Ciego de Ávila is more like the suburb of a larger town than an urban centre in its own right. A friendly though pedestrian place set in the plains of the province, it is surprisingly young for a provincial capital – established only in 1849 – and features few tourist attractions save a couple of museums, and precious little nightlife. Often bypassed by visitors en route to Morón and the Jardines del Rey, this small city is not without charm, and an afternoon here will reveal a close-knit, slow-moving, unaffected place, its streets lined with whitewashed modern houses where families hang out on their verandas, old men relax in rocking chairs, and corn fritters and fruit juice are sold from roadside peso stalls. Refreshingly, Ciego de Ávila also has much less of a problem with hustlers and jineteros than bigger towns.
Driving north to south on the road running from Júcaro to Morón via Ciego de Ávila, you’ll pass the remnants of an old Spanish garrison which at one time divided the province from north to south. The tumbledown, stubby structures are the remains of a fortification line known as La Trocha, built between April 1871 and 1873. Increasingly worried by the Mambises (the rebel army fighting for independence) and their plans to move west through the island, the Spanish General Blas Villate de la Hera planned a 67km-long row of fortifications to block the advance. The forts were made of concrete with solid walls of stone, brick and wood and built at intervals of 3–4km. Each was manned by a single sentry, who had to enter by a removable wooden staircase, and each had two cannon. It was supposedly an impassable chain of defence, but the ineffectiveness of the whole idea was immediately apparent in 1874 when the Cuban General Manuel Suárez triumphantly breezed through with his cavalry. Most of the forts are in a poor state of repair today, though the odd one still gives an impression of its original appearance. Plans to restore them have been under way for some time.
At the heart of the city, bordered by the city’s four main streets (including the three pedestrianized blocks of the main shopping street, Independencia), Parque Martí is fringed with sturdy trees and features a central 1920s bust of José Martí in reflective pose. On the park’s south side stands the cathedral, San Eugenio de la Palma, a bland modern structure with a gigantic concrete saint tacked to the outside; next door is the stately town hall.
Set in a beautiful 1920s colonial building on the east side of Parque Martí, the Museo de Artes Decorativas is the jewel in Ciego’s crown. Though few of the beautiful exhibits are of Cuban origin, as a whole they provide an illuminating insight into the level of luxury enjoyed by colonial Creoles. Spanish-speaking guides are on hand to talk you through the finer pieces, which include a fabulous tall-necked Art Nouveau vase in gold and claret glass, and a nursery kitted out with white pajilla cane furniture.
The prettiest building in Ciego de Ávila’s centre is the Teatro Principal, built between 1924 and 1927 by wealthy society widow Angela Hernández Viuda de Jiménez in an attempt to make the town more cosmopolitan. In an architectural fit of pique the building manages to combine Baroque, Renaissance and Imperial exterior styles with an equally elaborate interior. There is no official tour, but you’re free to enter and look around in the daytime.
Top image: Cayo Guillermo - Ciego de Avila Province, Cuba © ppart/Shuterstock