Though run-down and ramshackle, Manzanillo, 75km up the coast from Playa Las Coloradas, still possesses some charm. Now a fairly pedestrian coastal fishing village, it was established around the harbour at the end of the eighteenth century and for a time enjoyed a brisk trade in contraband goods. Sugar trade replaced smuggling as the primary business hereabouts in the nineteenth century, but the town’s heyday had passed and it never grew much bigger.
The sole attraction of Manzanillo is its fantastic Moorish architecture, dating from the 1910s and 1920s. The sensual buildings, all crescents, curves and brilliant tiles, are best seen in the town’s central Parque Céspedes. Most eye-catching is the richly decorated gazebo presiding over the park, giving an air of bohemian elegance well suited to the sphinx statues in each corner and the melee of benches, palm trees and faux-nineteenth-century streetlamps. Opposite the park, the pink Edificio Quirch is no less splendid, although its crescent arches and tight lattice design are rather wasted on the couple of convertible-peso shops it houses.
Ten kilometres south of Manzanillo, the Museo Histórico La Demajagua is a pleasant place to while away an hour or two. It was from the grounds of this former sugar plantation that Carlos Manuel de Céspedes set out to win Cuban independence from Spain, and with splendid views over the bay and the cane fields, the one-time sugar plantation is a picture of serenity.
The small building housing the museum was built in 1968 (the centenary of the uprising), the original plantation having been completely destroyed by shells from a Spanish gunboat on October 17, 1868. The museum itself is depressingly sparse, with a brief history of the plantation forming the main part. The highlight is the first Cuban flag ever made, hand-sewn by Céspedes’ mistress. The grounds, while not extensive, are a nice spot to relax – look out for the Demajagua bell, built into a dry-stone wall on the far side of the lawn, with which Céspedes summoned his slaves to freedom.
Top image: Manzanillo's Central Park with it's sidewalk and palm trees © apalmero2000/Shutterstock