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Exploring beyond Trinidad - Sancti Spiritus, the little-trodden colonial city you must not miss

Little-known to tourists despite being located right next to Trinidad and its UNESCO-listed 19th-century wonders, the city of Sancti Spiritus is one of Cuba's oldest settlements and as such has plenty to charm visitors, as well as some curious facts, legends and myths that you may find interestingly bemusing. Here we explore the ways in which Sancti Spiritus is unique and why it's worth it to make a detour here before leaving Trinidad.

Exploring beyond Trinidad - Sancti Spiritus, the little-trodden colonial city you must not miss

If you’ve ever been interested in travelling to Cuba (or have already done so); surely you’ve heard or read about Trinidad, the city that forever froze in time and has managed to remain eternally trapped in the 19th century. What you may not know so much about is the province this historic town is a part of, or what attractions its capital city holds for the discerning traveller. While many stop in Trinidad to absorb its UNESCO-listed vintage beauty and colonial treasures, few know of its next door neighbour: Sancti Spiritus.

And Sancti Spiritus is definitely worth turning our attention to. Tourist guides, travel books and most tour operators certainly don’t think much of it, or not enough to recommend it on a visit to Cuba or include a stop here in their itineraries, and while stopping here there can’t be considered essential or obligatory, it’s an interesting destination in the Cuban trail, one that you will find virtually tourist-free and refreshingly authentic. Original and unique like Trinidad, but minus the tourist crowds.

Why you should include a visit to Sancti Spiritus in your central Cuba trail

If you’re already planning a stop in Trinidad, it won’t be much added effort to extend the stopover in this part of Cuba so that you also get a glimpse of its next door neighbour. The peaceful centre of Sancti Spiritus is found some 70 km north-east of Trinidad, which means you can get there in an hour. It’s not exactly on Trinidad’s doorstep but it’s not a significant distance away that would require you to make an additional overnight stay (unless you want to, it can certainly add to the experience if you can).

Why Sancti Spiritus? Well, apart from being in Trinidad’s vicinity (and most consider a stop in Trinidad a must when in Cuba, and I can’t disagree) this quiet and unassuming city is also beautiful, pleasantly tourist-free and with a few interesting attractions. It’s the birthplace of the “guayabera”, Cuba’s famous national shirt and was the fourth of the seven original villas (settlements) to be founded in the island, thus being one of the oldest and most historically rich. There are quite a few tales and myths surrounding its foundation and historic buildings, plus as it happens, it’s the only one of the original seven villas to retain its name in Latin. Oh, and its well-preserved colonial city centre is a declared National Monument since 1978. Tempted yet?

Going off the beaten path

Now, not many guided tours or packaged excursions include a stop in Sancti Spiritus in their itineraries, so if you want to venture here you might have to do so on your own, either by driving here yourself or hiring a taxi. Once in Trinidad you could always catch the Viazul coach to take you to other parts of Cuba; Camaguey would be an interesting next stop, and one I’d highly recommend.

The city that mysteriously moved - due to a perilous ant invasion!

The city of Sancti Spiritus (or “villa” as it was called then) was founded by Spanish conquistador Don Diego Velazquez almost at the same time as Trinidad, but succeeded the latter by a few months. Its official inauguration dates back to 4th June 1514, and the new villa was founded in the vicinity of the Tuinucu River yet it wasn’t to stay in its original place for long. Six years after its foundation the entire settlement started to move some 6 to 8 km from its original location, to sit at the banks of yet another river, the Yayabo. The reason for this mysterious move? No one knows for sure, but theories abound.

The wildest of these but perhaps the most accurate, claims that in 1522 there was a rare invasion of ants that attacked children’s belly buttons (yes, you read right!) and unable to eradicate this irksome pest, the citizens started planning a move of the entire city. This local myth has been retold for centuries and many “spirituanos” (the name given to the people inhabiting Sancti Spiritus) keep the legend alive to this very day. What else could have caused the settlement to move with all the work such a monumental relocation entailed?

