Practically cutting the long and narrow mainland of Cuba into two, Camaguey is the nation’s largest province in terms of land covered with its capital city of Camaguey also being the third largest in the country. Yet despite its size it’s still a place largely undiscovered and unknown by most holidaymakers heading to Cuba. A real shame considering all it has to offer.
This is why, coinciding with its 500th anniversary last year, I felt compelled to write about the greatness of Camaguey, its many riches, its peculiarities and why it should be firmly established on Cuba’s tourist trail. That goes without even mentioning the province's two stunning coastal stretches, one of which is national park and the other home to one of the country's longest and most beautiful beaches.
Located right at the very heart of the Camaguey province (literally geographically located at its very centre), its tiny capital is a glowing gem full of legends, myths impressive examples of neoclassical, neo-colonial, eclectic and Art Deco architecture and an overwhelmingly colonial flair that fills the air. Many call it one of Cuba’s quietest and most romantic cities, and both depictions are more than just and well-deserved.
But this is not all that Camaguey is well-known for; as its intricate and winding urban design will tell you this is a city that was built to deter pirates and make it as difficult for them as possible to invade it. The quirky shape of the streets, the alleyways, back streets and the odd curvatures here and there might confuse many, but they all served a purpose.
Pirates' most coveted city (that resulted in a peculiar street layout)
The maze-like structure of Camaguey’s cobblestone streets is no coincidence. It didn’t happen by accident nor was it the result of a surrealist architect. During times when pirating flourished in the Caribbean this city was exposed as one of the most vulnerable and desirable in the Cuban archipelago, easily and repeatedly attacked by pirates over a good number of years.
If we go back further in time to the origins of the city which was founded sometime around 1515 as Santa Maria del Puerto del Principe (it would later change its name to Camaguey), we would learn that the city’s initial settlement was located by the sea, on the island’s northern coast (instead of its current location right in the middle of the Camaguey province) and it was only after virtually continuous and savage attacks by pirates that it was finally moved inland in 1528.
After such a move, architects took every measure possible to further protect it from external attacks by pirates and as such the city’s new layout was built to confuse and disorient outsiders (at least that is one of the two versions explaining its design).
I'm posting below what I think is an outstandingly well-made video presentation of Camaguey, put together to mark the 500th anniversary of its foundation. It beautifully encompasses the many sites, buildings, squares and churches that can be appreciated here as well as the city's love for the arts, be it paintings or dancing (Camaguey is home to one of Cuba’s most prestigious and internationally acclaimed ballet schools – La Compañia de Ballet de Camaguey - Camaguey Ballet Company). Embedded deep into its culture, this is a city with a rich tradition for celebrating the arts.
Walking along the centre you can easily see for yourself what a cleverly mind-boggling design Camaguey has. At times you’ll find yourself at dead ends with many blind alleys and forked streets leading to squares of different sizes. It makes for a rather interesting and quirky experience.
The reasoning behind the purpose of this design and how it would successfully deter pirates from attacking the city varies. While one version states that indeed the winding layout would make the city easier to defend from outsiders as it left it with only one exit (thus entrapping pirates and allowing locals to capture and kill them), another version disregards this explanation as no more than a myth and says that the only reason for the city’s winding design was the desire of every local to be positioned close to their local church (there are 15 of them in the city) and that the winding streets happened spontaneously as a result of this, in a totally haphazard and unplanned way.
Wherever the truth may lie when it comes to the explanation for Camaguey’s peculiar layout, what clearly isn’t a myth and has been written about considerably, is the centuries-long presence of pirates in the city, with numerous tales of famous loots obtained by the likes of bloodthirsty English buccaneer, Henry Morgan, who once occupied the city for several days before dashing off with a rather impressive booty of jewels and gold belonging to the Spanish bourgeoisie.
Birthplace of a national hero and UNESCO marvels
Camaguey is the birthplace of one of Cuba’s most loved heroes in the Independence Wars against Spain, the “Generalisimo” Ignacio Agramonte. This distinguished law graduate and peaceful man by nature soon became a skilful leader that led the uprising of the province of Camaguey in the Ten Years’ War (1869 – 1878).
