“This must be one of the quietest ports in the world,” Wormold writes to his sister in Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana. “Just the pink and yellow streets and few cantinas and the big chimney of a sugar refinery…. The light here is wonderful just before the sun goes down: a long trickle of gold and the seabirds are dark patches on a pewter swell.”
This quaint village, situated on a hill surrounded by mountains overlooking the Caribbean reflects the heritage of the 16th century conquistadors, 17th century corsairs, 18th century smuggler traders, and 19th century sugar lords. Herman Cortes set up base here in 1518 to provision his expedition to conquer the Aztec empire for Spain. It was also far enough from Spanish authorities in Havana to develop a bustling commerce smuggling contraband to circumvent trade restrictions imposed by the Spanish Crown and close enough to Jamaica the center for slave trade to later stimulate the sugar trade.
It’s unmarked cobblestone streets are paved with stones shipped across the Atlantic as ballast or taken from the nearby river. The warren of streets are lined with terra-cotta tile roofed houses in pastel colors with fancy wrought iron grills and massive wooden doors.. Around the Plaza Mayor at the center of town, a park ringed with silver trellises, white wrought iron benches and abundant with flowers, are old mansions of wealthy colonists. There are many narrow streets leading up and down in a maze. All meant to fool marauding pirates. Today the streets are closed to traffic and cannons stuck nose-first in the ground served in colonial days to protect pedestrians as carriages turned the corners.
As we walked the warren of streets, old ladies rubbed their arms as we passed asking for oil. Little children humbly asked for bonbons. In a small market I bought a hand crochet purse and got a seed necklace as a gift. In return I gave her the asking price of only $3 and gave her pens and a notepad for her school age children. The women seem very self-assured, kind and laugh a lot. They do not force you to buy or even get disappointed if you don’t. It seems they are having fun and enjoying life. We ate in a 'paladar', or locals home where we were invited into the very clean kitchen. We had a great lobster meal with a huge salad of local fruits, mango, oranges, banana and guava. And a salad with cabbage, cucumber and tomato all for half the price we paid at the Palacio del Valle. As we left, old men walking donkeys clattering over the cobblestones, waved good-bye. We were left with a special feeling that they were sincere, caring people.