Cienfuegos, brimming with pastel columns, fancy buildings, and founded by the French, celebrates her 200th birthday this year. This southern Cuban city, set in the embrace of a vast bay on the Caribbean coast, plans a programme of events from next month. And, for the first time, local artists will stage performance and installations for Havana’s famous art fair, the Bienal, during April and May.
Cienfuegos is often overlooked by those heading to pretty colonial Trinidad but come for its breezy, sun-baked Malecón, central leafy park, beautiful theatre, musical concerts, petite castle, fairytale waterfalls, and extraordinary Moorish palace, built by a rich sugar baron, which commands a top spot on the bay.
Founded as Fernandina de Jagua in April 1819, in honour of Spanish King Ferdinand VII, it’s the only city founded in the Spanish Americas by the French. Bordeaux native Louis de Clouet arrived in Cuba from the US French colony of Louisiana along with other French families from Bordeaux, and New Orleans and settled inside the huge ragged-edged Jagua Bay on the island’s Caribbean coast. The Gallic influence is seen in the Haussmann-style airy streets, boulevards, and large public central park. Unlike the tight streets of Spanish-founded Havana and Santiago, Cienfuegos’ broader streets – some retaining French names – breathe a little easier, along with the coastal breeze. The 200-year-old city was renamed Cienfuegos after Spanish Governor, José Cienfuegos, in 1829.
Like many towns in Cuba , early battles with pirates of the Caribbean, were par for the course. Spanish trade in tobacco, timber, wax and sugar attracted the attention of opportunistic pirates so Spanish rulers ordered the construction of a castle at the mouth of the bay. In 1745, the small Castle of Our Lady of the Angels of Jagua was built to protect the area. This was also where Spanish rulers installed their military headquarters when British forces invaded and took Havana and half the island in 1762. Board a local ferry out to Jagua Castle (two return departures daily) or take a 30-minute taxi drive to Pasacaballo, at the mouth of the bay, and jump on a small ferry there for the 10-minute crossing. The little community of Jagua straggles up a small hill from the dock to the dinky castle; inside a history museum displays artefacts, and rather surprisingly, visitors can attempt to lift the working drawbridge!
Panoramic views from the battlements feature the tower blocks and water tower of the Nuclear City, a residential area of more than 4,000 homes built in 1982 for workers involved in building the Jagua Nuclear Reactor, six miles away. But the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, the backers of the project, saw the reactor programme scrapped in 1992.
Back in town, soak up the architectural wealth which followed Cienfuegos’ mid 19th-century sugar and shipping boom: main square José Martí Park, now the core of Cienfuegos’ UNESCO World Heritage Site-protected historic centre, is lined with important buildings. Star attraction is Terry Theatre, named for Venezuelan-born Tomás Terry y Adán whose profits came from sugar and slavery. Its glittering facade mosaic decoration is the key to treasures within: frescoes by Spaniard Camilo Salaya Toro cover the ceiling, and the marble-decorated foyer.
Today, the horse-shoe theatre, which once hosted Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt, is a theatre and concert venue. (Look for events here as part of the biennial Benny Moré International Music Festival due to be held September 26-29th this year.) Benny Moré, one of Cuba’s greatest musicians, immortalised the city in his song ‘Cienfuegos’ whose lyrics declared “the city that I like the most”. Benny is commemorated in a statue on El Prado, as well as a huge billboard on the bay. Look out, too, for events to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth in August this year.
Climb to the top of the duck egg-blue cupola of Ferrer Palace, built by Catalan businessman José Ferrer Sirés in 1917-18, with far-reaching views of José Martí Park, its bandstand, Arc de Triomphe, imposing town hall (flying a city flag striped in red, white and blue in a nod to its French origins), Cathedral, and the sea.
Browse art galleries around the square, including the studios of Vladimir Rodríguez, and Annia Alonso, before wandering down El Bulevar, the commercial heart of Cienfuegos. Vladimir Rodríguez will mount ‘Empaque 52’ for Havana’s Bienal: actors dressed in bamboo contraptions – some looking like giant fish traps – will walk the streets of Cienfuegos for an interactive performance challenging ideas of liberty and personal responsibility; ‘Mar Adentro’ by other Cienfuegos artists will feature five installations at the docks.
Where El Bulevar meets Prado - the promenade of statues, monuments, trees and seats flanked by columned homes, and said to be the longest in Cuba - stroll down towards Cienfuegos’ Malecón seawall on your way to Punta Gorda, a tapering peninsula jutting out into the bay. You’ll pass the Blue Palace, now a hotel, and the wedding cake-white 1920 Cienfuegos Yacht Club, once the gathering spot of the city’s elite, and now a bar, and music venue, with a pool.
Continue down Punta Gorda admiring pretty coloured timber homes sporting intricate latticed wood facades overlooking the bay; many are now homestays. Pull in at the little park at the end of the peninsula for one of the strong mojitos made at the lone bar before returning to Valle Palace, a Moorish architectural fantasy which once belonged to sugar baron Asisclo del Valle. Skip the restaurant, and climb the spiral staircase to the rooftop bar for mojitos, blazing sunsets, and a live son band (Monday-Saturday).
The Pearl of the South – as Cienfuegos is also known – has been getting a makeover with increasingly attractive places to stay. Melia Hotels now manages several spots in the city: 1950s modernist Hotel Jagua with its pool and prime location next to Valle Palace on Punta Gorda, and central pastel-green Hotel La Unión. Fancy a homestay? Gorgeous Casa Buenavista is decorated with murals and funky furniture (think half-a-bath chairs on wheels) with the focus on a courtyard filled with tables for dining; Hostal Colonial Villaverde features a pretty patio for breakfast, and is run by a helpful family. Dine on tasty Cuban creole cuisine and international dishes at Villa Lagarto, Finca del Mar, and Restaurant Grill. Afterwards, check out live music in the pretty UNEAC garden patio on José Martí Park, or at nearby Centro Cultural Benny Moré.
Swap city for countryside and rural towns during your stay. One of the best reasons to visit Cienfuegos is that it’s a perfect location for day trips with many places within easy reach. Get away to the Botanical Gardens, the oldest in Cuba, for an education on Cuba’s plants and flowers. There’s no signage, but garden guides are some of the most engaging in Cuba with excellent English. Opposite the gardens are the sugar mill ruins of Pepito Tey, and rambling plantation house of Boston trader Edwin Atkins. Flamingos stalk the water at Laguna Guanaroca; the mysteries of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería can be unravelled in Palmira town, north of Cienfuegos, and wildly beautiful El Nicho waterfalls where cascades of water splash into teal-green pools is the stuff of Caribbean dreams. Climb up first to the ‘Poceta de Cristal’ for the most beautiful of the fresh-water pools. It’s no hidden gem so it could be crowded. Come in the week to escape the crowds.