by Claire Boobbyer, The Telegraph, September 21, 2018
Breezy, French-founded Cienfuegos, a waterfront city of pastel columns and quirky architecture, is often the departure point, or first port of call for Cuba cruises heading around the western tip of the island. With its spacious streets, impressive marble-and-frescoed theatre, Moorish palace, gingerbread homes, and emerging arts’ scene, its ambience is a huge reason to step ashore.
Set back from the Caribbean coast in a vast, protected bay, explore its 18th-century castle, nearby flamingo-flecked lagoon, and lush, palm-tree-stuffed botanical gardens. Its columned boulevard, El Prado, is the longest in Cuba, and its attractive historic core was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005.
Getting into town is a breeze as the Cienfuegos cruise port, on the Bay of Cienfuegos, is only four blocks south of the main city square, José Martí Park. Passengers cross a huge empty lot before reaching a road where private taxis and bicycle taxis wait for passengers.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
The good news is that the vast majority of Cienfuegos sites are within walking distance. The handsome buildings of José Martí Park are only four blocks north of the cruise terminal. It takes a good half an hour to walk down Cienfuegos’ Malecón (seafront boulevard) to Punta Gorda, site of the Moorish Valle Palace, and pretty gingerbread homes.
Plenty of friendly bicycle taxis (bicitaxis), and private taxis, as well as horse carriages – which plough up and down the Prado boulevard to the Hotel Jagua (the Valle Palace sits in its grounds) – are available. The tip of Punta Gorda is another five to 10 minutes’ walk on foot beyond (accessible by bicitaxi, and private taxis).
For further flung spots, hire a private taxi or tour (available through state-run operators, for example Cubanacán), or take an expensive shore excursion to get to the Botanical Gardens (11 miles), flamingo hotspot Lagoon Guanaroca (nine miles), and gorgeous mountain waterfall El Nicho (33 miles). Passenger ferries run twice a day across Cienfuegos Bay to the Jagua Castle, or head by road in a private taxi.
Best beaches for cruise-ship visitors
Cienfuegos’ beaches aren’t Caribbean highlights. Its closest beach, Faro Luna, is mediocre. Keen to catch a few rays before boarding your cruise? Head to the Bay of Pigs area: both Caleta Buena (43 miles west of Cienfuegos) and Punta Perdíz (55 miles west) boast wonderful snorkelling in turquoise and indigo seas with shoals of tropical fish (but no sand); for a family friendly beach head to fishing village Caletón, Playa Larga (71 miles west of Cienfuegos), for homestays on the sand, and an emerging indie beach scene with restaurants and bars. The trick would be to swing by these places en route to Cienfuegos from Havana.
What to see and do?
The Pearl of the South, as Cienfuegos is hailed, is perfect for walkers, and the Unesco-crowned historic centre is on the doorstep of the cruise port. Central, leafy José Martí Park boasts a grand line up of multicoloured eclectic architecture, a reflection of Cienfuegos’ historic sugar and port trade wealth.
The star attraction is the grand 19th-century Tomás Terry Theatre with its gold-leaf mosaic facade, marble foyer statues, and beautiful, horseshoe-shaped auditorium with frescoed ceiling. Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova, no less, performed here in its heyday.
Read more: Telegraph Travel's Caribbean Cruise Guide
What can I do in four hours or less?
Take a tour (CUC$2 per person; £1.50), or catch a show; the programme is posted outside (the annual November Benny Moré International Music Festival stages a fantastic, uplifting celebration here); admire the facades of the other park buildings (skip the cathedral interior) and explore the artists’ studios opening up around the square.
Head east from the park along pedestrianised Avenue 54 (El Bulevar) past shops, restaurants, and bars. At Prado (Calle 37) wander south passing the city’s famous columned portals, down its breezy Malecón looking out for the wedding-cake architecture of the 1925 Blue Palace Hotel, and the 1920 Club Cienfuegos (where a drink on the terrace gives waterfront views; skip the food).
At the foot of the Malecón, admire the dazzling Moorish-Gothic-Venetian fantasy, with Mudejar ceilings, that is the Valle Palace (enjoy panoramic bay views from the rooftop bar). Snap the pretty, latticed gingerbread homes on Punta Gorda followed by a mojito in the grounds of the gardens at the peninsula’s tip.