Fact or legend, there are no records to prove this legend’s veracity or falseness, since a 1586 pirate invasion resulted in the loss of the city’s primitive ecclesiastical archives and none of the official documentation could be saved or recovered. All settlement documents were lost as were all records of population and city distribution, so we have to rely on popular hearsay, or else attribute the move to more plausible economic factors.

But why would the banks of one river have been better than the other? Geologically and socio-economically there didn’t seem to be that much of a difference, at least not enough to warrant such a move. The ant attack, unlikely and fanciful as it sounds, is the more accepted version. Ecured, Cuba’s own national version of Wikipedia, cites an “infernal plague of fire ants” as the reason for Sancti Spiritus western move, adding that . So while there’s no mention of the ants specifically targeting children’s belly buttons, a fire ant plague is not something to take lightly.

When we talk about a tropical fire ant invasion it doesn’t seem so far-fecthed a reason for a move, as its sting is known for being extremely painful, with the venom these species release causing a burning sensation that earned it its name. A bite causes instant skin inflammation in the form of red bumps, which in some cases can prove fatal to those allergic to the toxic alkaloid venom.To make matters worse, some fire ants subspecies are invasive by nature, like the Solenopsis invicta, which could have been the kind that invaded (and refused to leave) Sancti Spiritus’ original location.

Yet not all villagers moved, not at first. Ecured goes on to claim that some defying “spirituanos” weren’t intimated by the ants and started to call their fleeing neighbours “yayaberos” in reference to their new location, the Yayabo river, which by then was little known. For some time, Sancti Spiritus’ population was split into two locations, though not for long. Eventually, and upon realising the Yayabo river’s generous fertile lands, rich flora and fauna, all of the city moved to its current location.

The Yayabo River (and the legends surrounding it)

Be it by luck or fate, the move to the Yayabo river certainly didn’t hurt the Sancti Spiritus settlement in the least. The Yayabo was a wider, larger, full-flowing river, and on its banks fertile lands gave way to rich wildlife. This was a generous river, providing plentiful fish and rich grounds ripe for cultivation. It turned out to be quite the discovery after all.

But while the spirituanos managed to escape the legendary fire ant pest that attacked the banks of the Tuinucu, the move to this new river was not to be exempt of myths and tales.

The Guije of the Yayabo

In Cuban countryside folk culture, a “guije” is a magical creature, a sort of dwarf elf that dwells in the vicinity of rivers, streams and ponds. Also known as “Jigue” or “Chichiricu”, this peculiar character is described as being dark-skinned (almost invariably black) tiny and with grotesque facial futures, with large beady eyes and big, fleshy lips. They wander around naked or covered in “bejucos” (Central American climbing plants) and are known as natural tricksters.

Physical descriptions of a guije vary - some describe it as a spirited, nimble and young-looking little black dwarf (the most popular version) while others claim it looks old or monster-like. In my experience, be it in book illustrations, puppet shows or cartoons, I´ve most often seen it depicted as a supple, childlike devilish creature with exaggerated facial features and a mischievous attitude. It’s skin is invariably black, it’s often shown to have longish, messy, shoulder-length hair (often represented in the form of dreadlocks, has a large head in proportion to its minute body, large eyes that seem to pop out, and a large mouth fringed by thick lips. It’s never supposed to look or cute, yet

The guije is also often shown as a protector of the countryside and the environment, a guardian of forests and wildlife who imposes severe punishment to those who mistreat it. Most “guajiros” (Cuban countrymen) claim they only come out at night to spook travellers and walkers-by, and the best way to invoke them is to circle a ceiba tree twelve times, at twelve o’clock at night. According to legend, after doing this a “guije” will appear running towards the invoker to attack him/her.

In this case, the legend surrounding the guije inhabiting the vicinity of the Yayabo river goes that in the darkest of night, this fantastical creature came to take long baths in the water. He did so in a most unabashed and indulgent way, not caring to be seen as he splashed about. This guije was described to look like “a dwarf Amerindian, with black, straight and very long hair”. Maybe you to can spot it next time you decide to camp out by the Yayabo!

