Manaca Iznaga Plantation
Now that the days of forced slave labor are over and nary a sugar cane field remains, the folks that remain in the Ingenios Valley have more leisure time to engage in one of Cuba’s national pastimes – playing dominos. Maybe that’s why my group of intrepid travelers warranted barely a glance from the men gathered around the table beside the blue house at the foot of the packed stone path leading up to the Hacienda Ingenios, the former Manaca Iznaga Plantation owner’s house near Trinidad.
Hacienda Ingenios is one of only 13 remaining estate houses in Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) that has survived hurricanes, twisters and the dereliction of humans. At its peak in the early 19th century, the valley was home to nearly 60 sugar mills that produced 16 million pounds of “white gold”. The fertile soil, favorable climate of the valley and labor of more than 30,000 slave workers were perfect for growing the sugar cane introduced to the island by Spaniards in 1512. By the late 18th and 19th centuries, Cuba was the world’s leading producer of sugar, then the island’s main industry.
Before continuing forward to the plantation house, I stopped at what today is the plantation’s main feature, the 45.5 meter, just over 149 feet tall Iznaga Tower. With gusting winds and menacing rain clouds, I climbed the 136 steps to the top of the brick tower. According to one popular legend, the tower was erected as part of a wager between two brothers who fell in love with the same girl. Alejo was to build a tower and Pedro was to dig a well. The winner of the wager would be whoever went the highest or deepest and would win the hand of lovely seniorita. To date, archaeologists have found no evidence of a well.
Regardless of the veracity of the fabled tale, in 1816 Don Alejo Maria del Carmen Iznaga y Borrell, one of the richest men in the valley, ordered that a seven level tower be built of stone, brick and metal with square and octagon geometric shapes, prolonged arches and an interior staircase leading to the top. The ostentatiousness of the tower befitted the Borrell family’s social status. From the top level, the tower also provided a means to monitor the movement of slaves as they labored in the cane fields of the dozens of surrounding sugar mills.
At the top of the tower hung an enormous bell that was rung to announce the beginning and ending of the work day for slaves and to provide calls for prayers to the Holy Virgin in the morning, midday and afternoon. The bell also sounded the alarm in case of fire or slave escape.
For many years, the colonial tower was the tallest and most beautiful in the interior of the island. I was told that on a clear day, the tower provides a panoramic view of Trinidad. Even though much has changed in the valley in the nearly 200 years of the Iznaga Tower’s existence, the tower still stands and is the most recognizable landmark in the valley. Today the bell is silent as it rests on timber near the base of the tower.
Some 50 meters away is the beautiful bold yellow Hacienda Ingenios with its mediopunto (semi-circular) arched portico, a color and architectural feature repeated in the balustraded courtyard of Museo Romántico, the family home in nearby Trinidad.
Today the restored hacienda houses a restaurant and souvenir shop. At the rear of the hacienda is a shady terrace bordered by sugar cane plants and banana trees. Also in the rear of hacienda is a traditional guarapería which is used to separate the cane juice from the stalks. Visitors are encouraged to produce their own fresh-squeezed cane juice by taking turns pushing the long wooden handle in a wide circle to turn the iron gears of the guarapería. As a local worker feeds cane stalks into the iron gears, cane is chewed and pressed to render the sweet dark juice. The process used is the same as it was decades ago.
UNESCO declared the Valle de los Ingenios a World Heritage Site in 1988 paving the way to restoration of the plantation owner’s house. However, to date the few still standing barracones, the original slave quarters, have not been restored. Even though they are in poor condition, they continue to serve as housing for the locals.
In fact, there was little in evidence at the plantation that offered enlightenment about conditions endured by plantation slaves. Like so many souvenir shops in Cuba, the Manaca Iznaga Plantation shop includes loads of images of Che Guavara, a Cuban revolutionary hero, but little about daily life of the slave workers who were so key to success of the plantation.
At the end of my visit, I walked back down the stone path pass the blue house, one of barracones. Even though the rain had ended, the domino players were nowhere to be seen. As I walked to our van, I saw locals waiting at the little railroad station for the train to Trinidad. The original tracks were laid in the 1880s to transport sugar from the valley to the port at Casilda on the coast near Trinidad. Today the aging steam engine carries only tourists and locals.
If you go
Manaca Iznaga Plantation is 14 km from Trinidad, about a 30 drive. If no equipment problems, the Historic Steam Train departs from the Trinidad train station daily at 9:30 AM and returns from the Manaca Iznaga train station around 1:30 PM. Round trip tickets cost about US$11. Admission to the Tower is about US$1.00. No charge to visit the hacienda.