Cienfuegos is an elegant colonial town by the sea. But this is not all. Its uniqueness is given by the fact that it was settled by French immigrants, not by Spaniards. The French charm mixed with the Caribbean vibe, the Spanish influences, and the stunning sunset views are the perfect settings for some amazing moments. Besides, Cienfuegos is the perfect spot to escape, relax, and shop, as the souvenirs are cheaper. Its residents are very proud of their lovely town and call it “the pearl of the south”.
How did Cienfuegos get its name?
Cienfuegos means 100 fires. Some might think that this might be because of the red sunsets. In fact, it got this name in 1829 after Jose Cienfuegos. Before that, it was called Fernandina de Jagua.
How to get to Cienfuegos?
Cienfuegos lies in the Cienfuegos Bay, on the Caribbean coast of south-central Cuba. You can easily reach Cienfuegos by bus or taxi collectivo. It is about 200 km southeast of Havana and a very common stopover on the way to Trinidad, as the popular city is only 1 hour and a half away.
How long should you stay in Cienfuegos?
You can explore the entire town in half a day. However, the sunsets there are magical and I strongly suggest an overnight stay. If you have more time, 2-3 days would be ideal in order to discover the surroundings. We did not get to do this, but the area has a lot to offer and would love to do it in the future.
What is Cienfuegos known for?
Cienfuegos was established in 1819. Although the Spanish were there first, many of the first settlers of Cienfuegos were French immigrants that escaped from Haiti after the revolution. Located in a fertile agricultural region producing sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, and mango, it developed as its primary commercial port town. By the 1860s, Cienfuegos was the third most wealthy town in Cuba, mainly because of the sugar boom in the 19th century.
Cienfuegos is the newest town in Cuba and benefited from a lot of facilities, which other towns could not. It’s an example of the new ideas of modernity, hygiene and order in urban planning due to the Spanish enlightenment in the 19th century. Its wide streets well-organized in a spacious grid structure, the beautiful columned buildings on the main street, the longest promenade in Cuba and the port place it on the touristic map. In 2005 it was declared UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its well-preserved historic center.
Top things to do in Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos is a small, quiet town, perfect for a break from the craziness in Havana, Viñales and even Trinidad. There is cheap public transport in Cienfuegos (1 CUP), but you don’t need really need it. Just walk around the streets and observe the surrounding architecture. The area around the town makes for some great day-trips, if your time allows for this.
Parque Jose Marti
One of the focal points in town, where locals and tourists come in order to enjoy the wifi and relax. It was named after Jose Marti, writer, poet, and national hero, whose statue is located right in the center. An interesting feature is the compass next to it, that marks the 0 km and the spot where it was founded in the 19th century. The entrance is guarded by two stone lions and the square is surrounded by some of the most emblematic buildings in town.
Arco de los Trabajadores (Arch of Triumph)
The local workers built the monument in 1902 to commemorate the independence of the country. According to our host, there used to be two once, but one of them just isn’t there anymore. He didn’t know the reasons behind it. Today this is the only Arch of Triumph in Cuba.
The Theater Tomás Terry
The theater built in 1886 in Italian style was the last will of Tomás Terry Adams. He was a wealthy sugar factory owner and mayor of Cienfuegos. For 2 CUC you can take a look inside.
The Ferrer Palace
Its blue dome will get your attention even from the opposite side of the park. For 1 CUC you can enter the old villa, which is definitely worth a look. The best part is that you will also get to climb the cupola tower. From the top, you can see all of Cienfuegos. It was initially built by a Catalan merchant in order to control the entry of the ships into the port in 1918.
Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion
The Cathedral overlooks the square ever since 1869 and is probably the oldest building in the area. It was built over a span of 36 years, between 1833 and 1869. It was not possible to climb the towers when we were in town, but we could admire its asymmetric towers, French stained glass windows, and Neoclassical façade.
The Government’s Palace
The most imposing building in the square is the Government’s Palace, with its huge dome. You won’t be able to enter, but it is beautiful from the outside. I can’t but wonder what the inside looks like.
Just off Parque Jose Marti is a cobblestone street leading to the water with carts selling souvenirs. Most of the items are similar to the ones seen in other parts of Cuba, but the prices are better.
The Cienfuegos Malecon does not overlook the sea, but the Bay of Jagua. The best time for a stroll along it is at sunset, when the locals come out and the boardwalk comes to live. We’ve watched a lot of sunsets in Cuba, but this was by far the dreamiest one, as the sky that seemed to be on fire.
As you head away from the water, the Malecon turns into the main road of the city, Paseo del Prado. The beautiful neoclassical buildings with colorful façades and the statue of the legendary singer Benny More, “el barbaro del ritmo”, welcome visitors as they enter the center of the town. In the middle of the avenue, there is a pedestrian area with palm trees and benches to sit and relax. In the evening, whole families gather there to listen to music and play.
The residential area of Punta Gorda is the richest part of town. Huge mansions that you wouldn’t have imagined to find in Cuba can be seen there. You can grab a bike taxi or a horse-drawn carriage, but we chose to walk, following the Malecon sea wall.
Palacio del Valle
The pink Palace combines several styles as Mudejar, Byzantine, Venetian, Gothic and Baroque. At the first floor, there is a classy restaurant. On top of it, there is a rooftop bar with live music and a terrace where you can watch the sunset and get a 360-degree view of the sea and the rest of Punta Gorda. As you climb up the stairs, take a look at the Morrocan ornaments inside.
