In a beautiful location surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra de Escambray and the shores of a large natural bay lies the city of Cienfuegos. The city developed into one of the richest municipalities in Cuba during the 19th century. Nowadays, Cienfuegos has the reputation of being particularly clean, developed as well as being beautiful. That is why it is known as the Pearl of the South. Besides the wonderful location with its magnificent and historical architecture, Cienfuegos has an interesting historical city center, which has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. This article covers all the important information for travelers who want to visit the city.
While cities like Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba and Havana were founded about half a millennium ago, Cienfuegos was founded as late as in the first half of the 19th century. However, the city quickly gained economic and cultural importance, initially through the sugar exports handled in the port. Within a few years, the harbor had become one of the world's most important export ports for sugar. To this day, the city is considered a particularly prosperous municipality. In addition to tourism, state-owned industries make the city one of Cuba's most important industrial hubs, despite the fact that it is only Cuba's sixth-largest city by population.
During the day, the public life takes place in the historic city center. The heart of the center can be found at the Parque José Martí, which is located at the western end of the vital pedestrian zone. The elegant square is home to several important buildings dating back to the 19th century. The pedestrian zone connects the Parque Martí with the Prado and is home to a variety of stores, that are especially frequented at weekends.
On the eastern edge of the city center, the Prado of Cienfuegos runs in a north-south direction. Following the Prado to the south, one reaches the upscale district of Punta Gorda, where wealthy citizens once flaunted their wealth. Witnesses of the former prosperity are for example the elegant Yacht Club, the Palcio Azul and the Palacio de Valle. A visit to this part of the city is a must, along with the historic city center, where most other important sights are located. The historic center, with the mentioned Parque Marti in its center, is known as Pueblo Nuevo.
If you leave the city center to the south, you will reach the Malecón of Cienfuegos after a few minutes. At the southern end of the Malecón is the district of Punta Gorda. The district is the most prosperous of the city. There are several imposing buildings in the neighborhood. These include the Yacht Club Cienfuegos, the Palacio Azul and the Palacio de Valle. If you want, you can walk for about half an hour or take one of the bicycle cabs that offer their services to travelers along the route for a few USD.
But let's take a closer look at the important sights, that you definitely shouldn't miss:
- In the center of the historic city lies the Parque Marti. This elegant square is home to some important buildings dating back to the 19th century. These include the national monument Teatro Tomás Terry, decorated with mosaics of gold leaf and ceiling frescoes. The Museo Provincial focuses on the city's colonial history, and the small Arco de Triunfo commemorates Cuban independence. The Palacio Ferrer, the Palacio del Ayuntamiento with its dome towering over the city and the small Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción can also be found in the square.
- A visit to the Palcio Ferrer is almost obligatory. Not only can you visit the impressive building, but you also have the opportunity to visit the roof. From the rooftop you can enjoy a fantastic view over the whole city of Cienfuegos - from the bay to the Sierra de Escambray. If you further climb the observation tower, you will enjoy an even better panoramic view. It is best to come after 4 p.m., then with a little luck, you can enjoy the play of colors of a wonderful sunset. The entrance fee is 2 USD.
- Another central point of interest is the Paseo del Prado, which runs in a north-south direction. The promenade has a green walkway in the middle and arcades on its sides. The Prado of Cienfeugos is considered the longest promenade in Cuba. Especially on weekends at a late hour, the Prado becomes the places to stroll in Cienfuegos. Nearby there are several cozy bars and restaurants located, that invite visitors to take a relaxing break.
- Close to the southern end of Prado, you will find the Palacio de Valle. The building is one of the most visited in Cienfuegos. Inside the imposing mansion, you can see several richly decorated rooms. On the roof terrace there is a small state bar, which offers drinks at quite moderate prices. However, if you wish, you can also just enjoy the rooftop's with it great views of the water, landscape and city. On the first floor there is a fancy restaurant. If you want to eat here, with a bit of luck you can get fresh fish or lobsters. The entrance is 2 USD.
- The busy pedestrian zone is the main artery of the city. It is the most important shopping street of the city. On weekends, it becomes the regional hub for locals, but also foreigners found here the most important goods. The walking street invites you to stroll and observe the regular Cuban way of life.
- At the southern tip of the headland there is a small park that invites you to spend some time there. In the complex called La Punta you will find a small restaurant and various viewpoints from which you can see all around the bay.
- The cemetery Cementerio Tomás Acea, located a little east of the city center, is also worth seeing. This necropolis is certainly not comparable to the impressive cemeteries in Santiago de Cuba or Havana, but it has an attractive neoclassical administration building and a beautiful park-like complex that invites visitors to take an extended walk.
- At the southern end of the Prado lies the Marina Cienfuegos, where a number of activities are offered. These include a round trip in a catamaran around the bay at the time of sunset. There is also a pool in the impressive club building.
