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.