Visitors to Cuba with limited time often skip Cienfuegos in favour of Trinidad, or even far away Santiago de Cuba. Yet the Pearl of the South, as it’s known, is as relaxed as it is beautiful. It’s a gorgeous city, with French-tinged architecture and an enviable location on the shore of the Bahía de Cienfuegos. No surprise then that it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
The city was founded in 1819, making it a relative newcomer in Cuba. In one of those quirks of history, in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Cienfuegos was founded by French immigrants from Bordeaux and various French colonies, including ‘nearby’ Louisiana. The French influence is reflected in the neoclassical architecture lining stately boulevards. This is a city with lots of grace and lots of space.
We walked a lot in Cienfuegos, there’s not much traffic and although it was hot you get a breeze off the water. Going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood the wondrous rainbow of colourful buildings, in which Cuba specialises, will be one of my defining memories – vibrant pastel colours illuminated by a bright Caribbean sun.
Leaving the original 19th Century city behind we walked down the Paseo del Prado, which eventually becomes the bay side Malecón and offers sweeping vistas over the water to the city. We were headed south to Punto Gorda, and back in time to the 1930s. Punta Gorda, a formerly wealthy suburb, stretches down a long peninsula that ends at a small park with lovely views.
This area feels like a different country, filled with grand mansions (the best of which are now state-run hotels) and Art Nouveau sea-side houses. It could definitely be a suburb of Miami and pre-revolution it was home to Cienfuegos’ wealthy elite. Near the end of the peninsula sits Punta Gorda’s most extravagant building, a Moorish fantasy called the Palacio de Valle. It looks like it belongs in Cordoba or Marrakech.
We walked back towards the city along the waterfront and stopped in at one of Cienfuegos’ best restaurants, Finca del Mar. Cuba does good seafood and, sitting at a table in the restaurant’s garden a stone’s throw from the water, only made it more delicious. It was nice to relax over a long lunch and make plans for the next stage of the trip. We had some hard decisions to make.
Not for the first time in our trip we’d run into an accommodation dilemma. We were trying to find somewhere to stay at Cienfuegos’ beach area, Playa Rancho Luna, but without luck. Through our casa owners we’d managed to find a room but only for one night. They were also trying to find somewhere to stay in Trinidad which seemed to be gripped by an accommodation crisis.
In the end we decided to skip the beach because we’d found somewhere to stay in Trinidad. The friend of our Cienfuegos casa owners, who we’d be staying with, warned that tourists were wandering Trinidad’s streets trying to find somewhere to spend the night.
That thorny decision solved we hit the town with two Californian women, Mattie and Diane, we’d met over breakfast. Cocktails on the Plaza Jose Marti were followed by more cocktails on a rooftop bar, which were followed by yet more cocktails. I can’t vouch for them, but we had shocking hangovers the next day.
We had one final thing to do before leaving Cienfuegos: a visit to its historic cemetery. It felt fitting.
Where we stayed in Cienfuegos:
Hector and Ilia,
Ave 54 no. 4314 e/43 y 45.
Tel. (43) 517006