What can you do around Cienfuegos?
In the morning of our stay in Cienfuegos, our hosts wanted to show us a movie of Cienfuegos and the surroundings. He was sad that our stay there was so short and we wouldn’t get to see some of the marvelous places just next to the city. After watching the movie, I can’t but agree with him. There is a lot to do and see in the area. No matter your interests, you will for sure find something that interesting for you.
Laguna de Guanaroca
I will start with the trip that I would have liked the most. A tour of 10 CUC consists of a short walk in the forest followed by a boat ride. The saltwater lake is set up as a nature reserve. It is popular for bird spotting. You might get to see pink flamingoes, emerald hummingbirds, herons, pelicans, snowy egrets, anhingas, mangroves, and plants used to make maracas. If you are really lucky, maybe you’ll get to see the country’s national bird, tocororo. It would be best to go in the morning when there are fewer people around. The site opens at 8 am and the tour takes more or less two hours. You can join this trip with the one at Playa Rancho Luna, as they are in the same direction.
El Nicho is supposedly the most beautiful waterfall in Cuba. From Cienfuegos, it is the easiest and cheapest to get there, 35 CUC per person compared to 45-50 from Trinidad. If you can, it would be even better to share a taxi collectivo and stop there on the way from Cienfuegos to Trinidad. On the hike up, you will also see other waterfalls and sets of natural pools where you can swim in the refreshing clear water. I would have loved the trail through the lush green mountainscape, but at the time I thought it was easier from Trinidad, which obviously it is not. However, if you don’t get to El Nicho, you can get to Salto del Caburni or Vegas Grande from Trinidad, the most known colonial town in Cuba.
Playa Rancho Luna
It is not one of the most beautiful beaches in the country, but if you are a beach person, it will serve its purpose. There is even a coral reef there called Notredame. It is said to resemble the towers of that Parisian cathedral. Scuba diving is also available. It is 20 km from Cienfuegos and the bus there costs 1 CUP.
Castillo de Jagua
El Castillo de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles de Jagua can be reached via a ferry that leaves at 8 am or 1 pm and returns at 10 am or 3 pm. The ride takes 40 minutes. The castle overlooks the entrance to Cienfuegos Bay and was used to defend the city against pirates in the 18th century.
Cementerio la Reina and Necrópolis Tomás Acea
Cienfuegos has two of the four cemeteries listed as National Monuments. In Cemetery la Reina the bodies are interred above ground because of the high groundwater levels. Many soldiers from the Wars of Independence rest in the tombs there. In the Necrópolis are buried Cienfuegos’ most important citizens. You can’t miss the memorial to the martyrs in the rebellion against the Batista government.
Where to stay in Cienfuegos?
As everywhere in Cuba, you get to choose between a state hotel and a casa particular. Government-owned hotels are more expensive and not necessarily better. The quality is not the same as the one in Europe for the same number of stars.
We chose a casa particular for less than 20 CUC on Airbnb, Font’s House, Midaimys y Guillermo. The house is in the most central part of Cienfuegos, on the pedestrian street that connects Paseo de Prado to Jose Marti Park. From the balcony, you can people-watch as long as you want, as you’ll not be short of opportunities. The breakfast was 5 CUC/person extra and included 1 egg, pancakes, juice, coffee and some fruits, slightly less than we were used to, but good enough.
The host was the most talkative person we’ve known in Cuba. He gave us a lot of tips, told us about family life, his two daughters and communism in Cuba and also about tourists he liked and did not like. The house-owner was very knowledgeable and even showed us a movie of Cienfuegos and the region. He also spoke English as he was previously a bartender in Jose Marti Park. You can also choose a more luxurious casa in Punta Gorda, depending on your taste and budget. If you want to use Airbnb for your trip to Cuba, use this link for a 40$ discount.
Where to Eat and Drink in Cienfuegos?
Around Jose Marti Park, the food and drinks are a little more expensive. If you walk a little outside the center, you can already find food from 3 CUC. Paseo de Prado is filled with restaurants and people strolling around at all hours of the day and night. If you want traditional Cuban food, try the delicious seafood soup and Ropa Vieja (stewed and shredded beef in a red wine sauce, served with rice and black beans, vegetables and salad). For dessert, go to Coppelia and have an ice-cream in a plastic bowl with the locals. Calle 37 will give you the fast-food option, not tasty, but decent and cheap.
Nightlife in Cienfuegos
Depending on the day of the week, you can dance the night away at the Benny More Club, set on Calle 37, before entering the park, Cienfuegos Club in Punta Gorda or Cabaret Tropisur on Paseo de Prado. Check the schedule, you might even catch a cheap cabaret show. As it was a Wednesday evening, the only option was the club on Paseo de Prado. It filled up with students and some older Europeans accompanied by young Cuban girls. I haven’t been to Thailand yet and was not accustomed to this, but it’s a frequent sight in Cuba also. The entrance at any of them is usually 3 CUC and girls enter for free, as per the posters. In fact, this is only valid for the ones that study at the local university.
Getting to know such an enchanting city was one of the highlights of our trip to Cuba. We were surprised but what we found there and it certainly deserves a visit. We only regret not being able to stay for a few more days and see the surroundings, especially Laguna Guanaroca and El Nicho.