Province of Cienfuegos, Cuba
The city of sugar barons. The Pearl of the South, where European flair mixes with a Caribbean vibe.
It is 30th January 2019. I am sitting at the restaurant Covadonga, the last building on the Paseo de Prado, admiring the view of the sea. Actually, to be precise, it is a bay, that was protected in the past by the Jagua castle against the pirates. It just feels like the sea as the bay is large. My son Rhodri is keeping me company, along with his friend Daniela and my husband Rhod. It is my son's birthday and we ordered Margaritas and some seafood. We came here from Trinidad, as a part of our three-day road trip from Havana. We were driven by Noel, the Cuban owner of a 1952 Chevrolet (his service cost 150USD per day, including petrol and his accommodation).
Our waiter is slow but friendly. He gives us time to look around the restaurant. We are the only foreigners; all the other guests are local. That tells us immediately what to expect on the menu. Meat (beef), by law, is served only in private restaurants for foreigners. A few such private restaurants are now in place, following a law change in 2011, which allows private ownership. And indeed, when the menu arrives, it has seafood only. Well, we have no problem with that; what better to have in a coastal city?
While waiting for our meal, we admire the tights that all the waitresses wear. They are black, lace and sexy. All Cuban women in work uniforms wear such fishnet stockings. Even the immigration officers, bank clerks and nurses. It looks so out of place. If nothing else, wearing tights in a hot climate is not very practical. At the extreme end, it is a bit of a fashion faux pas. Perhaps it is just a part of the sexy, exotic, confident Caribbean culture and perhaps it is a government regulation.
The view of the bay is amazing. We are listening to the song of the icon of Cuban music, Benny Moré: 'Cienfuegos es la ciudad que más me gusta a mi (Cienfuegos is the city that I like the most). Well, Benny Moré was born in this city so for sure he loved it. But I could not agree more with the lyrics of the song. I like Cienfuegos most of all the Cuban cities that I have seen. Admittedly, I have only seen four cities here: Havana, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
So what is likeable about Cienfuegos? First of all, everything about Cienfuegos is related to the sea: the light in the sky, the feeling of spaciousness, the seafood, the view from the restaurant, the stories about the bay and its pirates… When you look closer, there is also the dark story of the city, tied in with the sugar and tobacco plantations and slavery. But that gave the city the most elegant buildings you could imagine, the palatial residences of the sugar barons. And that is another reason why we are sitting in this restaurant. Its location. It sits right opposite the Palacio de Valle, which we are going to see after our lunch. The palace of a sugar baron.
Mind you, before the sugar barons came in, the area was inhabited by the indigenous Taino and they called their land Jagua. At the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492, Cuba was divided into 29 Taino chiefdoms with about two million indigenous people. Smallpox and harsh enslavement killed almost 90% of them. Pirates settled here in the bay around the 1600s, raising cattle, and by 1740 they were growing tobacco as well. In 1742 King Philip V of Spain built Fort Jagua to suppress the pirates' use of the bay. The city was founded in 1819 by French settlers from America and Haiti and ten years later named Cienfuegos, which means 'a hundred fires'. No fires were involved in this story; the town was simply named after José Cienfuegos, Captain General of Cuba (1816–19), who was known for fighting against the Antillean pirates.
The city centre was composed of 25 blocks, laid out in a grid plan with absolute geometric regularity. Because of Cuba’s isolation for so long, the entire town is almost as it was in its 19th century glory days. Well, 25 blocks in a grid; that helps us because we have dedicated only 5-6 hours to see this city. But even then it required some focus. We started with the palace that represented the history of the rich sugar barons who built this city. And then we walked the main artery of the city, Paseo del Prado, and the malecón (waterfront promenade), to see those elegant houses.
I must admit that the Palacio de Valle impressed me. We have lived in Mexico over five years and we have seen many colonial Spanish houses, particularly in beautiful cities such as Mérida, Campeche, Oaxaca and Mexico City. But there is no comparison. Palacio de Valle is built with such panache. Yes, it is a house of flamboyant manner and reckless courage, built by Acisclo del Valle Blanco. He came to Cuba in 1882 from Spain at the age of 17 and made himself rich with sugar and railways. Among other roles that he played in the city, he was the President of the Cienfuegos Yacht Club, the Rotary Club and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. His eight children were born in this villa and maybe he decorated it so lavishly for them. Or just to show off his wealth.
On the other hand, I did not know what to think of the house. It was built in five styles: Spanish-Moorish, Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar. The ceilings are covered in gold while the floors are of white marble. This is how I imagine a house from the tales of 'One thousand and one nights'. The music and games room are built in Louis XVI French style. The roof terrace with pergolas offers great views of the bay and the Punta Gorda (Fat Point: the end of the peninsula). There are three towers on the rooftop: Roman Gothic, Taj Mahal and the Arab tower.
For me the house was a bit over the top and a mixture of too many styles, a bit of a show-off. We loved walking about, mind you; it was like stepping into a different world with every room and floor. The house serves as a restaurant but for a small entry fee you can walk about. There are no guides and the house-museum was not curated (the building was still being renovated). On the other hand, that gave the house a feel of real people who once lived here. I had a feeling that the communist state did not want to acknowledge the achievements of their sugar barons, nor wanted to talk about the slavery of its people. So we did what you do in Cuba: we just soaked up the atmosphere, then went to the rooftop for a mojito, admired the view and listened to live Afro-Cuban salsa music. My son was even invited by the band to join and play the maracas. A nice little joyful moment for his birthday.
