TRINIDAD, Cuba -- There's almost no aspect of Cuban life that hasn't been influenced in some way or other by sugar.
The landscape is dotted with sugar-cane fields and old mills; rum, (made with molasses, a sugar by-product) is part of daily life; and one of island's musical styles -- Rumba -- is said to have originated with black slaves brought to Cuba to work in the cane fields. One of Cuba's most beautiful cities -- Trinidad -- even owes its very existence to the prosperous sugar industry, which has been a mainstay of the island's economy for centuries.
Aside from its agricultural importance, one sugar-cane growing region in particular is a place of great scenic beauty and historic interest. Trinidad and Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) in south central Cuba is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once a major centre for the sugar trade, Trinidad has a rich architectural heritage, while nearby Valle de los Ingenios is described as a "living museum of the sugar industry." It features the ruins of 75 sugar mills, plus summer mansions, barracks, former plantations and archaeological sites that UNESCO says "represent the richest and best-preserved testimony of the Caribbean sugar agro-industrial process of the 18th and 19th centuries."
One of most enjoyable ways to explore the region is aboard the sugar train, a leisurely 90-minute ride from Trinidad through the entire valley.
But don't leave before spending some time in the city, which has one of highest concentrations of colonial-era buildings in the country. Many of the attractions are in or near Plaza Mayor, including two museums (Museo Historico Municipal and Museo Romantico) -- both in former palaces -- and Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, which has fine views from its bell tower.
Visitors should take time to meander along original cobblestone streets, admiring the many pastel-coloured colonial houses with their characteristic wooden shutters, wrought iron ornamental motifs, arched windows and terracotta tile roofs.
RIDING THE RAILS
Cuba is said to be the first Latin American country to transport sugar cane by train. Its rail network was built more than 100 years ago. The train we take, which now transports locals and tourists, has wooden seats, spacious aisles and open-air windows.
Occasionally the train passes so close to banana and other fruit trees you can reach out and touch them.
The scenery is bucolic -- green fields interrupted every so often by an isolated home or stand of royal palm trees against the backdrop of the Sierra del Escambray hills. Some visitors hang out the windows snapping photos, while others park themselves in the lively bar car, where rum (of course) flows freely.
In the 19th century, the peak of Cuba's sugar industry, more than 11,000 slaves toiled in some 50 sugar mills in the valley.
We disembark the train near the famous Manaca Iznaga Estate 16 km from Trinidad. About 350 slaves once worked on this former sugar plantation, where vendors now sell inexpensive Cuban handicrafts from tables near the Iznaga Tower. For views of the countryside, you can climb the 45-metre high landmark which was built in 1816 so overseers could monitor the slaves.
A few metres away is the original landowner's house -- a yellow, multi-arched dwelling dating from the 18th century, now a restaurant and souvenir shop. Out front is an old bell, which once tolled to mark the beginning and end of the work day on the plantation. Behind the house is a traditional guaraperia, which separates the cane juice from the stalks and which visitors are welcome to try. Don't forget to sample the fresh sugar cane juice and end your journey on a sweet note.
NEED TO KNOW
For sugar train info, check with the tour desk at your hotel on arrival. For travel details, visit Cuba's tourist board at gocuba.ca.
Cuba has at least three good museums devoted to rum. One of the most visited is the Havana Club Museum of Rum in Old Havana, where visitors learn about the entire rum-making process from freshly cut stalks of sugar cane to the ageing cellars. Visitors also see the oak casks used to age fine rums, an authentic mule-driven cane mill used in early sugar refineries, a model of a steam locomotive that transported sugar cane, before ending in the tasting room. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Among the island's many classic rum cocktails are the Mojito, mixed with lime juice, crushed mint, white rum, sparkling mineral water and ice. Another popular drink is Cuba Libre (Free Cuba), made with rum and Coca-Cola mixed with ice and lime juice. It was apparently invented by U.S. soldiers who took part in the Cuban wars of independence (1898). Writer Ernest Hemingway enjoyed white rum-based daiquiris at El Floridita bar in Havana, while in Trinidad, the best-known local cocktail is the Canchanchara made with rum, lime, honey and water, and served in a small clay cup.