Exploring Cuba's time-warped towns and cities can feel like visiting an old confectionary stuffed with colourful cultural treats. But it's particularly rich in the little-known heritage town of Sagua la Grande, founded on wealth from the sugar trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Its neoclassical buildings are grand as wedding cakes with covered colonnades and curling balconies overhanging wide streets. Art deco remnants are painted in mint green, and candy-coloured cottages line the lanes down to the Rio Grande river that bisects the town. The birthplace of renowned Cuban artist Wifredo Lam and with a strong afro-Caribbean influence, there's a spark of creative magic at the town's heart, beating to the hypnotic rhythms of rumba, decorated with murals and lively as a carnival on the day I visited.
The former Spanish colonial enclave was declared a national monument in 2011 and has recently been given a complete makeover with new museums and hotels now occupying once-decaying buildings. Officially launching Sagua la Grande as a tourist destination recently at the revamped Cine Sagua, Cuba's Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said the government hopes the newly-enhanced town will be a magnet for travellers interesting in experiencing the culture of a traditional Cuban settlement.
It's hard not to think of Alice in Wonderland when you're travelling around Cuba – strange sights are common and you soon learn that it pays to wander. Every side-street could contain a surprise – cool graffiti, a mountain of mangos, a curious workshop or a doorstep chat in Spanglish. Hours of fun can be had just wandering around Sagua's streets, where you'll be met with friendly faces at every turn.
A model of a Cuban town laid out in a grid system across the Rio Grande, with La Plaza Recuerdo central to the foundation of the city, there are now a trio of squares – La Plaza Recuerdo, Independence Park and La Plaza La Libertad – at the heart of local social and cultural life. I started my tour of the town at the restored Cine Sagua, a theatre and cinema said to have amazing acoustics as it was originally constructed over an ancient cave. Inside the lobby there was an exhibition by contemporary Cuban artist Kcho, whose sculptural works have won international acclaim.
I followed the beat of drums and shuffling feet south down one of the town's main arteries – Cespedes street – that passes the little Parque Infantil splashed with a typically bright Cuban mural and wrought iron lampposts pointing to the town's storied past.
We paraded past the monument to the graceful lemon-and-sugar cube church Templo Bautista with a bell tower whitewashed and accented in yellow. I found the town's restored Casa de Cultura – once home to a Count – and the Museo Municipal opposite each other on a corner of Central Park along with another graceful catholic church similar to many found in the Med.
But they say it's the people that make a place and nowhere is that more true than in Sagua la Grande where the whole town turns out for local celebrations, with bands and dancers bringing a strong unmistakable Cuban pulse to the town square, rippling through the streets and sparking parties all over. Makeshift stalls with home-made banners sell snacks and local bar La Chanchara mixes sweet toddies of "Santero" firewater and honey served in little earthenware jars – perfect to get you in the mood for an impromptu salsa session.
Veering off the main drag, I followed dusty paved streets through lines of brightly-painted vintage Spanish cottages with trellised windows. Kids danced and posed in fancy dress, and houses threw open their doors decorated with tributes to Fidel, Che and musical icons.
On a less electric day when the town is quieter you can always get a glimpse of its creative soul with rumba traditions from the municipality being particularly resilient, and materializing in hypnotic music and dancing at regular intervals in the main square. You can also find out about the history, legends and culture of the locale in a clutch of fascinating little museums.
At Museo de la Musica, a series of live concerts and exhibits dedicated to accomplished local musicians Ramon Solis and Rodrigo Prats showcase Cuba's strong musical traditions. There's little question that like most Caribbean islands, music and dance is in the national blood.
One of Cuba's most famous artists hails from the town too. Surrealist painter Wifredo Lam is a product of Sagua and has seen his work exhibited at the world's most prominent art galleries including New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London. Lam embraced local African roots to influence his work, alongside modernism, cubism and surrealism. It's well worth popping into Sagua's Wifredo Lam Museum, which not only celebrates Lam's life and works but portrays the history and culture of Cuba through a surrealist's eyes.
To the east, I made a detour down to the Rio Grande where the river's only crossing point – a curved steel suspension bridge built in 1905 and painted bright green – somehow blends in with the wild verdant vegetation strangling the banks. A timeless scene unfolded as locals relaxed by the gently flowing water on a low stone wall, while a troubadour-type strummed the guitar – a rural version of Havana's iconic waterfront meeting-point at the Malecon.
As part of the town's rejuvenation, two of its heritage hotels have been relaunched to offer visitors inspiring places to stay. I was there for the official unveiling of the revamped Palacio de Arenas Hotel in May 2018, considered one of the town's architectural masterpieces for its elegant neoclassical design.
Nearby, the Gran Hotel Sagua was built in 1925 as one of the island's most luxurious hotels and has now been completely refurbished to reflect its former glory. A quick tour of the hotel revealed a typically Spanish design of a grand open courtyard forming a light-well in the centre with spiralling staircases, panelled ceilings and smart luxurious rooms opening inwards from balconies all the way up. Even if you aren't staying at the hotel, a terrace of tables and chairs outside is a pleasant place to stop for a coffee or mojito.
A must-visit Cuban heritage town with authentic heart and soul, Sagua la Grande is right in Cuba's central heartlands, making it perfect for a stopover if you are taking a tour of the country. Not far from Cuba's main cross-island highway and with a vital petrol station, it can also be reached via a two-hour ride on the old train line from another of Cuba's must-see central towns Santa Clara.
Once there, you can hop on the toy town train for a quick tour before exploring the pedestrian-friendly streets where horses-and-carts are as common as cars. If you have abit more time, follow the Sagua River north to the old seaport and stilted fishing village at Isabela de Sagua, spanning the Las Picuas-Cayo del Cristo wildlife reserve. From there you can arrange nature-orientated boat rides through interesting marine eco-systems such as Ojo del Megano and Los Bajos de Almedino. A fishing and diving hotspot, Cayo Bahia de Cadiz boasts a Blue Hole in the coral reef 15km to the north-east.