Cuba´s oldest bridge

The Yayabo river also happens to be graced by one of the island’s oldest structures, a bridge that pre-dates all others. Built during the early 19th century, the bridge over the Yayabo river is a remarkable construction and a declared National Monument. With an orange-hue stonework that makes it look as though taken out of an English country village, this quadruple-arched bridge really is a remarkable sight, best observed and photographed from the outdoor terrace of the Taberna Yayabo. This privileged spot also offers the most crystalline, mirror-like views of the river’s tranquil waters.

Considered a cultural symbol of the city of Sancti Spiritus, the Yayabo bridge has a smooth fringe of colour at the top, once painted green and now in a soft yellow hue with a white stripe in the middle. Of course, by the time your read this it might have been repainted a new colour! The bridge leads you straight into the colonial heart of the town and its picturesque cobblestone streets. The most impressive of these is the narrow Calle Llano, where you might find old ladies selling live chickens and neighbours happily (and often noisily) chatting away in front of their pastel-coloured houses.. Other picturesque streeets worth venturing into in this part of town are Calle San Miguel and Calle Guairo.

Wonders of Sancti Spiritu’s colonial city centre

If you thought the 1815 Yayabo bridge was Sancti Spiritus’ most remarkable colonial gem, then let me tell you that it is just one of at least five other extraordinary historic buildings in this city. From the oldest church in Cuba to exquisite museums, grand colonial mansions

In its maze of placid, winding streets one stumbles upon centuries-old architecture with a diversity of styles and influences. A peaceful treat for the senses with no crowds in sight but for the autochtonous passers-by adding to the city’s authentic, harmonious feel.  A great bonus is the fact that most of the places mentioned below are within mere steps of each other, meaning that missing any is simply inexcusable!

Iglesia Parroquial Mayor

Doubtlessly, Sancti Spiritus’ most memorable and distinguishable building is the magnificent cerulean blue church known as Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo (Sancti Spiritus). Found two blocks south of the city centre’s main square, this early 17th century temple is Cuba’s oldest religious building. With an impressive architectural style that verges between the Roman and the Baroque, it took 60 years to build it and even before its completion a rich collection of valuable ornamental objects were donated to it (notably, the famous gold dove donated by Don Pedro Perez de Concha). Its tower once boasted the title of Cuba’s tallest and was a later addition after the visit of Archbishop Espada in 1819 (the ecclesiastical figure responsible for ending church burials and ordering the construction of a cemetery). Originally, it stood 40 metres tall but after several electrical failures damaging the dome, towards half of the 19th century it was given a finishing restructuring that remains until this very day. To reach its bell tower you’ll have to climb 86 steps of precious wood, or, in other words, 30 metres. From this vantage point you will get to drink in the most amazing panoramic views over the city.

A National Monument since October 1977, Sancti Spiritus’ Iglesia Parroquial Mayor first opened its doors in late 1680 to local worshippers who relish its grandiose construction to this day. Its grand, eye-catching exterior is matched by beautiful, cool interiors (a welcome respite from the sun). One of its most noteworthy features is the main gate, also known as Puerta del Perdon (Gate of Forgiveness) due to the fact that therein lie the mortal remains of a wealthy and ill-tempered woman , who on her death bed repented from all the wrongdoing in her life and asked to be interred underneath the main gate, so that all those who entered stepped over her dead body to see if God would one day forgive her ill-treating of everybody.

An amazing relic and pride of its parish with a beauty that defies the test of time.

Museo de Arte Colonial

An exquisitely ornate masterpiece with an eclectic style and a wealth of valuable relics, this colonial home-turned-museum is one of the city’s most attractive attractions. The former palatial mansion of the wealthy Valle Iznaga clan (owners of other notable mansions in nearby Trinidad) was converted into a public art museum after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution (the Iznaga family fled the country then with their properties falling in the hands of the new government). Beautiful outside as it is splendidly rich inside, this is one landmark not to overlook into your visit to Sancti Spiritus.

