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A weekend in Cuba's Southern Pearl: Cienfuegos

From its relaxing seaside location to its delightful colonial buildings, Cienfuegos is a stunning city with many sites to discover. Whether taking a relaxing retreat alone, a romantic getaway with that special someone or like me, a fun trip with friends, Cuba’s Southern Pearl leaves a special mark on all those who visit.

A weekend in Cuba's Southern Pearl: Cienfuegos

Honouring the popular saying that states “Cuba es un eterno verano” (it’s always summer in Cuba), it was almost impossible to tell it was February with the hot sun shining over us, as we stepped off the bus and set foot in Cienfuegos. After finishing our final term exams, a group of college friends and I planned a trip to a city many of us had been eager to discover for years. Though excited about our weekend, nothing could prepare us for the amazing moments we would share here.

Lovingly nicknamed “La Perla del Sur” (the Pearl of the South) by locals, Cienfuegos stands out as one of Cuba’s most pristine and enchanting cities. Founded by Spanish conquistadors and settled by French immigrants in the 19th century, this seaside gem was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its well-preserved historic centre. Boasting several constructions from the early 19th and 20th centuries, Cienfuegos possesses the most remarkable cluster of neoclassical architecture in the Caribbean.

The laid-back ambiance and warm character of its people made us feel welcome at once. Determined to explore as much as we could on that weekend, we kicked off our journey by heading down to the city’s colonial heart.

Wandering through the wondrous Prado and the Boulevard

Our first sightings of Cienfuegos began walking down "Prado". As we strolled through the city’s longest and most famous avenue, we could see why Cienfuegos was considered one of the most enchanting regions in the country. Beautiful neoclassical buildings greeted us as we made our way to Prado’s biggest highlight: the statue of legendary Cuban singer, Benny More.

Dubbed “El barbaro del ritmo”, More was a self-taught singer, composer and songwriter who left a lasting mark in Cuban musical genres such as Son, mambo and bolero. Benny More was born in "Santa Isabel de las Lajas", a small town within the Cienfuegos province. The city now honours the memory of this remarkable musician with a real-life-size statue that welcomes visitors, right at the intersection of Prado Avenue and the Boulevard.

After taking several pictures beside “El Sonero Mayor”, we continued our discovery trip down the Cienfuegos Boulevard. Filled with souvenir shops, street vendors and cafes, the Boulevard is a charming pedestrian-only promenade, busy with fast-walking locals and eager tourists.

We stopped for a drink at one of the cafes and admired our immaculate surroundings before heading down to one of the city’s most renowned landmarks: "Parque Marti".

Handful of colonial history at Parque Marti

As the Boulevard came to an end, we felt we had travelled back in time. "Parque Marti" is truly a monument to the colonial era. As the centre of Cienfuegos, this vast square is revered both for its symbolic significance and the historic importance of the magnificent buildings that surround it, one of the reasons why this plaza has been declared a national monument.

The bronze lions on marble pedestals immediately caught our eye, as we set foot in "Parque Marti". Jose Marti is the sublime writer, poet and revolutionary philosopher this park is named after. A magnificent statue of Cuba’s National Hero is located right at the centre of the square, looking over the city of Cienfuegos. Another interesting feature is the compass rose inlaid in cement that marks the “zero kilometre”, Cienfuegos’ central point and the spot where it was founded in the 19th century.

Further down the path, we gazed at Cuba’s only triumphal arch. Commissioned in 1902 by the local workers’ corporation, this remarkable piece of architecture commemorates the creation of the Republic of Cuba. Moreover, the "Antiguo Ayuntamiento" (former City Council), the "Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion", the Tomas Terry Theatre and the Ferrer palace stand among the many historical buildings that surround the park.

Before continuing to explore our surroundings, we rested a while inside a lovely gazebo, a great spot to relax and take pictures of the park. Though we were short of time to visit every landmark, we couldn’t resist briefly stepping inside the Tomas Terry Theatre and taking a look at the city from the top of the old cathedral.

The Italian-style theatre was the last will of Tomas Terry Adams, a wealthy sugar factory owner who later became mayor of Cienfuegos. As we sneaked a peek inside, we admired the ceiling frescos and elegant design of this rather small yet completely enchanting establishment where world-famous singers, such as Italian tenor Enrico Caruso once performed.

The best moment was climbing up to the towers of the Cienfuegos cathedral. Built from 1833-1869, the Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion boasts French stained glass windows and a Neoclassical facade. From the top of the highest bell tower, we snapped an amazing shot of the city’s colonial heart.

