Nestled 30km from the north coast in the heart of Camagüey, the provincial capital of CAMAGÜEY is aptly called the city of legends, its winding streets and wizened buildings weaving an atmosphere of intrigue. On first view it is a bewildering place to negotiate, with a seemingly incomprehensible labyrinth of roads that were laid out in a futile attempt to confuse marauding pirates. It is this maze-like layout, highly unusual for the Americas, which won the historic centre of Camagüey UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. So long as you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere, the odd wrong turn needn’t matter too much, and an aimless wander along the narrow cobbled streets overhung by delicate balustrades and Rococo balconies is the best way to explore, as you round corners onto handsome parks and happen upon crumbling churches.
Despite its quaint appearance, Camagüey is by no means a sleepy colonial town. There are regular free concerts in the Plaza de los Trabajadores and in summer alfresco cinema screenings, and townsfolk pull out all the stops for the annual June carnival, the highlight of the Camagüeyan calendar. Unfortunately Camagüey suffers from more of a jinetero problem than other provincial towns. Most of the attention is easy enough to deal with, with a firm “no gracias”, but there have been reports of bag snatching, particularly at night and around the Casino Campestre.
Sprinkled with churches and colonial squares, Camagüey will take a couple of days to explore fully, although those breezing through can do the main sights in a half-day or so. Most are in easy walking distance of the main shopping drag, Calle Maceo, including a cluster of churches and the Casa Natal de Ignacio Agramonte, birthplace of the city’s most revered son, a martyr of the struggle for independence. South of here, past the Plaza de Antonio Maceo, is the congenial Parque Agramonte, Camagüey’s main park, home to the city’s cathedral and close to the more picturesque Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. Further south again is the Plaza de San Juan de Dios which, blessed with the Iglesia San Juan de Dios and Museo de San Juan de Dios, is Camagüey’s most attractive colonial square. Although the northern end of town has fewer sights, it’s still worth venturing up for a breeze around the quietly impressive Museo Ignacio Agramonte.
One of Cuba’s seven original settlements, Camagüey was established between 1514 and 1515 on the site of a sizeable Amerindian village, and although the original inhabitants were swiftly eradicated, traces of burial sites and ceramics have been found in the area. The only legacy of the indigenous people remains in the city’s name, thought to originate from the word camagua, a wild shrub common to the lowlands that’s believed to have magical properties.
Initially known as Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe, the fledgling city started life as a port town on the north coast, where present-day Nuevitas lies. Just a year later, when farmers from Seville arrived in 1516, it was moved to the fertile lands of present-day Caonao on the northwestern edge of the province, until, according to some sources, a rebel band of Amerindians forced the settlers out, and the town moved once more, to its present site, in 1528. Straddling the Tínima and Hatibonico rivers, so as to be in the middle of the trade route between Sancti Spíritus and Bayamo, the newly settled town began to consolidate itself. During the 1600s its economy developed around sugar plantations and cattle farms, generating enough income to build distinguished churches and civil buildings in the following century. Despite intermittent ransacking by pirates, Puerto Príncipe grew into a sophisticated and elegant city, one its townsfolk fought hard to win from the Spanish during the Wars of Independence. Eventually, in 1903, following the end of Spanish rule, the city dropped its lengthy moniker and adopted the name by which it is now known.