The provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara are home to the two most engaging provincial capitals in the western half of Cuba, some decent beaches, especially on the northern cays of Villa Clara, and a significant stretch of Cuba’s gentle but wonderfully scenic central mountain range, the Sierra del Escambray. In particular, their attractive capitals, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, make convenient bases for that city, sand and sierra combination and though far from cosmopolitan metropolises, and a little lacking in the nightlife and eating-out stakes, are nevertheless both culturally respectable cities, endowed with significant universities, nationally renowned theatres and large and lively central squares. They’re also blessed with some top-notch places to stay, making either city a good place to enjoy a slice of modern Cuba.
Of the two provinces, Cienfuegos has the inferior beaches, but its main attractions, including some memorable botanical gardens, the Castillo de Jagua and the beaches themselves, at the small-scale coastal resort of Rancho Luna, are huddled closer together, many of them on or within 15km of the Bahía de Jagua, a huge bay in the south of the province. The calm waters of the almost completely enclosed bay, and the mountainous backdrop far off to the east, provide Cienfuegos city, nestling on its eastern shores, with one of the prettiest, most serene settings of any provincial capital in Cuba. Jarring with this serenity are the clusters of heavy industry in this part of the province, though they are largely out of sight except when travelling between places. The most heavily trodden route through the province is the road to Trinidad, the Circuito Sur, much of it running along the corridor of land between the province’s picturesque Caribbean coastline and the Sierra del Escambray, on whose leafy slopes are the hiking trails and waterfalls of day-trip destination Parque El Nicho.
The postcard-perfect beaches of Villa Clara, on its northern cays, are among the best in the country but are almost 100km from the most obvious base in the province for independent travellers, the provincial capital Santa Clara. This city’s connections to the Che Guevara story are heavily marketed, though there is much more to the city than its numerous interesting homages to the revolutionary hero. Slightly livelier, larger and more dynamic a city than Cienfuegos, Santa Clara enjoys excellent theatrical and musical events and supports a broader spectrum of subcultures than most provincial Cuban cities, including a subversive heavy metal scene and one of Cuba’s most off-beat, gay-friendly music and performance venues. Between the city and those northern cays – Cayo Las Brujas, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Santa María, where an entire package holiday resort has been created from scratch over the last fifteen or so years – lies sleepy Remedios, a tranquil, colourfully spruced-up, welcoming little town steeped in history. On the other side of the province, a reservoir, the Embalse Hanabanilla, provides straightforward access into the Sierra del Escambray, the large, ugly hotel at its northern tip equipped with facilities for fishing, hiking and boat trips, open to guests and non-guests alike.
The provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara offer a low-key vibe in their capital cities of Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. They may lack cosmopolitan sophistication, and the nightlife and restaurant scenes are nothing to write home about, but they are attractive cities nonetheless. They also have excellent accommodation options. Laidback Cienfuegos, next to the placid waters of a sweeping bay, is sprinkled with colourful architecture, including a splendid nineteenth-century theatre.
Lively Santa Clara is best known for its Che Guevara connections. But it also has excellent music and theatre events and one of Cuba’s most gay-friendly music and performance venues. You could base yourself here and take easy excursions to some of the most picturesque beaches in the country, such as on the northern cays of Villa Clara.
With over thirty dive sites along the coral reef that stretches the length of the local coastline, southern Cienfuegos is a good place to go diving. There are two principal dive centres in the province, one at Playa Rancho Luna and the other at the pretty Villa Guajimico, just off Carretera de Cienfuegos and exactly halfway along the coastal road between Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
Established in 1819, more recently than most major Cuban cities, Cienfuegos is the only city in the country founded by French settlers, many of them from Louisiana. 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 (unless you find one of the perspectives that reveal the oil refinery on the mostly-obscured northern shore).
As a base for seeing what the rest of the province has to offer, Cienfuegos is ideal, with several easy day-trip destinations – taking in beaches, botanical gardens and an old Spanish fortress, the Castillo de Jagua – within a 20km radius. The best way to get to the fortress is to take the Jagua ferry, a wonderfully unhurried journey offering great views of the city.
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 excursions 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.
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.
The local baseball team, nicknamed the Elefantes de Cienfuegos, currently plays in the top tier of the national league. Games (usually Tues–Sun) take place in the thirty thousand-capacity Estadio 5 de Septiembre, at Avenida 20 y 47. Tickets are sold on the door.
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.
