A safari to the era of sugar
To know how the Cuban sugar barons lived, what kind of air filled their lungs while they toured their imposing sugar cane plantations, or what rooms they walked through in the dark before putting out the candles, tourists won’t have to turn to history books or listen to guides in the museums.
If the predictions come true, in a few months they could experience in the flesh what some have started to call a safari to the 19th Century country estates.
The idea is tempting to the many who opt for rural and nature tourism. Five of the 13 surviving “haciendas” that still survive in the Valley of the [Sugar] Mills in south-central Cuba, will open their doors to a form of hospitality that, while betting on faithfulness to the patrimony, history and bucolic environment of the countryside, will provide the comforts and maintain the standards that tourists expect.
Conciliating tradition and modernity are architects, engineers, historians and specialists entrusted with returning functionality to the old mansions — some of which are seriously run down — without knocking down a single colonial wall. An almost impossible assignment.
Suspended in the torpor of the late 1800s are the so-called “casa-haciendas” (farm estates), still dazed by the process of capital concentration that turned them into smaller estates subordinated to the designs of the Trinidad Mill (later called FNTA), which would eventually swallow every cane plantation in the plains of San Luis, Santa Rosa and the Agabama-Mayer basin. Dilapidated farmhouses were at the mercy of the passing buyers.
To make things worse, in 2002 the former Ministry of Sugar decided to shut down 71 of Cuba’s 154 active mills, and the FNTA stopped producing. It was a painful decision that altered the valley’s geography and brought to the table the option — then underappreciated — of exploiting its potential for tourism.
Declared along with the city of Trinidad a Patrimony of Humanity in 1988, the so-called Valley of the Mills contains in its 250 kilometers-square an impressive heritage of farmhouses, towers, boilers and industrial debris, a landscape of Cuba’s sugar opulence where 73 sites of cultural and archeological interest endure.
With a gold mine like that in its hands, the local government in 2006 approved a plan for the territorial revision of the Valley of Mills, approved by the Trinidad City Hall and the Council of Ministers, placing a number of mansions in the orbit of tourism.
The proposal became more serious in 2008, when the first steps were taken to regain the former splendor of the region: the reforestation of large tracts of land, the replacement of the marabú [a nuisance tree] by cane and king grass, and the transfiguration of the Guáimaro farm into a Center for the Interpretation of the Valley.
The mill known as San Isidro de los Destiladores was turned into an open-air archeological museum and a Center of Studies on the Industrial Patrimony.
However, work has bogged down in the restoration of five farmhouses assigned Grade One protection status due to their patrimonial value: Buena Vista, Guachinango, Las Bocas, Algaba and Manaca Iznaga. Since 2012 they have been red-flagged for priority by the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur).
Questioned by the local press in 2012, Reiner Rendón Fernández, in charge of tourism in Sancti Spiritus, said that Buena Vista and Guachinango would be rehabilitated in 2013, the others in 2014.
“The valley will be known for its non-hotel lodging,” he said at the time. “We’re looking to give maximum potential to excursions and trail hiking, without overlooking the existing settlements, their traditions and their sociocultural characteristics.”
Since then, much rain has fallen on the fertile plains of Trinidad but it wasn’t until today that the conceptual ideas began to assume reality.
Looking like an Italian mansion in the middle of the tropics, the main house at the old Jesús Nazareno mill in Buena Vista seems out of place among its neighbors in the valley.
No expert could say why the owners built in the first half of the 19th Century a house based more on the canons of European architecture — with its indisputable neoclassic influence and the profuse decoration of cornices, triglyphs and pilasters — than on the native styles of Cuba.
Perhaps the fascination created by Buena Vista, even in its dilapidated state, accounts for the speed with which its architects, builders and investors have tackled the restoration of its original structures and have figured out how to replace the elements that did not survive.
Unfortunately, they are many. In the words of Blanca María Pérez Bravo, technical director of the Bureau of Conservation in Trinidad City and the Valley of the Mills, Buena Vista is one of the buildings most deteriorated by the action of man and the weather, an unforgiving combination.
“The mansion’s project has been approved by all the pertinent agencies and is about to undergo structural consolidation,” she said.
When Pérez Bravo says “pertinent agencies” she means the thousand and one committees that must review the files of each construction project — plans, sketches and three-dimensional models — before the first stone is put in place.
With Buena Vista ripe for construction, the other farmhouses seem to be going at a slower pace. The projects at Las Bocas and Algaba are being put under a microscope to prevent any disrespect to the regulations issued by the Bureau of Conservation.
Guachinango’s rehabilitation proposal is almost ready and Manaca Iznaga, a symbol of the valley with a 43.5-meter watchtower, will expand its infrastructure by reconstructing the old storage nave and setting up a centralized kitchen that will supply the four other haciendas.
“Manaca Iznaga will become the key site for tourism in the valley,” says Blanca María Pérez.
“A command post,” in the opinion of the townspeople, who sell the most varied merchandises to the hundreds of visitors who climb the tower daily.
It’s precisely because of the many vendors that flock to the watchtower and because of the nearness of the town, with its natural effervescence, that Manaca Iznaga cannot offer lodging.
“It would be very uncomfortable for tourists looking for tranquility,” says Pérez Bravo, who acknowledges quietude as the main advantage of the rest of the farmhouses farther into the valley.
A tourist trap?
So far underutilized in Cuba’s south-central region, the modality of rural tourism, relaxation, or nature exploration is one more attraction in Trinidad, a city renowned for its beaches and architectural richness.
And it’s not a question of exposing visitors to tropical diseases and excessive heat. Project managers in Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara in charge of the five farmhouses told Progreso Weekly how difficult it has been to set up climate-control equipment, water pipes, sewage and electrical wiring in the buildings without affecting their colonial image or the original structures.
Even more difficult than marrying tradition and modernity was convincing the occupants of three of the farmhouses that they should vacate them.
Negotiations began several years ago. Taking advantage (a bit opportunistically, it must be said) of the tenants’ inability to upkeep buildings with great patrimonial value, the Mintur offered to build as many houses as necessary so that the more than 10 families living in Buena Vista, Las Bocas and Algaba might move out.
“In fact, the people who lived in Buena Vista have already left the building,” says Vivian Dorta, deputy director of Physical Planning in Sancti Spiritus, who acknowledges the mutual benefit of the solution. The Ministry of Tourism expands its capacity for lodging and the former tenants gain homes that are in no danger of collapse.
That’s another of the positive aspects of the revitalization of the Valley of Mills: the old mills retain their infrastructure and landscape, while the Trinidad residents see an improvement in the quality of their lives.
As phrased by Víctor Echenagusía Peña, a specialist in the Bureau of Conservation and a Quixotic advocate of restoration in the southern city of Trinidad: “Any proposal must be based on a sustainable approach that revitalizes the place, actively involves the residents and, above all, does not create a tourist trap.”