You can find the presence of this popular Camagueyan hero everywhere around the city, from several plaques on buildings to a life-size sculpture of him mounted on a horse right at the heart of a square that is also named after him (Plaza Agramonte) and the province’s local radio station that also bears its name (Radio Cadena Agramonte). There’s another life-size statue of him found in Camaguey’s Plaza de la Revolucion, made famous around the world after Pope John Paul II celebrated The Holy Mass there during his visit to Cuba in January 1998.
One place you should pay a visit to learn more about this local hero is the Museo Casa Natal Ignacio Agramonte. The museum is housed in Agramonte’s birthplace and house. It exhibits various objects relating to the life of this fighter, who is also a romantic figure for Cubans due to the unconditional love he professed to his wife (and which is contained in a series of letters that have been published in a book). Even for its architectural value alone the house deserves to be visited; it’s a grand colonial mansion, beautiful preserved to a nearly immaculate and intact state, housing an array of fine antique furniture that will make you feel lost somewhere else in time.
But what really draws visitors to this city, especially foreign ones, are the UNESCO-declared attractions found in the old part of town.
The entire historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 and is in fact (unbeknownst to most well-seasoned Cuba travel experts and even most Cubans) the largest and best preserved of its kind in the island.
You can immerse right into the quietness of local life by starting your tour from any of the colourful squares this town has. Plaza del Carmen is one of the most concurred and picturesque with its quirky life-size bronze statues that add an air of romance and nostalgia into what can sometimes look like a deserted or sleepy town. Depicting lifelike situations and people going about their daily business you’ll come across a romancing couple facing a perfectly pink church (Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen), a circle of women drinking coffee while gossiping and exchanging stories, an old man carrying a cart full of the city’s emblematic tinajones (more on this later) and another old man lost in the reading of a local newspaper. The author of all these sculptures has a gallery right on the square (Galeria Marta Jimenez) and paying a visit to peruse her works of art is quite an experience.
You’ll get the most amazing photo opportunities everywhere around this town as the squares here are rarely crowded and the bursts of colours erupt everywhere. Every house’s façade is brightly painted in vibrant pastel colours and that together with the completely untouched and unchanged architecture from the past century will make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.
And once at the centre of the square you might get to feel like the only tourist there, possibly blending into the cityscape and significantly raising the authentic feel value of it all.
Ideally you’d be staying in any of the local’s guest houses (casas particulares) to really immerse in the local culture, admire aging architecture that bravely stands the test of time and interact with the friendly (and often highly educated) locals that are always welcoming and warm. Some of these guest houses are in fact true works of art and amazing feats of preservation, so staying there, more than an experience, will feel like a privilege. While some of these have been modernised on the interiors (quite a shame in my opinion) to cater to the higher standards of foreign visitors, many still offer antique furnishings and in some places the mix of old and new can strike you as rather quirky if not always desirable (or perhaps you love that sort of mix and match approach...either way it's quite unique). But there’s quite a selection anyway, just by looking around on the internet you’ll be able to pick your favourite, be it a mix of modern and vintage or pure classical colonial style through and through.
What most of these houses have in common and many travellers fall in love with is the verdant interior patios and corridors, overflowing with lush plants everywhere, beautifully manicured for the most relaxing and beautiful settings for that afternoon coffee or tea. Some actually feel like exotic mini tropical jungles with curtains of foliage. The older the house, perhaps the less modern facilities you’ll encounter but the more authentic the experience will be.
A selection of pretty manicured parks, museums, squares and churches
Picking up from where I left off earlier, you can continue your walk from Plaza del Carmen by heading west towards the Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Carmen, a beautiful church with a pink façade that was founded in 1732 although construction wasn’t finished until 1825.
Likewise, the nearby Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Santa Ana followed a very similar pattern. This one began construction works decades earlier in 1697 and it was gradually enlarged over the years with its tower added around the middle of the 19th century. It looks as if in Camaguey no one was in rush to finish anything, and in-keeping the unrushed attitude of the locals and the general sleepy air of the town, everything here goes at a difference pace.
This is why, when at the heart of this city you should step back, slow down and fully embrace the seductive, calming ambience that can be breathed here.
