Established in 1819, more recently than most major Cuban cities, CIENFUEGOS is the only city in the country founded by French settlers. It’s an easy-going place, noticeably cleaner and more spacious than the average provincial capital and deserving of its label as the “Pearl of the South”. Its most alluring feature is its bayside location on the Bahía de Jagua, also known as the Bahía de Cienfuegos, which provides pleasant offshore breezes and some sleepy views across the usually undisturbed water. To get the best perspectives of the city and its surroundings you should catch the Jagua ferry to the old Spanish fortress at the mouth of the bay, a wonderfully unhurried journey. As a base for seeing what the rest of the province has to offer, Cienfuegos is ideal, with several easy day-trip destinations – beaches, botanical gardens and the old fortress – within a 25km radius.
Most visitors don’t stray beyond two quite distinct districts, the relatively built-up northern borough of Pueblo Nuevo, the city’s cultural and shopping centre, and Punta Gorda, a more modern, laidback, open-plan neighbourhood where you’ll find a marina, a couple of scrappy little beaches and one of the most distinctive buildings in Cienfuegos, the Palacio de Valle. The two are linked together by the principal city street, Calle 37, the promenade section of which is known as Prado.
There are several manageable day- or half-day trips from Cienfuegos city that offer some satisfyingly uncontrived but still visitor-friendly diversions. Chief among them is the exuberant Jardín Botánico, compact enough to tour in a couple of hours but with a sufficient variety of species to keep you there all day. A little closer to the city, toward the coast, the focus at the wilder Laguna Guanaroca nature reserve is birds rather than plants.
Near to the mouth of the Bahía de Jagua, Playa Rancho Luna has a pleasant beach and is the most obvious alternative to the city for a longer stay in the province. Further along, this coastline forms the eastern bank of the narrow channel that links the sea to the bay. On the western bank is the Castillo de Jagua, a plain but atmospheric eighteenth-century Spanish fortress. Though accessible from Playa Rancho Luna via a ferry across the narrow channel, it’s well worth taking the boat to the fortress from Cienfuegos and enjoying the full serenity of the bay. Further afield are the forested peaks of the Sierra del Escambray mountains, where you can do some gentle trekking or explore the beautiful set of waterfalls at Parque El Nicho.Read More
Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos
Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos
About 15km east of the Cienfuegos city limits, the Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos has one of the most complete collections of tropical plants in the country. The 11-acre site is home to over two thousand different species, divided up into various different groups, most of them merging seamlessly into one another so that in places this feels more like a natural forest than an artificially created garden. A road runs down through the grounds to a café and a little shop selling maps of the park. This is where the only indoor areas are found, a cactus house and another greenhouse full of tropical plants.
Guides are essential if you want to know what you’re looking at, but though it can be difficult to find your way around, there’s a definite appeal to just wandering around on your own, following the roughly marked tracks through the varied terrain and past a series of (usually dry) pools and waterways. Highlights include the amphitheatre of bamboo and the vast array of palm trees, totalling some 325 different species.
- Castillo de Jagua
Parque El Nicho
Parque El Nicho
Near the eastern border of the province, in the lush green Sierra del Escambray mountains 5km from the hamlet of Crucecitas and around 60km from Cienfuegos city by road, Parque El Nicho is a natural park with trails cutting through it, culminating at a delightful set of waterfalls and natural pools. This is one of the five smaller hiking areas, which can only loosely be considered parks, that make up the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes nature reserve, which is usually visited from Trinidad. The entrance to the park, marked by a stone gateway, leads into an official trail, the Reino de las Aguas, which cuts through the dense woodlands and crosses over rivers and streams, taking in numerous waterfalls, mountain vistas and abundant birdlife before arriving at the El Nicho waterfalls. More becalming and enchanting than spectacular, the waterfalls drop from over 15m at their highest, and there are several pools ideal for bathing, all of them fed by cascading water. There is also a restaurant within the park, lunch at which is included in organized excursions to the area.