particulars, which is the mainstay of tourism accomodation in Cuba, the original airbnb! So you won’t have any problems finding a place to stay in Trinidad.
It’s no secret that Cuba has struggled economically, you can find out more about the funds & programs currently working toward sustainable human development in Cuba by clicking here.
Here’s some greta reading material, as usual the trusty Lonely Planet was our go-to source.