Closer to Trinidad but actually easier to access from Santa Clara, 50km away, Embalse Hanabanilla, a 36-square-kilometre reservoir, twists, turns and stretches around the hills in a valley on the northern edges of the Sierra del Escambray. On arrival, views of the reservoir reveal no more than a small section as it slinks out of sight behind the steep slopes which make up most of its borders, some of them covered in thick forest and others grassy and peppered with palm trees. Along with its unforgettable setting, the reservoir’s claims to fame are as the only reservoir powering an electric power station in Cuba and as the host to the largest population of largemouth bass in the world, making it one of the prime locations for freshwater fishing in Cuba. The bass in here reach record sizes, many weighing in at over 7kg, attracting a growing number of enthusiasts from abroad. Peak season for fishing is from November until the end of March.
Whether on a day-trip from Santa Clara or a longer stay, almost all visits are channelled through the Hanabanilla hotel. On the whole, the banks of the reservoir are difficult to access, though the various boat excursions offered by the hotel offer a way round this.
The northern cays form one of Cuba’s newest major tourist resorts, the first hotel having opened here – on what were until then virgin islands – in 1999. Set on a network of dozens of small islets, only three of which have been built on, Cayo Las Brujas is the most suitable for non-package visitors; the other two, tiny Cayo Ensenachos and the largest and most distant Cayo Santa María, almost 15km in length, are largely the exclusive domain of hotel guests.
The drive down the 48km causeway from just outside Caibarién to the islands is quite spectacular, and is half the fun of a visit. The dark, deeper waters nearer the land give way to shallow turquoise around the cays, then become almost clear as the network of islets increases in number and complexity. The sea is dotted with mangrove colonies, while herons and cormorants swoop overhead and the occasional iguana basks in the sun on the hot tarmac. The solid rock causeway is broken up by around fifty small bridges, which allow the currents to flow through and provide drivers with distance markers; development on the cays begins just after bridge 36.
The nearest cay to the mainland to have been developed for visitors, Cayo Las Brujas is home to the only marina in the area as well as the least exclusive hotel and beach, making it both more affordable and accessible than Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Santa María.
As you arrive via the causeway, there are two left-hand turns in succession, 1km apart, and in between them the only petrol station on the cays. The first turning, at the pocket-sized airport terminal, cuts down to the marina and the Villa Las Brujas hotel, which sits at one end of the beach, Playa La Salina. Only guests of the hotel, or anyone paying for a day-pass, can access the beach this way and will be asked to present their passport at the car park. Everyone else must take the second left-hand turn, after the airport terminal, which leads down to the slightly scrappier eastern end of the same beach, near the site of five new hotels due to open in the next couple of years, alongside a new retail, restaurant and leisure centre. The beach itself is a sandy 2km arch, barely 5m wide in places, and slopes into usually placid waters.
Just over 40km northeast of Santa Clara and less than 10km from the coast, the town of Remedios is one of the oldest and most attractive small towns in Cuba. Sitting within such perfect day-trip distance of the provincial capital and the burgeoning beach resort on the northern cays, it has enjoyed significant levels of investment in recent years, particularly in the build-up to the five-hundredth anniversary of its foundation in 2015. As a result, it now sparkles with a whole host of freshly painted buildings, several exquisite new hotels and a large, very sociable, spruced-up central garden square, Plaza Martí, awash with the town’s new colours, the pastel blues, pinks, oranges and yellows of the surrounding porticoed edifices and, uniquely in Cuba, two churches.
Somehow, despite the high number of visitors, Remedios still feels unspoilt, partly because the town lived on the periphery of modern Cuba until relatively recently – a fact reflected in the faded paintwork of the still-lived-in colonial buildings beyond the centre, as well as the noticeable absence of modern constructions – but perhaps also because there really isn’t very much to do here. The town’s modest museums provide no more than a couple of hours of sightseeing, and you’ll get the most out of the place simply by sitting at one of a number of bars and restaurants around the square and taking it easy. This subdued place does, however, explode into life every Christmas when Las Parrandas, the festival for which the town is best known among Cubans, takes place
One of the oldest towns in Cuba, founded shortly after the establishment of the original seven villas, Remedios has a history rivalling that of Trinidad and Santa Clara, going back as far as the 1520s. Today’s provincial capital, Santa Clara, was, in fact, founded by citizens of Remedios who, following a series of pirate attacks towards the end of the sixteenth century, transplanted the settlement further inland. The local populace was far from united in its desire to desert Remedios, however, and in an attempt to force the issue, those who wanted to leave burnt the town to the ground. Rebuilt from the ashes, by 1696 the town had its own civic council and went on to produce not only one of Cuba’s most renowned composers, Alejandro García Caturla, but also a Spanish president, Dámaso Berenguer Fuste, who governed Spain in the 1930s.