Eat & Drink
In the pedestrian zone there are several quite well-stocked supermarkets. There is also a Rapido, where you can get a coffee and a few other basic things.
Due to the modest size of the city, the range of restaurants is relatively manageable. Almost all of them are located on the Prado in a southerly direction, not far from the Melcon. Here you will find a number of recommendable places to eat. There are also a few cozy cafés, in the immediate vicinity, where you can get a good coffee or a cocktail.
Alternatively, you can go to one of the nearby restaurants such as Paladar Casa Prado, Restaurante Las Mamparas or Dona Nora. The offers of these restaurants are primarily for foreigners.
When night falls in Cienfuegos, the activity shifts from the city center to the south of the city. The most popular meeting places in the evening are at the Prado and the Malecón. At the Prado you can stroll and spend a nice time in one of the numerous bars. At the Malecón, locals meet in small groups and spend time with a bottle of rum well into the night. Several government-owned kiosks are available to purchase small items. Another popular meeting place for night people is at the boat terminal. This is where especially students like to meet to drink rum, listen to music and dance. In Cienfuegos, you can also visit several larger nightclubs.
Bars & Nightclubs
- On Sundays afternoons, there is an event at the distinguished Yacht Club (during the day from 5 o'clock, admission 5 USD).
- On weekends, the open-air Tropisur Cabaret hosts the typical colorful dance shows. Fridays and Saturdays there is a nice show at Cabaret. Under the open sky you will find about 20 tables from which you can enjoy the performance. Admission starts at 10 am, and the show starts about half an hour later. The entrance fee is an affordable 3 USD and the drinks are also moderate.
- The Costsur is a quite large open air location, where primarily colored Cubans celebrate wild parties (admission 1 USD).
- Another popular location is the El Benny Club in the pedestrian zone.
Beach (Playa Rancho Luna)
The city beach of Cienfuegos is the beautiful Playa Rancho Luna, located about 20 km (about 30 minutes by car) south of the city center. Strictly speaking, there are two sections of beach. The eastern section of the beach, a small cove, is mainly visited by the guests of the (simple) AI resort, the Hotel Rancho Luna. If you don't want to stay at the hotel, you can buy a day pass with all-inclusive meals for 25 USD per person. With the pass you can also use the kayaks and paddle boats. With a paddle boat, you can reach a coral reef, ideal for snorkeling. There is also the possibility of scuba diving. Alternatively, the sports equipment can be rented for a small fee. To do this, just go to the beach and ask the hotel staff.
The western part can be described as the city beach, that is mainly visited by locals. Along this section there are some snack bars and small restaurant, where you can get basic drinks and simple meals. With a little luck, you can order a fish or a lobster, taken fresh from the sea. For longer stays at the beach, it is possible to stay in one of the few homestays, which are located in a beautiful location, very close to the beach.
The beach itself is nice, even if not considered as one of the most beautiful in Cuba. Under the water grows some seaweed and also the ground is a bit stony (bathing shoes are a remedy). At the beach there are free sunshades. Sunbeds are available for 5 USD per day. With toilets, it is a bit problematic. During the hot summer months, when many Cubans come, it can become quite full and - sadly - dirty.
If arriving by rental car, you have to take the unproblematic street to the south-east. At the beach you will find a guarded parking (1 USD).
Without a rental car, the beach can be reached by cab for about 10 - 15 USD each way. Alternatively, you can take a regular city bus. However, the buses run quite infrequently and are therefore often full to overcrowded. For those who want to try it by bus, take the line to Pasacaballo. There are only a few busses, therefore, you should try to leave quite early at the bus station in Cienfuegos. On the way back you should better not miss the last bus leaving around 16:30. The fare is an unbeatable 2 Cuban pesos. The ride takes around half an hour.
Dolphinarium & Diving Center (Playa Rancho Luna)
About 200 meters (20 minutes walk) west of Playa Rancho Luna lies the Delphinium Cienfuegos, where every day two shows are offered. The first show starts around 10am and the second at 2pm. The opening hours are from 8:30 to 15:30. If there is no show, it is possible to observe the animal swimming inside the pools. Wednesday is closed. The entrance fee is 10 USD. Children up to 12 years old pay 6 USD.
A "kiss" with the animals can be arranged for 10 USD. If you want to go inside the water with the animals (a 15-minute swim), you have to pay 50 USD, or 33 USD for children. Towels can be rented for 2 USD. Those who wish can also have photos taken (for a extra charge).
There is a state-owned diving center on halfway between the beach and the delphinium. The prices for dives begin at 35 USD. As more dives you book, as the lower the price. For diving 20 times, you have to pay 420 USD. Night diving is possible and cost 45 USD. There are about 40 beautiful dive sites with great underwater scenery. It is possible to explore canyons, caves and different wrecks.
Getting around Cienfuegos
Most ways in Cienfuegos can be made on foot. Besides some public bus lines, there are horse-drawn carriages, that operate as regular means of transport. For example, one line connects the bus station with the city center. A trip with a horse is carriage is 5 Cuban Pesos.
