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.