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.
Cuba’s third-largest city, Camagüey has enjoyed significant investment over recent years. Prompted in part by its five-hundredth anniversary in 2014, the Ministry of Tourism has attempted to broaden Camagüey’s capacity and appeal for foreign visitors, renovating and refurbishing museums and historic buildings while opening new bars, restaurants and hotels. There are regular free concerts in the Plaza de los Trabajadores and summer alfresco cinema screenings, and townsfolk pull out all the stops for the annual June carnival, the highlight of the Camagüeyan calendar.
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.
Camagüey is particularly vibrant during its week-long carnival in late June, when an exuberant parade takes place on the main streets and musicians dressed in multicoloured, frilled costumes twirl huge batons adorned with silver glitz, bang drums and clap cymbals while others dance, swig beer and quarrel with the parade officials. Floats with disco lights, bouncing speakers and unsmiling girls in home-made costumes dancing energetically bring up the rear, while running in between the different trucks are diablitos, men disguised head to foot in raffia, who dart into the crowd with the seemingly sole purpose of terrorizing the assembled children. Stalls selling gut-rot beer in vast paper cups (hang on to your empties – cup supplies often run out) and roast suckling pig provide refreshment.
Although not the only Cuban city to suffer constant attacks from pirates, irresistibly wealthy Camagüey was one consistently plagued, with buccaneers regularly rampaging through the city before retiring to the northern cays or the Isla de la Juventud to hide their spoils. To confound pirates, the centre of Camagüey was built as a web of narrow and twisted streets rather than the usual colonial city plan, with roads laid out in a regular grid pattern; however, the design did not deter the invaders, who left many legends in their wake. The first pirate to arrive was the singularly unpleasant Frenchman Jacques de Sores in 1555, who roamed the farms on the north coast stealing cows, cheese and women. (These last he would abandon violated in Cayo Coco to the mercy of the elements.) In 1668, English buccaneer Henry Morgan – the terror of the Caribbean seas – and his men managed to occupy the city for several days before making off with a hefty booty of gold and jewels belonging to the Spanish bourgeoisie. With a dashing show of irreverence, he is also reputed to have locked the town elders into the Catedral de Santa Iglesia to starve them into revealing the whereabouts of their riches. Struggling to reassert itself eleven years later, in 1679 the city fell prey to the wiles of another Frenchman, François de Granmont. Nicknamed El Caballero (the gentleman), he sacked the city and captured fourteen women. After nearly a month of occupying the town he marched to the coast and released all the women unharmed, thus earning his nickname.
Top image: Camaguey, Cuba - Ignacio Agramonte Park © Alexandre G. ROSA/Shutterstock