Traveling to and from Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos lies about three hours' drive southeast of Havana. If you are arriving by rental car from the capital, first take the highway, which is easy to drive on. At the 172 km rest stop, also known as Aguada de Pasajeros you leave the highway and drive south. The almost 60 km connection street is well to drive, so that one arrives in about an hour in Cienfuegos.
If you travel by Viazul bus, you will arrive at the bus station. From the bus station, the city center can be reached on foot in about 10 - 15 minutes. The Viazul office opens at 8 am and closes at 4 pm, with a lunch break from 12 to 14 o'clock. During high season, there can be a lot of passengers, so you have to expect, that reservations are taken after 9:30 am only.
Shared cabs to Havana leave not far from the bus station. The drivers' meeting point is San Carlos Street, one block into town from the bus station. The fare to the capital is usually around $15 per person. As always, when traveling with the shared cabs, it is best to arrive early in the morning. With a little luck, you will quickly find a decent means of transportation.
Right next to the bus station is the Cienfuegos railway station. The station building is dilapidated and is currently being renovated. Since Cienfuegos is not connected to the important west-east connection, there are very few trains. However, if you arrive at the right time, you may be lucky to catch one of the few trains - to Santa Clara, for example. There is a notice board that informs about working trains. General information can be found in the detailed article on traveling by train.
Transport for excursions
From the bus station, also regional buses leave several times a day to different directions. One line is heading to the east, so that is possible to reach the Laguna de Guanaroca or the beach Rancho Luna (quite reliable).
From the bus station there are inexpensive trucks to surrounding communities. With these you can get very economically, for example, to Santa Clara. Faster are often the shared cabs, which also start near the bus station and bring passengers for a two USD to Santa Clara. However, you should know, that Trinidad cannot be reached by shared cab.
There are also different cabs available. For longer excursions, one should calculate with a price around 50 USD for a half day and 100 USD for a full day tour.
In Cienfuegos, most accommodations are distributed in three districts. The most central area is the historic center, from where most of the sights can be easily reached on foot.
Not quite as central, but often a slightly cheaper accommodation can be found east of the old town. When staying there, you ideally should choose an accommodation that is not too far from the Prado. From there you can reach the city center and the bus station in a few minutes on foot.
If you travel by rental car, it is also possible to stay south of the center in the district of Punta Gorda. In the preferred residential area, many casas provide secure parking. The city center is only a few minutes away by car, and excursions can be made to the Sierra del Escambray or to the beautiful city beach.
In the middle of the historic center, the Spanish Meliá Group operates two four-star hotels. The Hotel La Union is in a prime location just a stone's throw from Park Marti. Despite its central location, it is sitll not loud. The hotel is housed in a charming colonial building with a pool on the roof.
In the region of Cienfuegos there are a number of recommended destinations. The most important sights in the nearby surroundings include the extensive Botanical Garden, located about 25 km east of the city, the Laguna de Guanaroca, the beach Rancho Luna and the historic fortress Castillo de Jagua, located south of the city center. In addition, you can make extensive excursions into the tropical mountain landscape of the Sierra del Escambray.
About two hours' drive west of Cienfuegos is the historically important Bay of Pigs, the site of the attempted invasion on April 17, 1961, initiated by the CIA and the U.S., which aimed to capture Fidel Castro's revolutionaries.
- At the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos lies the Castillo de Jagua, an 18th century fortress that once guarded the bay. A boat for tourists departs daily in the early afternoon. It is cheaper to get there by regular ferry. The ferry runs four or five times a day in two-hour intervals. Departure is from the little ferry terminal in the center of the city. It costs one peso each way.
- 10 km southeast of the city lies the Laguna de Guanaroca. The lagoon is idyllically located and is a paradise for birds. It is home to pelicans, cormorants and frequently to many flamingos, among others. The flamingoes spend more time in the lagoon during the winter months. It is important to come early in the morning (around 8 am). Since this is a nature reserve, visitor numbers are limited. At reasonable frequencies, after a short walk, two or three visitors are taken by guides in small rowboats onto the lake. The guides bring the guests as close as is tolerable to the birds (30min). On the way back, mangroves are rowed through. You should keep in mind that there is no shade on the lake. It is therefore highly recommended to bring sunscreen and bottle of water. Be aware that at the entrance you have to show an identification document. The entrance fee is 10 USD per person. Most of the guides speak English.
- About 20 km east of the city lie the Botanical Garden. The garden is not so much a landscaped garden, but an extensive collection of different plants, mainly different species of trees and palms. Overall, it is a beautiful garden that invites you to take a longer walk, just under 5 km. A guide is recommended to explain the different plants (about 5 - 10 USD). The entrance is 5 USD per person. One should plan about one to two hours for the visit. If you want to take a cab from Cienfuegos, you have to calculate with about 20 USD for the return trip (incl. waiting time).