Yes, Havana is exciting, Havana is bustling, Havana has it all — but sometimes Havana is overwhelming, and you just want a beautiful place to relax. Cienfuegos is that place.
Despite it’s size (pop. 160,000) and status as a provincial capital, and despite it’s sugar-rich history, Cienfuegos feels like a humdrum coastal town where nothing ever happens. It was the home city of Cuban music legend and notable partier Benny Moré, but even Benny, who loved Cienfuegos enough to write a hit song about the city, quickly took his talents to Havana. Then, and today, Cienfuegos keeps a pretty low profile.
It’s nickname is The Pearl of the South, and because it faces Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean and not the U.S. coastline to the north, it’s always been somewhat sheltered from the turbulence of the times, politically and economically. Even so, the city has seen its share of history, from French dominance to revolutionary battles to Soviet submarine intrigue. The historic center is gorgeous — colonial gems with turrets bulging from corners with cake frosting paint jobs, and straight, wide, clean streets in a tidy grid.
There are several notable buildings around the central Parque Martí, including the Tomás Terry Theatre, a towering Cathedral, and the oft photographed Palacio Ferrer, with it’s unmistakable domed lookout, which was built in the nineteen-teens and by a wealthy landowner and almost immediately vacated after he moved his family to more prosperous Havana (see?).
Much of the historic center of the city is situated on a broad peninsula that juts out to the west into the massive Jagua Bay, and if you walk west of the park you’ll pass all sorts of uniquely designed homes and eventually get to a grave yard that perfectly conjures the city’s baroque sugar-monied past. Not unlike Havana’s Colón Cemetery, Cementerio La Reina is packed with opulent mausoleums in competing states of disrepair.
The other section of the city that shouldn’t be missed is the Punta Gorda (Fat Point) — a second peninsula sticking out into the bay on the southern most reaches of the city. Walking from Paseo el Prado, you’ll pass a hotel (Jagua) and immediately see the absurdly decadent Palacio de Valle — built with sugar baron money and once owned by the former dictator Batista’s family — marking the beginning of the Punta. The peninsula narrows to just one street, along which there are a series of casas particulares and culminates in a beautiful park with a small beach where local Cienfuegenses convene to swim and relax in the afternoons.
The restaurant scene in Cienfuegos is still solidly provincial — there’s las Mamparas (Prado), Villa Lagarto (Punta Gorda), Te Quedarás (historic center), and a handful of others, but don’t expect to find anything mind-blowing.
I have yet to see much of greater Cienfuegos — the baseball stadium, the abandoned train lines, the perfectly square blocks that emanate north and east, and the tiny town of Santa Isabel de las Lajas where Benny More was actually born (and after which he wrote another song) — are all interesting jaunts I’m hoping to explore soon.
The beach is just a short drive from the city, as is the Castillo de Jagua, a castle fortress that guards the narrow mouth of the bay. A bit further by car you can hike to El Nicho, a waterfall with natural swimming pools hidden (or not so much anymore) in the mountains. East about 2 hours is the famous Trinidad, and the nearest points of interest to the west are Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) and Playa Larga, beyond which lies the great Zapata Swamp.
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