You can continue your journey towards the west end to see the Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, a small, and sadly dilapidated hermitage, again built between 1794 and mid 19th century. The large cemetery behind is worth a stop as it is beautifully kept with some grand tombs. The square in front of this tiny church, Plaza del Cristo (also known as Parque Gonfaus) is not as interesting as the older ones in town with no buildings of real architectural value, so this is not a place to linger.
If you carry on towards the north of the centre you will come across the Museo Provincial Ignacio Agramonte, first built as a cavalry barracks in 1848 and now exhibiting archeological pieces along with artefacts and drawings found in the cave of Sierra de Cubitas. This might be no highlight of your tour but what follows will be.
Another good starting point to your route is the centric Parque Ignacio Agramonte I mentioned before, right next to the Santa Iglesia Catedral, one of the oldest in town whose construction started in 1616. Its interiors and exteriors were newly painted in 2001 and the park itself also got a facelift. Right at the heart of the square stands the figure of local hero Ignacio Agramonte on horseback.
Walking down a couple of blocks south you will find another national monument, the Plaza San Juan de Dios and its adjacent church built in 1728. It is famous for being the only church in Latin America that has the Holy Trinity as its central image. The cobblestone square is very picturesque and closed to traffic; the houses surrounding showcase different bursts of colours and there is a small handicraft market as well as a couple of restaurants. This is another of the most trodden and photographed places in Camaguey and once you’re there it’s easy to see why: beautifully preserved low-rise colonial houses lining the streets one after another, the focal point of a grand colonial church rising amidst it all and plenty of space for walking and snapping the most stunning of pictures.
Yet another grand national monument is the Church of Nuestra Senora de la Merced, found on Avenida Agramonte, on the eastern edge of Plaza de los Trabajadores. This is the city’s iconic, largest and most distinguished church in Camaguey. At one point it stood out as the largest in Cuba. Erected in 1748 and later rebuilt twice due to a fire, the interiors are as impressive as its imposing exterior. There are some very old dark paintings to be admired inside but the main focal point is The Holy Sepulchre cast from 25,000 silver coins around 250 years ago. Attached to the church there is a cloister with a beautiful garden.
The Teatro Principal (or Main Theatre) is another site not to be missed, with its beautiful neoclassical façade. If you’re lucky enough you could catch a ballet performance (and Camaguey is home to one of the two top ballet companies in Cuba) you’ll be in for something you won’t forget. In fact I would highly recommend you do your research before travelling to catch a show, doesn’t matter what it is, ballet or even a play, it’s definitely an experience.
There are many more squares and churches all around the city to be found, explored and observed but dedicating a mention to each would make this post rather long and uninteresting. In any case it’s best to go there yourself and get lost in the maze of streets and squares, following no directions and being pleasantly surprised with each turn and each unexpected encounter. With a good array of the most varied forms of structures, an architecture enthusiast will no doubt fall in love with the many buildings and architectural styles to be perused.
The city of Tinajones
If there is an iconic object that really represents Camaguey, that is its tinajones – clay pots or earthenware jars originally devised to collect rain water to be used later for gardening or household use. The tinajones kept the water fresh and they were produced in all sizes with some being as small as a hand and others large and wide enough for people to fit inside or stand up on. There is even an old legend that says that forbidden lovers used them as a nocturnal hideout spot to be with one another.
Another legend surrounding tinajones says that those that drink their water say to live in the city while one war anecdote retells how back in 1875 a soldier from Cuba’s Ejercito Libertador (Liberation Army) managed to save his life by hiding inside a tinajon.
You’ll find them everywhere on the streets in Camaguey and inside people’s homes, in patios, gardens and courtyards, in all sizes and shapes. It’s no wonder that today their easily recognised as one of the city’s most distinctive decorative hallmarks.
Oh, the glorious beaches! On both sides!
And then there’s the beach...or should I say beaches? The city of Camaguey is surrounded by large rural areas that give way to amazing coastal scenery and thriving marine life.