Cruise excursions are costly. Royal Caribbean’s shore excursion takes in the historic centre and botanical gardens. In a DIY tour for a couple this would come in at approximately one quarter of the price. Cuban taxi drivers and touts (jineteros) can come across as intimidating in their enthusiasm. Negotiate firmly, and do not be rushed. A bespoke tour will be a lot of fun.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Cienfuegos is blessed with a wealth of nature options and adventures near the city centre. After touring the historic core, explore the Botanical Gardens, El Nicho Waterfall, or the Guanaroca Lagoon, the Jagua Castle and the town of Palmira for religious interest.
History buffs could head to the Bay of Pigs for the day to explore the history and 1961 invasion museum, and the rich corals and war wreckage in the sea as divers or snorkellers. Cienfuegos’ Botanical Garden, 10 miles (16km) east of Cienfuegos, established by American Edwin F Atkins in 1901, houses 2,000 species of trees and tinkles with bird life.
Knowledgable and engaging English-speaking guides bring it to life (there’s no signage). Opposite the gardens is the short road to Pepito Tey where a former sugar mill shrouds the town. Atkins’ handsome crumbling plantation house can be visited. Picturesque, cascading falls tumble into a teal green pool at El Nicho and make for a refreshing few hours of relaxation (CUC $10pp entrance).
Take a tour with Cubanacán tour agency, or hire a taxi for the 58-mile (93km) round trip. Flamingos flock to Lagoon Guanaroca, a protected saline lake, southeast of the city. Hike a trail and take a boat ride (CUC$10) with a return taxi booked. Kayaks are for hire from Club Cienfuegos to explore the beauty and breezes of the bay. Alternatively, board a cruise from the marina (next to Club Cienfuegos) to Jagua Castle.
Afro-Cuban religions are centre stage in Palmira, five miles north of Cienfuegos. To learn about religious brotherhoods here, and visit the local museum, take a tour. Trinidad, 51 miles (83km) east, is frequently a port of call on many cruise itineraries.
If it’s not on yours, it’s an essential visit for its extraordinarily pretty Unesco-protected Spanish colonial centre, lively bars, restaurants, and shops. Royal Caribbean’s Colonial Trinidad is significantly more expensive than visiting independently, but a convenient choice due to the distance (90 minutes each way) and ground covered on the excursion. Private tour operator Trinidad Travels can offer fair-priced trips.
What can I do with a bit longer?
Cienfuegos doesn’t enjoy the same reputation as Havana, Santiago, or Trinidad for its live music. However, it’s the city of Benny Moré, one of Cuba’s greatest ever virtuosos. El Benny was the master of mambo, bolero, rumba, and even dedicated a song to Cienfuegos. Centro Cultural de las Artes Benny Moré hosts traditional music bands and a Benny Moré homage every Tuesday. Popular Patio de Artex pumps out live music, too. More intimate are musical performances in the UNEAC gardens off José Martí Park.
Eat and drink
Cuba’s private dining revolution hasn’t made huge inroads into the culinary scene in Cienfuegos. Cuban creole fare is offered at all central restaurants and paladares (private restaurants). For exceptional food and service, and a bay view, head to the best of Cienfuegos’ paladars at Villa Lagarto, at the tip of Punta Gorda. Bars and cafés abound in the historic centre. The Terry Theatre café is a popular spot with live music. After walking all the way to Punta Gorda from the historic centre, there’s never been a better icy mojito than the one served up from the bar in the small park at the tip of the tiny peninsula.
Don’t leave the island without…
Smokes, rum, Cuba-branded souvenirs, and a small craft market can be found around central park. More interesting is the work of local artists. Head to Galería Trazos Libres, Avenue 62, number 4523 between Calles 45 and 47 for the works of painter and engraver Santiago Hermes. Artists’ studios have opened around José Martí Park. For home-grown fashion on El Bulevar, Cienfuegos designer Lourdes Trigo runs Arte Moda.
Need to know
There are no direct flights from the UK to Cienfuegos' Jaime González Airport. You can fly direct from London Gatwick to Havana. You can also fly to the international airport at Varadero (charter flights only).
It's around four hours' drive from Havana to Cienfuegos, due to the roads. Varadero to Cienfuegos is three hours to three and a half hours.
Cienfuegos is an extremely safe and welcoming city. As with any foreign travel, take care of your valuables.
Best time to go
Hurricane season runs from June 1 until the end of October. Peak cruising season is November through to April.
Popular events include the musical extravaganza that is the Benny Moré Festival, usually held in November, but subject to change. The next festival will be held December 14 to 17, 2019. Carnival hits the streets in August. Expect festivities for the 200th anniversary of the city’s foundation in April 2019.
Museums are often closed on Mondays, and shops that open on Sundays often close in the afternoons.