Our next stop was at the Jagua hotel, right next door to the Palace. We bought some wifi credit at the hotel reception, so we could make some phone calls to Havana (we were trying to reserve a room for that night). Despite having the card and the hotel being one of the best in town, the wifi connection was very poor. We decided not to worry about it, as we knew that our driver would find us some casa particular for that night (all taxi drivers do so; they have a lot of contacts as they get a commission from any room that their clients book).
We then continued our walk along the malecón. It was pretty hot and I think it is better to walk about when the heat stops, to enjoy the sunset here. We did not have time to stay for that, so we just kept going in the heat of the day. I particularly liked three buildings here. The charming Green House was built at Punta Gorda in 1920. In 1929 it was owned by Agustin Garcia Palacios. The building was more recently restored by the Gran Caribe hotel chain and reopened as the Hotel Encanto Casa Verde.
Cienfuegos Club, a former Yacht Club, from the times when the town became a popular yachting destination. It was once presided over by Acisclo del Valle Blanco. It now houses a bar and a restaurant. Here we spotted a young girl arriving for her wedding party, with her wedding dress held up for ease of walking. I felt like following her, to peep at her event. Instead, I just took a quick photo of her and let her be on her big day.
Right next to it, The Blue Palace looked like from a fairy tale. It was built in 1921 by the architect Alfredo Fontana and used to be the private residence of a wealthy tobacco baron.
Now this neo-classical mansion with its Indo-Islamic domed turret has been renovated into a colonial-style hotel.
We continued to the main artery of the city, Paseo de Prado. We could really feel the European flair mixing here with the exotic Caribbean vibe. People were clearly not in a hurry. Hardly any street food stalls, as we know them from Mexico towns. We spotted only one flower seller in the centre. No outdoor cafés either, mind you. A large poster of Che Guevara on top of a colonial building, here and there, as expected. I wondered what such posters and murals in Cuba really meant for people. For many around the world, Che has become a generic symbol of the underdog, the idealist, or the martyr. But for people brought up with the socialist dogma? I asked Noel, our driver, and he said very firmly that Che was the past of Cuba and nobody revered him any more.
The city centre struck me as very grand and I was surprised to find that it only had 150,000 inhabitants. Perhaps because the main street was about 2km long and the main park, Parque José Martí, was large too.
José Martí Park is surrounded by beautiful colourful government buildings and the theatre of Terry stands out among them. It was built by yet another rich baron of the city, this time of Irish descent. Following the conquest of Ireland by England in the 17th century, Terry's parents fled Ireland to Spain. He initially became involved in the slave trade in Cuba, buying sick slaves, nursing them back to health, and then reselling them healthy for a profit. Later he became a dominant businessman in Cienfuegos in the sugar trade and banking. His fortune grew to be among the largest in the world. He donated money to the city for building this theatre (and a school for poor children).
And how about the Ferrer Palace, with a most interesting cupola? It was built by a rich Catalan merchant, José Ferrer Sirés, although he lived only a short time in this mansion, before moving to Havana. The estate was abandoned until the family of the Caicedos, one of the richest in Cienfuegos, bought it and lived there until the late seventies of the last century. Given the large number of extravagant residential palaces in Cienfuegos, it seems that excess of elegance was not the result of eccentricity on the part of the sugar barons, but rather a common style among the rich Cuban people in those days. No wonder they call the city the Pearl of the South.
Before we left the city for the drive back to (which takes about three hours), we decided to try an ATM machine to withdraw some cash. We were warned before coming to Cuba that this may not work and indeed, it did not. But I did manage a chat with the bank clerk. She was standing outside the ATM machine, having a smoke, in her bank uniform. She was wearing white lace tights with her black mini-skirt. I gathered my courage and asked her why she and her colleagues wore such sexy tights with their uniforms. She replied: 'The uniforms are boring, that's why'. I pressed further as I wanted to know if it was a government regulation. But she seemed so happy and comfortable with this fashion style that even if it was a government regulation, she was clearly loving it. Well, that's so Caribbean, wouldn't you say? A country with so many restrictions, but so frivolous about dress codes.
We did not have time to do more in Cienfuegos, but if you do, we were recommended to visit el Jardin Botanico Soledad. It was established by sugar plantation owner Edwin Atkins in 1912 as a sugar cane research centre on a corner of his sugar plantation. It is now one of the largest botanical gardens in Latin America, covering about 90 hectares. If you love nature, do plan it into your itinerary.
There are also the pretty El Nicho waterfalls outside the city but Noel, our driver, refused to take us there, as his classic Chevrolet would not make it up the steep hill. Bear that in mind when you organise your transport to the waterfalls. Modern cars (as taxis) are a more suitable option.
How to get there:
There is a direct bus from Trinidad to Cienfuego, operated by Viazul four times a day. It takes about an hour and a half. The same company operates buses from Havana.
If you’re travelling with a few people you may want to ask a local taxi driver to take you there. Then you are on your own schedule. Any waiter in any restaurant will also help you arrange that. They will take a commission if you book so everybody is eager to help you.
We had our own driver for the entire three days, with a 1952 Chevrolet, for 150 US per day (that included petrol, Noel's accommodation and food). With the big old American cars in Cuba, you can fit a group of four along with a driver although we did not find it comfortable at the back with three people. There was enough space but constant draught from the doors and the back seat.
If coming from Havana, you can go by bus or rent a car. We were offered one for about 150 US per day, from a rental place outside the Hotel Nacional. I don't know if we were lucky because most people will tell you that you have to book online months ahead of your journey. It may depend on the season as well. If you do rent, get directions on google maps and store them. You will find it useful as there are hardly any signs on the road. Our driver was a professional tour guide and got lost all the time, had to ask his way.
Mix & Match:
You can visit the nearby town of Trinidad.