A scenic 90-minute ride away from the city centre takes you to one of the most beautiful and appraised of Cuban beaches – Playa Santa Lucia. Although not as popular (and thus not as developed or crowded) as the famous Varadero beach resort, Santa Lucia has nothing to be envious of as it boasts equally pristine soft white sands and sparkling emerald waters that also stretch for over 20 kilometres. So for those who know Varadero and find it too jaded or commercial, Playa Santa Lucia is a great alternative. But get there soon as the area is drawing more and more international tourist attention and future developments will no doubt change its isolate and deserted landscape. There are a few good quality resorts already in place, most (if not all) operating on an all-inclusive basis ranging between three and four stars. These are all located right on the beach.
But if you really want more seclusion you can always go a bit further past Playa Santa Lucia and stop at La Boca, a beautiful fishing village with a stunning section of crystalline beach. You can get there by horseback or on one of the local horse carriages. Mingling with the welcoming locals will no doubt add to the experience and although there are rumours that Russia is investing in the area with the development of two luxury hotels in the pipeline, this project could actually enhance your options for staying in this remote area and also give back to the local community.
On the southern part of Camaguey lies another gem of even more astounding beauty. The offshore keys that make up the Jardines de la Reina archipelago present the best scuba diving and fishing opportunities there are in the whole of Cuba. It once was one of former president Fidel Castro’s favourite fishing spots with its waters inhabited by Cubra snapper, Black grouper, Bonefish, Yellowfin grouper, whale shark and Atlantic goliath grouper, as well as the queen conch (a large Caribbean conch that is home to a large, edible sea snail). The abundance of reef sharks also makes the area more than idyllic for scuba divers.
Comprising a total of 600 keys and islands, none of which are inhabited, you will find no hotels anywhere on the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) archipelago. To pay them a visit you will have to arrange a stay at one of the many floating hotels that operate diving excursions to these islands. These liveaboard boats offer different routes depending on guests’ varying interests and what they wish to do, but they are all focused on scuba diving excursions and each has a different itinerary visiting different diving sites.
For the foreseeable future there are no plans to build anything on land to keep Jardines de la Reina in its pristine state for many years to come. It has the official status of a protected national park and unlike the Jardines del Rey archipelago on Cuba’s northern coast, which have a moderate level of development with many deluxe resorts on some of its most popular keys (namely Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo) you can’t stay on these cays overnight…however you can sleep offshore in its waters on one of the floating hotels.
So, when visiting Camaguey, the advice is always to include a visit to the beach. It should be an unmissable part of your trip. The ride from the city alone, although lengthy, proves very rewarding as it takes you through virtually untouched Cuban countryside and through the abundant wildlife of the Sabana-Camaguey archipelago.
Camaguey is perfectly surrounded by two stunning coastal landscapes on each side and no matter which one you go for you are guaranteed spectacular beach scenery that is out-of-this-world beautiful.
Camaguey in a nutshell – why you should see it
From the attractive flat and fertile countryside that wraps around the city centre to the numerous cultural riches that await you in the capital with a strong colonial accent and more quaint dwellings and churches than you could wish for, to the ultimately irresistible beaches that bathe its shores on both sides, there isn’t a reason to justify not stopping at this city and province if you happen to cross the island from one side to the other. And even if you don’t, you should still plan to spend a few days here (whether you’re based in Havana or Varadero) or make this your base on your next trip to Cuba. There is plenty to do and see plus plenty of beach to relax at, so you will not miss out on anything. In fact there is more hassle in arranging a twin-centre holiday to Havana and Varadero (as you have to take the two-hour car transfer to and from) than in planning a single holiday in Camaguey, where you have the history and the culture in the city and the beach is less than two hours away.
But it is ultimately and undeniably the city’s irregular urban pattern with its serpentine streets and uneven blocks that catches most people’s attention and surprises the most. That added to the almost mystical and romantic tranquillity that reigns here.
Of course this alone would not be enticing enough if it weren’t for the amazing preservation of the city (in comparison to many other similar ones around the island which have suffered from decades of neglect and which sadly don’t conserve its colonial buildings in such a respectable state). Camaguey is one of the least weathered cities in Cuba, and even though the whole island feels enwrapped in a time warp, this place feels even more so. You should see it for yourself.