Dancing the night away at Benny More night club

After dining and freshening up at the University residence we stayed in, we decided to end our first day with a bang at the Benny More disco. Set within the boulevard, this night club is an ample and modern establishment where everyone can dance to the catchy rhythms of salsa and reggaeton. For only 3 CUC each, the whole group went in for an unforgettable night. Possessed by the beats and the euphoria of our holiday spirit, we said goodbye to our first day in Cienfuegos dancing the night away.

Seaside strolling: Malecon and Punta Gorda

We woke up on day two with great enthusiasm and eagerness to see more of Cienfuegos. After touring around some of its most important historical sites, we were now determined to see the modern side of the city. That morning we started our journey by strolling down to the city’s impeccable "Malecon".

Much like the famed seaside breakwater in Havana, the Cienfuegos Malecon graces the city with a spectacular view of its bay and the azure blue waters of the sea beyond. The "Malecon" is a great place for snapping a picture and resting as you take in the sea breeze.

As we walked further we reached the city’s most upscale residential neighbourhood: Punta Gorda. The streets of this posh zone are lined with beautiful houses (some of them even including barbecue patios and swimming pools), most of which can be rented by visitors, as well as chic private-owned restaurants which are not pricey compared to those in the capital.

However, for our lunch break we picked "Covadonga". Set right beside the bay, this restaurant offers stunning views of the sea from its floor-to-ceiling windows. It is also well-known in the city for serving a Cuban version of delicious Spanish paellas, as well as fresh, tasty fish and seafood. Even former president and leader of the Revolution, Fidel Castro, once enjoyed paella in this establishment. Lured by the idea of this delicious cuisine, we entered the restaurant. Though the paellas, in my opinion, cannot be compared to the Spanish originals, they were fairly tasty and the fish (fresh porgy) was exquisite.

Arabic influence at Palacio del Valle and sundown at Cienfuegos Yacht Club

To combat the immense heat of that afternoon, we could not wait to dip into the swimming pool at the Cienfuegos Yacht Club and order a few "mojitos". But we couldn’t continue our journey without making one more stop before: the breath-taking Palacio del Valle.

Reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish art, this seaside palace adorns the city with its great beauty and interesting blend of architectural influences including Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar styles. Before climbing up to the towers, we strolled through the carefully-trimmed gardens, which are filled with lovely sculptures. From the top of Palacio del Valle, the views were incredible and the Arabic influence of the arches and floor patterns were a truly curious and gorgeous sight.

Anxious to freshen up from the hot weather, we made our way to the Cienfuegos Yacht Club. This lush edification was inaugurated in 1920 by the city’s elite and thanks to important restoration works, it remains today one of the most marvellous examples of eclectic architecture in the entire island. For 3 CUC per person we were able enjoy the swimming pool area. Splashing around, telling jokes and sipping on refreshing "mojitos" made for an extremely fun and pleasant afternoon. As we got ready to leave, the sun had started to descend, leaving a bright orange trace in the pale pink and light blue sky. Before making our way out, we took a glance at the magnificent yachts docked in the marina, and the sight of the sun lazily setting into the water.

Dipping into crystal-clear waters at Rancho Luna Beach

On Sunday, we got up saddened by the thought that our journey was coming to an end but excited to discover one more spot before heading back to Havana. A rented bus took us from the city centre to Cienfuegos’ pristine beach: Rancho Luna.

As we dipped our feet into the fine sand, we immediately saw what we would love most about this beach: the peace and calm that graced the beach and the impeccable clearness of its waters. Though some parts had a lot of stones and I had to tread carefully, we really enjoyed our time at Rancho Luna. We strolled through the shore, swam within the lazy, shallow waves and took amazing shots of the crystal-clear waters.

Economic and unforgettable

Besides enjoying great company and indulging in the pleasure of getting to know such an enchanting city, we were gladly surprised by how inexpensive everything was in comparison to Havana, from food and drinks to transportation.

Most of the meals were under 5 CUC per person in government-run establishments and less than 10 CUC at private-owned restaurants. For an economic and authentic way to get around in Cienfuegos, riding the rudimentary horse carriages are a good option, they will take you rather long distances for 20 Cuban pesos at most. Nonetheless, classic-style “almendrones” (American 50’s cars) are also available at great rates. A ride from Punta Gorda to Prado may cost 2 to 3 CUC.

Discovering Cienfuegos accompanied by great friends was an experience we will all deeply cherish. Beauty and tranquility in every corner, colonial charm, seaside splashing and friendly locals accompanied us all through our trip. Our only regret was not being able to stay for a few more days. Thirsty of getting to know some of the spots we missed (like the Jagua Castle) and hungry for an exciting trip to other beautiful natural sites, El Nicho waterfall in particular, we left with the certainty that it wouldn’t be too long before we repeat the visit to this precious jewel, Cuba’s Southern Pearl.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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