An hour drive west of Trinidad in Central Cuba lies the port city of Cienfuegos. Known as the “Pearl of the South“, Cienfuegos was built along a peninsula overlooking one of Cuba’s largest bays, Bahia de Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos was originally inhabited by the French who arrived in 1803 with 40 families from Bordeaux and Louisiana. In 1819, the Spanish arrived and founded the town which would become an important industrial area after the Cuban Revolution. Sugar refineries, flour mills, cement factories and a naval base transformed Cienfuegos into an important economic hub for Cuba.
Most people visit Cienfuegos today for its amazing location along the Caribbean Sea and its access to beaches and culture. The historic center of Cienfuegos is a World Heritage Site lined with gorgeous Spanish and French colonial architecture reminiscent of Cienfuegos’ heritage and past. Cienfuegos also boasts a strong cultural scene with one of Cuba’s finest Chamber Orchestras (which we got to hear) and a surprisingly developed art scene. Unfortunately we only had a few hours to spend in Cienfuegos but it was well worth the visit. Here are some highlights.
Our first cultural visit was at a cooperative art studio called “Art in your Hands“. The studio has 8 artists in residence each with a unique artistic style and expertise. Not only do the artists paint, they also design carvings and engravings using linoleum, wood, pressboard and stone. We got to watch them work and tour their studio. Works of art were for sale and the Cuban government does allow foreigners to take art out of the country as long as they have the appropriate documentation. A few of us bought art but I only left with a postcard (not for lack of wanting to buy something!).
Cuba is one of the better places to live as an artist as you actually are paid the same as everyone else (i.e. $20-25/month salary) meaning you can actually survive as an artist. Artists flourish in Cuba and for the most part have some freedom of expression as long as they aren’t criticizing the Communist regime.
After our visit with the artists, we had a half an hour to walk around the main central square of Cienfuegos before lunch. I snapped some photos of the beautiful 19th and 20th century buildings and architecture. I loved the pastel-hues of the buildings.
Cienfuegos felt very different from the other towns I’d been to so far in Cuba. For some reason, it didn’t seem nearly as rundown as Havana. Everything seemed to be in well order, well maintained and restored. But then again, I was only there for a few hours and didn’t have time to get off the beaten path with camera in hand and explore. One thing that was the same: The lovely Cuban people with their smiles.
After a brief look at the main square it was time to head out to Punta Gorda, the beautiful area along the sea that is dotted in fabulous, extravagant mansions from the wealthy colonial past.
These beautiful homes were once owned by the rich sugar plantation owners and today operate as tourist facilities. I was longing to go inside them and look around but there just wasn’t time. Little did I know, our tour leader saved the best for last.
Our next stop was at perhaps the most beautiful mansion in town, the Palacio de Valle, where we would have lunch and I would take an obsessive amount of pictures. It was so incredibly spectacular that I am giving it an entire post of its own. Stay tuned…