The chilled city of Cienfuegos, French rather than Spanish in origin, is only a 90 minute drive from Trinidad and made for a lovely, mellow stop on the way to Havana. It is blessed with some amazing architecture, a lovely little Malecon (promenade) and great sunsets. I found I passed the time in Cienfuegos by doing very little. Life is slow here so it’s a perfect tonic either before or after the excitement of the capital.
Getting there from Trinidad was pretty straight forward since it’s only around a 90 minute drive away. As Trinidad was pretty packed with tourists, I visited the central Viazul office at the bus station a couple of days before to get my ticket. I didn’t get my ticket or pay but my name was written on a list and I was told to come back on the day and pay then. I was slightly worried it was a waiting list but on the day I turned up and got my ticket no problem. It was the morning bus to Havana but I stopped at Cienfuegos along the way. My casa particular in the city was literally around the corner from the bus station which was handy. It was another place I’d found on AirBnB and, although AirBnB had mucked up the reservation and my host Alejandro wasn’t expecting me, luckily the room was still free.
When I arrived at 11.30am, Alejandro was talking pipe installations with a local plumber over a bottle of rum in the garden and invited me to join them so it was certainly a rum-filled morning. 4 or 5 shots later, I managed to escape to try and stagger my way around the city. Alejandro was a very attentive, if a little intense host, but provided a great insight into Cuban life with his stories. His English was good too which made life a bit easier and he was always waiting in the evening (or morning) with bottles of rum to chug whilst chatting with his guests. It was intense when it was just me but when other guests were staying it was really fun. He’s got a fantastic garden/jungle at the back of the house which was great. Also the food (breakfast/dinner) was tasty too – the shrimp meal for 10 CUC was really delicious.
The city itself felt much more mellow than any of the places I’d been (except maybe Holguin). There wasn’t music blaring from every corner or as many touts lurking on street corners. It has a pretty classy feel. As a result, it’s not as unpredictable and exciting as other Cuban destinations, but as a pit stop between crazy Havana and rocking Trinidad it’s a good place to stop and breathe. The central square Parque Central Jose Marti (one of Cuba’s many heroic figures, though he was around pre-Revolution) is surrounded by incredible architecture, a couple of chilled bars and eateries and, of course, contains a Wi-Fi Park in the middle. Unlike other places, it was easy to grab a shady spot here and the connection was pretty good. It was particularly nice perching under the Jose Marti statue, trying to work out if he was doing a victory salute or sticking two fingers up to the world.
The park is surrounded by a couple of nice pedestrianised avenues, the main one is flanked by quite a few shops (by Cuban standards) including clothes shops which were handy for me to get new shoes when mine developed a gaping hole in the bottom. To the left of this walkway after reaching the square is a really good market with cheap prices and friendly vendors who hassle you in a much nicer way than they do in Havana or Santiago. Also, because of socialism, many things already have prices (haggling isn’t really a thing here). It’s the usual selection of Cuban souvenirs but a lot of them were cheaper than I saw elsewhere. I bought a box of the ubiquitous Cuban dominoes for 3 CUC which included a discussion with the vendor about how British/Cuban dominoes vary in their rules. After typing that, I’ve realised it sounds like a really boring conversation, but it was interesting… for me.
At the end of the market, you can finally sample Cienfuegos’ renowned bay. Although Cuba is a relatively small island with coastal access never too far away, I felt as if I hadn’t experienced the water too much up to this point so it was nice to have a bay right on my doorstep. However, to truly sample the bay at its best, you want to head to Punta Gorda, the southernmost point of the island. Local buses ply the route from the centre or it’s a really nice 30 minute walk along the city’s mini Malecon and beyond. There’s a number of cafes and bars you can stop at along the way to, including the renowned Palacio de Valle, an unmissable Moroccan style building right before you hit the southernmost tip of the city. There’s a bar on top with sweeping views of the bay. I instead went to a mini beach shack where some locals seemed to be having a private party/awards ceremony with the poor speaker having to constantly shut everyone up so she could make her speech as they chugged rum. Beers were only 25 CUP (75p) though.
Punta Gorda itself was quite weird. It was a park but quite a clinical one with a bar and eateries. It felt very methodical rather than a place to relax. However, Cuba’s affinity with bars meant it was easy to order a beer whilst watching the well-known spectacular sunset across the bay. It’s definitely worth making the trip here at least one evening to enjoy the perfect sunset whilst sipping a beer or Mojito. Alternatively, if you don’t fancy walking that far, the sunset is still pretty good from the small waterfront near the central square. Naturally, being Cuba, there’s a bar here too.
I managed to miss out on the 2nd anniversary commemoration of Fidel Castro’s death due to being lured by Alejandro and his bottles of rum (though in return I got a fascinating insight into his views on the government etc. This was one Cuban who was not afraid to talk politics). However, a huge stage was being set up in the centre. Rather than looking like a sombre occasion though, there was a DJ booth and massive speakers. This is remembrance, Cuban style.
The food scene in Cienfuegos was also pretty good. Around Jose Marti park, there is a small cafe (turn right when you come off the main pedestrianised boulevard) which serves tasty ham and cheese sandwiches and juice for 4 CUC. Along the main road towards Punta Gorda, there are a number of nice, pretty cheap restaurants where you can pick up a meal/drink for 5-10 CUC, including Big Bang Cafe and Casa Prado which also has a great roof terrace. They both serve the usual Cuban fare but it was better quality than many of my other meals in Cuba and the price was at the lower end.
Overall, come and sample a touch of class in Cienfuegos. It might not be the party capital of Cuba but there’s enough idiosyncrasies to spot, albeit in a more chilled and mellow way than some of its counterparts. Maybe I just felt that way because of all the rum I drank…