Don’t miss the forgotten splendour of colonial Cienfuegos, Cuba!

Havana and  Trinidad er the 2 most visited cities in Cuba. For good reasons. But Cuba has more to offer.

In Cienfuegos, we only met a few other travellers and not one with kids! But it’s a shame. This World Heritage city with extraordinary neoclassical buildings, a Malecón rivaling Havana and an unusual cemetery, is charming and relaxing. It’s not for nothing it’s called Pearl of the South.

HISTORIC CENTER

Museo Provincial

The old historic center is a World Heritage site, since it’s the best existing example of early 19th century Spanish Enlightenment implementation in urban planning. okay, so that’s a little specific, but trust the experts – it’s unique.

My son checking his facts...

Cienfuegos was founded in 1812 on Spanish territory, but the settlers were French moving from the recently sold Louisiana in North America. The governor was Spanish and gave them permission to build a city. As a thank you they named it after him: Cienfuegos. Of course before the Spanish came, Cuba was inhabited by an indigenous people called Taino, but the entire population died – probably by European diseases. 

The theatre is close to all the other neoclassical gems like Museo Provincial as seen in the first image and the Cathedral by the lovely José Marti Parque. You’ll also find an Arc de Triomphe celebrating the independence – from the Spanish…!

You can clearly see the European influence in Cienfuegos – as all over Cuba – in the colonial pastel buildings. Nowhere else in the Caribbean, can you find so many neoclassical buildings.  Like the grand theatre built in 1800’s by a rich slave trader. He bought sick enslaved people for a dime, and then treated them in order to sell for profit. So a theatre doesn’t really seem that generous. Especially when it’s named after him and with a statue of him… 

Colonial buildings are pretty and characterful – here as well as in Vietnam and Ghana and so on, but they should also remind you of the earlier foreign powers in that country and the often not-so-pretty history. 

More sights include the fort Castillo de Jagua from 1742 at the end of the bay built to prevent pirates from attacking. Ironically, the very first settlers in the city in the 1600’s were actually pirates. 

THE FLOODED CEMETARY

Not too many cemeteries are worth writing about. But a few like Père Lachaise in Paris or the Jewish cemetery in Prague are worth it. And then this. I remember this strange experience vividly. It’s listed in the Atlas Obscura as well. 

The actual name of this place is Cementerio la Reina – the queens cemetery. It’s the city’s oldest cemetery and you find many Spanish soldiers buried here. 

It’s also the only cemetery in Cuba, still with burial niches, where also the bees are nestling. This because of the high groundwater level. As we clearly could see… Creepy, sad and evocative at the same time. (But I also work in a place with 2000 dead people under it, so it clearly speaks to me).

The key sights revolves around a legend of a young woman who died a hundred years ago of a broken heart. I went for the angel instead.

We took a horse carriage back from the cemetery having a kid along. It was actually illegal for the poor guy to pick us up. This was before Castro died, it became easier for regular people to have a small tourism business.

THE MALECÓN

Strolling along the water on a fine promenade with the wind blowing in the palm tress and little houses in pink or green greeting you. Not at all what I had expected in Cienfuegos. Maybe because we had bad weather in Havana, this Malecón really ensnared me. 

Head for Punta Gorda; the way is lined with small palaces built by the wealthy in 1920’s. Like the ornate Palacio de Valle. We didn’t meet a single tourist here – despite this being a perfect spot for swimming, picnicking, drinking cocktails in the sunset. We had to be very persuasive to convince the bartender to make us some drinks, because he was closed… But maybe this has changed now? 

We walked out to the Malecón and took a bicycle taxi back. The driver was nice enough to let me try to drive. It was really hard. The guy was so friendly, that we gave him our babystroller (you can see it strapped on in the back) to pass on to someone, who could use it. We were tired of bumping it around the cobbled streets, and it’s just a bad idea when backpacking. 

STREET LIFE

Life in Cuba is lived outside. On the streets, on the squares and in the parks. Everywhere you meet old guys playing games and all you feel like doing is just chill, eat cheap icecream. I wanted to join in, but there were never any women playing…

We visited Cuba back in 2009, when our son was 4. It’s no problem to travel in Cuba with kids and everyone is extremely nice, but if you can leave the stroller behind – do it.  

Tourism wasn’t that developed in 2009, so we primarily stayed in casa particulares – someone’s home. They served extravagant breakfasts and dinners impossible to eat – but with lots of fresh fruit juice and the always present chicken and flan.

Read more on the city’s official page.

If you like travelling to places off the beaten track, try Medieval family fun in the Swedish summer city Visby on the island of Gotland!

Have you visited Cuba?

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