Over 90 per cent of this former residence’s contents is 100 per cent original. Stunning and costly items that once belonged to a wealthy family of sugar barons are beautifully displayed. From Limoges porcelain to Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Italian marble tables and French gilded mirrors, it makes for quite the impression, especially when you take into account this wasn’t even the Iznagas’ main residence! All three bedrooms on show are richly decorated to the last detail, from the delicately embroidered sheets to hand-painted glass, handmade lace and personal items. In the music room, an 18th century American piano stands out as one of just two in Cuba. Another furniture item that is heavily photographed is the smoking chair crafted in Cuban leather and an added curiosity is the fact that this house is also known as the House of the Hundred Doors, given the multiple doors and windows found along its two floors. A glamorous walk in the past that leaves no one indifferent.

Biblioteca Provincial

Its full name is Biblioteca Publica Provincial Ruben Martinez Villena (named after a local writer and hero of the Revolution) and this palatial eclectic building with a grand neoclassical facade was once the headquarters of a literary societycalled “Sociedad el Progreso”. It was built on the ruins of a former luxurious mansion that succumbed to the flames of a mysterious fire in 1927. Shortly after it was sold to one of Cuba’s most prestigious and wealthy clubs, whose members were mostly aristocrats, artists and important local figures. The purpose of many of their meetings was to promote culture and look at ways of improving their city.

The magnificent building as we know it today was finished in 1929 and after officially opening its doors it became the cultural centre of the elite classes, with frequent art exhibitions, book launches, lectures and was even the historic location chosen for the first TV broadcasting in Sancti Spiritus. After the dissolution of the Sociedad El Progreso in the 1960s the it became a public library, the city’s largest and most beautiful. Its interiors are a sublime work of art, with Carrara marble sculptures, intricate bas-reliefs on walls, ornate ceilings,marble staircases, wrought iron banisters, marble floors and a beautiful stained glass window crowning the central dome and allowing light to filter through.

Its privileged location on Calle Serrafin Sanchez, means you’ll encounter other pretty colonial buildings on your way here. Capturing it from outside will make for stunning photographs but stepping inside will give you even better ones.

Teatro Principal

A legendary landmark that has hosted some of the island´s most unforgettable performances for centuries, Sancti Spiritus ´ Teatro Principal is an imposing neoclassical building that first opened in July 1839 to the delight of the local masses that yearned for its construction as a dignified space in which to enjoy the performing arts. Prior to it, locals had to make-do with an improvised stage on the threshold of the old pharmacy on Calle Real. It wasn´t long before the local council gathered funds to give spirituanos the grand theatre they deserved. It took only eleven months to be built, a record time thas since been the pride and joy of the art-loving “spirituanos”.

Getting ever closer to the 200-year-old mark, the Teatro Principal stand pretty in blue, with its Tuscan columns and three-centered basket arches on its frontis, evoking the most sublime neoclassical style. Many sources hold true that the Teatro Principal is Ciuba´s oldest theatre still standing in its original format, designed to resemble Havana´s famous Teatro Tacon (which would eventually become the Gran Teatro de La Habana after a series of extension and remodelling works) and proudly preserving colonial gems in its interiors, from the walls to the seats.

A well-kept secret that won’t remain hushed for long

Often ignored in favour of its most famous neighbour (Trinidad), now you know that there´s good reason to make the journey to this exceptionally peaceful and beautiful little town. All of it looks like a postcard, there´s no corner undeserving of a photograph, the streets are full of legend and magic, as is the scenic river, and there places with live trova music. Oh, and the people; the charming spirituanos are worth getting to know too. All of that minus the hordes of tourists.

With a unique but little-known reputation for having the oldest bridge, the oldest church and the oldest theatre in all Cuba, no one can say this place isn´t brimming with history and culture. It looks pretty as a picture too, and even its main central park was recently refurbished in 2013. I know of a few past visitors who said they even preferred Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad when comparing the two! So, yes, you should definitely endeavour to stop here next time you find yourself in this part of Cuba!

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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