Once a year, on the night of December 24, usually sedate Remedios erupts into organized anarchy during Las Parrandas, a 200-year-old tradition which originated in the town and has spread throughout the province and beyond. Since the end of the nineteenth century there have been annual parrandas in neighbouring towns like Camajuani, Zulueta and Caibarién, but the one in Remedios remains the biggest and the best. In the days building up to the main event the streets around the plaza fill up with market stalls and the town becomes overrun with visitors. For the festival itself, Remedios divides into northern and southern halves, with the frontier running through the centre of Plaza Martí: north is the San Salvador neighbourhood, whose emblem is an eagle on a blue background, and south is the Carmen neighbourhood, represented by a rooster on a red background. The opposing sides mark their territory with huge static constructions (which look like floats but are in fact stationary), known as trabajos de plaza, whose extravagant designs change annually, each one built to be more spectacular than the last. The celebrations kick off around 4pm, when the whole town gathers in the plaza to drink, dance, shout and sing. Artilleros, the fireworks experts, set off hundreds of eardrum-popping firecrackers until the square is shrouded in an acrid pall of black smoke and people can hardly see. Following that, the revellers form huge, pulsing congas and traipse around the square for hours, cheering their own team and chanting insulting songs at their rivals. The neighbourhoods’ avian symbols appear on a sea of waving banners, flags, staffs, placards and bandanas tied around their citizens’ necks.
As night falls, the two large floats, the carrozas, which along with the trabajos de plaza form the focus of the celebrations, do a ceremonial round of the plaza. Built to represent their respective halves of Remedios, the floats are fantastical creations with multicoloured decorations and flashing lights forming intricate patterns. Constructed by the town’s resident population of parrandas fanatics, who devote the majority of their free time throughout the year to designing and creating them, the floats are judged by the rest of the town on looks and originality. As everyone makes up their minds, a massive fireworks display illuminates the sky and further heightens the tension. Finally, in the early morning hours, the church bell is ceremoniously rung and the winner announced. The president of the winning neighbourhood is then triumphantly paraded around on his jubilant team’s shoulders before everyone heads home to recover, enjoy Christmas and start planning the next year’s festivities.
Top image: Parque Jose Marti square in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos © Anna ART/Shutterstock
Half the fun of a visit to the seventeenth-century Spanish fortress at the mouth of the Jagua Bay, known as the Castillo de Jagua, is getting there. The ferry from Cienfuegos docks just below the fortress, on the opposite side of the channel to Playa Rancho Luna, from where a dusty track leads up to the cannon guarding the castle drawbridge. Inside, a small museum details the history of the fort, which was originally built to defend against pirate attacks, and, bizarrely, charts the history of nuclear energy in Cienfuegos – the Juraguá nuclear power plant is 5km away. There’s also a couple of tables in a sunken courtyard where you can get something to eat and drink; and steps winding up to the top of the single turret from where there are modest views. It’s also worth taking a peek at the cramped and dingy prison cell and the chapel on the courtyard level.
A rusty old vessel looking vaguely like a tugboat, the passenger ferry between Cienfuegos and the Castillo de Jagua chugs across the placid waters of the bay at a pace slow enough to allow a relaxed contemplation of the surroundings, including the tiny, barely inhabited cays where the ferry makes a brief call to pick up passengers. The deck is lined with benches but the metal roof is the best place to sit, allowing unobscured views in all directions.
Top image: Castillo de Jagua, Cuba © Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock
From Cayo Las Brujas, the causeway passes a dolphinarium and the next significant cay, Cayo Ensenachos, where the beach is the exclusive domain of guests at the Iberostar Ensenachos. Several bridges beyond Ensenachos, about 15km from Cayo Las Brujas, the causeway concludes at Cayo Santa María, home to the remaining twelve hotels at the latest count, all of them slung along a stunning 15km beach which Fidel Castro is said to have described as superior to Varadero – though he’s never been spotted sun-bathing on either.
Among the few places open to non-hotel guests on Cayo Santa María are the two commercial “villages”: Pueblo Las Dunas in the west, in between the Meliá Cayo Santa María and the Meliá Las Dunas hotels; and the larger Pueblo La Estrella, further east, between the Royalton Cayo Santa María and the Memories Paraíso Beach Resort hotels. Unsurprisingly, they’re very artificial places, both consisting of mock-colonial buildings housing shops, bars, restaurants, discos and bowling alleys.
At the far eastern end of Cayo Santa María, the splendid Playa Perla Blanca is one of the most untouched beaches in the whole of the northern cays, though a hotel is now being built here. It’s a bit of a trek – 52km from the mainland in all – but it remains accessible to all and there are several kilometres of beach blessed with sand as fine as it gets in Cuba.
Top image: Two catamarans with its colorful sails wide open on Cuban white sandy beach, Cayo Santa Maria © DD Images/Shutterstock